How To Eat Gluten Free Over The Holidays

Did you face the same issue I did at Thanksgiving? I hope your holiday was fun and full of delicious food, but maybe you went through something like this, too. My husband and I went away for Thanksgiving and were treated to Thanksgiving dinner by our extended family. We got to reconnect with family we don't see often, see a cousin's new baby, and sit down for a big meal together. It was pretty awesome, except  I couldn't eat my three favorite Thanksgiving staples - stuffing, gravy and pumpkin pie. I'm actually not complaining  (although I admit I did spare them a longing glance) and I'll tell you why.

The meal was not entirely gluten free and I can't eat any foods that contain gluten.

A little background for you...
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, farro and related grains and it is the cause of a serious auto-immune condition called Celiac Disease that affects about 1 in 100 people in the U.S. 
I ate a lot of gluten growing up and never seemed to have any issues with it. Pasta? YUM. Bagels (especially Montreal sesame bagels)? I could eat those ALL DAY. Pizza and beer? Um, hello college food! 

Obviously, my diet as a teenager and in my early 20s was not ideal, but is it for any of us?

And then I was in that accident and my doctors told me that the majority of my brain healing would take place in the first two years of recovery. They also told me that major fatigue just came with having a brain injury and I needed to rest, rest, rest. So I waited, and I rested. I tried really hard to do all the right things and be kind to my brain and body.

But as that two year milestone approached, I was slowly trying to complete my Bachelor's degree via correspondence, taking one class at a time and still trying to rest! But I was STRUGGLING. I was tired ALL the time. I was plagued by brain fog that felt like heavy, sticky cotton candy coating my brain, I had headaches, I couldn't focus.

And knowing that most of the big stuff in my brain was supposed to be healed, I didn't understand why I still felt so injured. It was like I hadn't healed much at all! But then I had a conversation with my best friend, Lisa, that changed everything for me. We got talking about Celiac and its symptoms, and It was like a lightbulb lit up above my head!

I got off the phone with her and did more research, quickly seeing that the symptoms I felt fit with having an intolerance to gluten and possibly even Celiac Disease. I started paying close attention to what I was eating and right away I noticed a direct connection between eating food that contained gluten and feeling so fatigued, cranky and brain-foggy (not the technical term) that I could barely function.

Once the connection was clear, I eliminated gluten from my diet* and within a week or two (I'm not sure how long it took, now, but it was fast), I felt like a PERSON again! The brain fog lifted, I could focus on my school work, I didn't have the same fatigue I had previously felt... and suddenly I could feel what was the legitimate brian-injury-induced fatigue that required naps and breaks from whatever I was doing. It was like a light breaking through the darkness. 
* If you think you have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, talk to your doctor!

Now, back to Thanksgiving. We went out and everything was already prepared, so I had no control over what was being served. It was high quality and very good but I wasn't able to request gluten free options and even though I had actually planned to bake a gluten free pumpkin pie and bring it with me, I just ran out of time and it never got made. I know, I know, stuffing, gravy and pie are NOT "healthy" foods. But indulging once or twice a year will not seriously damage anyone's health (unless you have an allergy or auto-immune condition like Celiac).

So I had turkey, some yummy rustic cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, some mashed sweet potato-leek concoction and salad, but I skipped the green beans because they were topped with battered and fried onions (the batter was made with wheat flour) and I passed on my beloved stuffing (made with bread), gravy (thickened with a roux) and pumpkin pie (on a wheat crust).

But you know why I'm not complaining? I got to be with family that I adore and still eat a delicious meal that DIDN'T MAKE ME SICK! I enjoyed the whole evening and didn't have to deal with trying to function when my brain felt like it was shutting down. Thanksgiving to me is more about family and connection than it is about the food, and I knew that I could go home, roast the Primal Pastures pastured turkey I have in my freezer and make my own gluten free stuffing, gravy and pumpkin pie if I really wanted to. It was No. Big. Deal.

Gluten-free breakfast at Jewel's Bakery and Cafe in Phoenix, AZ. Crispy potatoes with kale, blueberry pancakes, an egg. 100% gluten-free, and they use local ingredients whenever possible and lots of organic stuff too.

Gluten-free breakfast at Jewel's Bakery and Cafe in Phoenix, AZ. Crispy potatoes with kale, blueberry pancakes, an egg. 100% gluten-free, and they use local ingredients whenever possible and lots of organic stuff too.

And I got to enjoy a completely gluten-free and delicious breakfast at Jewel's Bakery and Cafe in Phoenix, AZ before we headed for home. They had no idea I was going to blog this - neither did I until I sat down to eat! But it was so good, I had to share. If you're passing through, it's at Thomas and 40th.

*I want to mention here that for people who have Celiac Disease, they often need food that is prepared in an ENTIRELY gluten-free setting. The tiniest bit of cross-contamination from a crumb or even flour dust can make many people very, very sick.
I am just personally not that sensitive.*

With Christmas right around the corner, do you stress out about what, if anything, you'll be able to eat when you're with your family? Are you cooking and worrying that your guests won't like your "weird" food?

If you're going to be with family, make sure they know your needs ahead of time and don't be afraid to get specific about what's ok for you to eat and what's not. If you're afraid your family won't "get it", ask if you can bring some dishes of your own! I know, it's NICE to not have to cook and be treated at Christmas to a special meal, but is being sick and unable to join in on the family fun really worth eating food you know will hurt you?

If you're cooking, don't sweat it! Turkey stuffing made with gluten-free bread is still really, really good! I make my own bread now, but store-bought brands like Udi's and Rudi's Gluten-Free are great stand-ins for "regular" bread. Gravy can be made just as easily using something like arrowroot or sorghum flour for the roux (other gluten-free flours are rice flour, millet flour, potato flour and potato starch, tapioca flour, etc.). If you use a gravy mix, Simply Organic makes different kinds that are organic and gluten-free. It's also pretty easy to find frozen gluten-free pie crusts now, too, if you don't want to brave making one from scratch. Have a look at your local health food store.

Sticking with real, unprocessed food - animal proteins, vegetables, root veggies, squash, fruits and nuts, - and avoiding baked goods and pre-made or processed food that come in a package with a list of ingredients is an easy way to have a gluten-free meal. Gluten-containing ingredients are often used as fillers or flavor enhancers in processed food, so just stay away.

Watch out for things like bottled sauces because they can contain gluten without you realizing it - soy sauce, for example, has wheat as one of the first ingredients. Gluten-free tamari is a great alternative to that. Read the ingredients carefully on any processed food item you buy and be careful with spices too. Mixed spices may contain gluten and even individual spices can be cross-contaminated with gluten, depending on how they're produced. If you're concerned, contact the company and ask them directly!

One blogger that helped me SO MUCH when I first went gluten-free in 2009 is the Gluten Free Girl - Shauna James Ahern. Her blog is full of amazing tips for living, eating and cooking gluten-free, so if you need more detailed help, head on over and check out her site! She also created a gluten-free Thanksgiving app for the iPad and as a digital download for the computer if you want to try out some gluten-free recipes.

She has no idea I'm telling you about her right now and I don't get anything for it. I just think she can really help with trying to navigate the going-gluten-free process - she definitely helped me. I'm also not compensated for mentioning specific brands here - I just want to help you out.

May your holidays be happy and bright, full of good cheer and amazing food! If you have any questions, or gluten-free tips of your own, just write them in the comments below! I'd love to hear from you!

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