When you have celiac disease, having a clean gluten-free area to prepare your meals is a must. Even the smallest gluten crumb or slightest residue of wheat flour on a kitchen counter can make people with celiac disease sick for days (not that we need to remind you). A completely gluten-free kitchen makes it easiest to stay safe, of course, but it may not be practical when you live with family or roommates.
The good news is that it is possible for gluten-free and gluten foods to live in harmony in the same kitchen. The key is making sure that there are some clear ground rules in place to keep those with celiac disease safe. Here are five things to consider as you’re figuring out what makes sense for your household.
1. Make sure everyone understands the needs of the person with celiac disease.
The first and most important step is to make sure the people you live with understand what celiac disease is and what the health consequences will be for the person with celiac disease if they accidentally consume gluten—you know, the gas, the bloating, the diarrhea, the horrible stomach pain. It’s no fun to talk about, but it’s even less fun to experience.
And then enlist everyone’s help in making sure the kitchen and dining area stays clean and safe to protect the person with celiac disease. It’s the whole family’s responsibility to follow the rules and—importantly—to fess up if they make a mistake and, say, accidentally contaminate the gluten-free peanut butter jar with crumbs. Even kids can learn from an early age that wheat bread can only be eaten at that one particular spot, or that the gluten snacks need to stay in a special cabinet to keep their mom, dad or sibling from getting sick.
2. Consider everything that needs to be separate.
A hybrid gluten-free and gluten kitchen is not as simple as buying two boxes of pasta, one gluten-free and one not. You need to consider everything your food touches, from storage to cooking to cleaning, as possible sources of cross-contact, and make sure everyone in the house understands where the risks lie.
Some common sources of gluten cross-contact include:
- - Cutting boards. Even after washing, gluten traces can remain in the knife ridges.
- - Colanders. Gluten starch can accumulate in the holes, and they often don’t get 100 percent clean.
- - Sponges, dish rags and hand towels. If you’ve just washed or wiped up something that contains gluten and then turn around and wipe something else (including counters and tables), there is potential for cross contact.
- - >b>Toasters. There’s no way to thoroughly clean the inside of a toaster, so you’ll have to have two—one for gluten-free bread and one for gluten items.
- - Condiments and spreads. You know how easily crumbs can accumulate in the butter dish or peanut butter jar. You’ll need to clearly mark gluten-free-safe items that are off limits to the gluten-eaters—label makers are your friend here.
Once you’ve thought through everything that could possibly lead to cross contact, you’ll need to set up a system to avoid it. Some households are fine with having two sets of cookware, and even opt for a full set of separate gluten-free plates, bowls and utensils in different colors. Others might decide gluten foods can only be eaten off disposable plates. Many land somewhere in the middle, with separate toasters and cutting boards but shared dishes. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for your home.
3. Decide what gluten items are okay to keep in the kitchen.
Having thought through every potential source of gluten cross-contact in the kitchen, decide as a household what gluten items will be allowed to be cooked or eaten in your home. For example, you may decide that shared meals will be gluten-free (because who wants to cook two separate meals every night?), but those without celiac disease can keep staples like bread and pasta in the house for quick breakfasts and lunches. Or you may decide that only a few specific packaged gluten snacks and treats are allowed in the house and can only be consumed in certain areas. Families with young kids often feel it is safer to have more restrictions on what gluten items are allowed in the house, at least until the kids are old enough to understand and reliably follow the gluten ground rules. The important thing is to have an open conversation and decide together what is practical for your home.
4. Set designated gluten prep and storage areas.
In most cases, it is easier to make the main kitchen area gluten-free and designate a specific counter space for gluten food prep. That way all gluten crumbs should stay relatively contained, decreasing the risk of cross contact for those with celiac disease. When storing foods, Beyond Celiac, an advocacy organization for people with celiac disease, recommends keeping all gluten-free items on the top shelves in the refrigerator or pantry. Crumbs travel downwards. If you live with roommates or have a living situation where you aren’t able to make the majority of the kitchen gluten-free, you can do it the other way around and set up a gluten-free zone. Depending on how much you trust the people you live with to keep things clean, you could use a corner of the kitchen, or you could keep your designated gluten-free items in another room entirely. People with celiac disease who have been in this situation often recommend covering the counter with butcher or parchment paper while preparing food so you can be sure it is clean. You may also prefer to invest in a separate mini fridge to store your gluten-free food if you feel the risk of cross contact is too high in a shared refrigerator (we’ve all lived with one really gross roommate at one point or another).
5. Eliminate all gluten flours.
Even if you have opted to have a hybrid gluten-free and gluten kitchen, you may need to instate an outright ban on wheat flour. Flour particles can remain airborne for 12-24 hours, depending on the ventilation in your home and the quantity of flour that was used, according to Beyond Celiac. Inhaling airborne gluten can cause people with celiac disease to become sick, which means they should avoid areas where wheat flour was used for 24 hours, which is likely impractical for many families. If you have celiac disease and live with roommates, you may feel that requesting they never use flour is too much to ask. In that case, ask that they be extra careful about cleaning up flour and let you know when they have been baking (or are planning to bake) so that you can plan accordingly.