Keeping Gluten-Free Guests Safe: Gluten-Free Food Guidelines

gluten-free guest preparation
How to prepare food for a gluten-free guest. Morsa Images/Getty Images

Important: Before you put a lot of effort into fixing gluten-free food for one of your guests, check with that guest to make sure they're comfortable eating food that's prepared by someone else.

The gluten-free diet is incredibly complicated with a very steep learning curve, and many people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity get surprisingly sick when they eat a tiny bit of gluten — an amount you can't see, but which might be stuck in the corner of your cookie sheet or in a scratch on your non-stick spaghetti pot.

Therefore, many people who follow the gluten-free diet for health reasons would much prefer you not attempt to accommodate them, since they won't feel comfortable eating your food anyway.

To guard against hurt feelings, always ask your guest about the best way to proceed. Your gluten-free friend or family member may give you the green light to cook for her, she may give you a specific brand name of packaged food to purchase or a specific restaurant's carry-out meal to order, or she may simply say she'll bring her own food.

And please, please don't take it personally if she won't eat what you fix — it's nothing against your food. It's just something your loved one needs to do to stay healthy.

Preparing gluten-free food for a guest with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity (or food for someone with any other intolerance or allergy) is a serious responsibility, because the guest's health is at stake.

(In fact, in the case of certain allergies, a life could be at stake.)

This doesn't mean you should hesitate to invite someone who's on the gluten-free diet — it just means you need to prepare in some special ways. When you're gluten-free, you must avoid the grains wheat, barley, rye and most oats. This is tricky, because these grains and ingredients made from them are included in many packaged products.

But don't be afraid! If your guest gives you the go-ahead to cook for him or her, follow these instructions to make a safe meal.

A simple, safe menu would include: plain meat or fish (grilled on a clean grill, broiled, or cooked in a pan with some olive oil or butter), a fresh salad with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, cooked vegetables (steamed, roasted, or sautéed with olive oil), some safe starch (plain potatoes, corn, quinoa, rice or kasha), and fresh fruit for dessert.

How to Cook for a Gluten-Free Guest

To cook for a gluten-free guest, follow these guidelines:

  1. Cook from scratch. To avoid poisoning your guest with hidden gluten, use whole, fresh ingredients. Avoid "convenience" ingredients such as gravy mixes, soup mixes, bottled sauces, salad dressings, condiments and seasoning mixes, since these may contain gluten-based ingredients. Find some more pointers on safe foods here: The Ultimate List of Gluten-Free Foods
  2. Involve your gluten-free guest in your planning. If your friend or relative has given you the green light to prepare something for them, take the time to go over the menu together in advance — there may be something problematic that she can spot more easily than you can.
  1. Only use a packaged product if it's labeled "gluten-free." If your favorite ingredient is not labeled "gluten-free" and you're wondering whether it's safe, call your gluten-free guest and let her be the judge. Note that "wheat-free" does not mean "gluten-free."
  2. If something's easy to make gluten-free, prepare it that way. For example, don't put croutons in your salad if you can possibly avoid it (even if you'd rather have croutons), and use a gluten-free soup to make your casserole (even if you prefer a different brand). 
  3. Avoid gluten cross-contamination in your kitchen. Be careful not to prepare gluten-free foods on the same surface used to prepare foods with gluten unless that surface has been thoroughly cleaned. Make sure your utensils are cleaned after preparing gluten-containing foods. Don't use scratched or wooden cutting boards or wooden spoons to make gluten-free foods (these can harbor microscopic bits of gluten).
  1. Beware of even microscopic amounts of gluten. For example, you can't stuff a turkey with gluten-y stuffing and then count on feeding the "outside" meat to someone who's gluten-free. You can't add even a tiny amount of a gluten-containing seasoning mix to anything your gluten-free guest will eat. And you can't grill your gluten-free guest's meat on a grill that hasn't been thoroughly cleaned, assuming you've ever used an unsafe marinade on it (or even toasted a hamburger bun). 
  2. Avoid cross-contamination at the table. For example, keep all your chips and other appetizers gluten-free, or they'll contaminate your gluten-free dip. Keep bread away from your gluten-free guest's plate and away from all the serving dishes (otherwise, crumbs can fall into the gluten-free food). Plate up a fresh stick of butter and designate it solely for the use of your gluten-free guests.
  3. Enlist your other guests. Explain that some of your food is gluten-free and needs to stay that way. No matter how carefully you prepare in advance, if one of your guests uses the spoon from the crouton-filled Caesar salad to serve himself some of the gluten-free potatoes, the potatoes are no longer gluten-free.
  4. Give your guest a tour of the food and invite her to serve herself first. When you're ready to eat, point out what's safe and what's not to your gluten-free guest. Then, offer your guest the opportunity to take portions before the food has been accidentally contaminated by the other guests.
  5. If your guest is a regular visitor, buy some gluten-free supplies and foods to keep around. Check with your guest to see what foods and brands are acceptable, and stash them in an upper cabinet or in the back of your freezer. That way, you've always got something gluten-free to offer (even if it's just a frozen mac and cheese, it could be a welcome sight to a hungry guest!).
  6. Invite your gluten-free guest to bring her own food. Many people following the gluten-free diet truly fear hurting their loved ones' feelings over food. Some will even eat food they know will make them sick, just to avoid those hurt feelings. If you can pre-empt this by telling your friend or family member you understand, and that she should bring her own food if that makes her more comfortable, you'll be doing both of you a favor.

The Bottom Line

Cooking for someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is tricky, but it can be done with a lot of careful preparation. Following these rules can help you accommodate your friend or family member, and should make both of you more comfortable at your gathering.

(Edited by Jane Anderson)

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