It's celebration season, with weddings, graduations, Mother's and Father's Days, family reunions and Memorial Day parties in full swing. Are you looking forward to the festivities and all the conversations and activities you'll enjoy—or are you dreading them, imagining all the off-limits foods you'll have to forego? Well, here are some suggestions to help you navigate SUCCESSFULLY and HAPPILY through any event.
Consider the stories of two women, Anya and Joan, both who have celiac disease and recently attended graduation parties.
As soon as Anya arrived at her party, the first thing she spotted was a towering, colorful (and gluten rich) graduation cake. Instantly she felt deflated, knowing she wouldn't be able to have a piece "like everybody else could." She spent the next 15 minutes surveying the rest of the food: crackers and dip, a cold cut platter, guacamole and pita chips, macaroni salad, hot dogs and hamburgers, and more. She determined that only two things were safe to eat: a vegetable platter and the gluten-free bagels she'd brought with her. After some halfhearted nibbling, she left before the guest of honor had even arrived.
Joan, on the other hand, came to her party with favorite homemade party foods to share: deviled eggs and her famous Peppermint Patty Brownies. She chatted with old friends, met a few new ones, and even convinced the guest of honor to tango with her. And, while she skipped the gluten-rich fare, she happily dug into treats like a guacamole-topped bunless burger the chef had set aside for her as well as a colorful fruit and gelatin mold. She left declaring it the best graduation party she'd been to since her own!
Believe it or not, both women attended the same party. Their very different outlooks—and the kinds of preparations they made beforehand—helped shape their very different experiences. Here's what we can learn from them.
Reframe, and gain. Both Joan and Anya faced limits on what they could eat at the party, but they had choices about how they handled them. Anya chose to let her limitations be the focus, spending most of her time thinking and worrying about the food. She took a passive approach, letting the situation happen to her rather than being proactive and preparing. By contrast, Joan chose to take an active, positive outlook on her situation, concentrating on what she could do and enjoy, rather than what she couldn't (behavior researchers call this technique "reframing"). She focused on the fun and conversation just as much, if not more than, the food. She planned ahead and used her own resources, giving her a sense of control over the events. Joan expected to have fun, and she did!
Brush up on your GF food savvy. Both Joan and Anya knew to pass up obvious things foods like breads, cold cuts and cake, but only Joan remembered that a fruit-and-gelatin mold was gluten-free --so she didn't have to skip it. In fact, before she goes to any event where food is served Joan makes a habit of reviewing her gluten-free food lists, so she's clear about which foods get a green light on a gluten-free diet, and which are questionable. Armed with this knowledge, she feels more confident and relaxed in any eating occasion.
Know the menu. Anya didn't know until she got to the party that there were a lot of foods she couldn't eat. But she could have avoided the disappointment by calling a few weeks ahead of the event, as Joan did, to find out what was on the menu. This essential step gave Joan the opportunity to explain her needs in a positive way. She told the host that while she couldn't have anything that included (or came in contact with) wheat, rye, barley or oats, there were plenty of foods she could eat. She suggested a few, and offered to bring something of her own that complemented the menu. The host was happy to oblige. (Note: If you're attending a catered event or a party held at a restaurant, it's perfectly acceptable to contact the chef first to discuss the menu. Be considerate and choose an off-peak time to call; around 2 p.m., between the lunch and dinner rush, is usually ideal.)
Adjust the recipes. In her call-ahead conversation, Joan found that the host was game and willing (most are!) to walk through the recipes to see if a few minor adjustments could turn an off-limits dish into a "safe" one. For example, only serving gluten-free chips, like those made with corn or potatoes, to avoid any confusion and minimizing the potential for cross-contamination (it's a good idea to recommend specific brands of gluten-free chips since the host may not be familiar). By asking that her burger be put on the grill first, so that she could remove and enjoy it before the buns were added, Joan spared herself the disappointment Anya felt when she saw a platter of ready-made, off-limits burgers and hot dogs.
Bake and Take. Both Joan and Anya remembered to bring some "safe" food with them so that they'd have something to fall back on if need be. But while Anya's choice was a "nothing special" food she relied on regularly, Joan brought festive treats that fit into the spirit of the party. She also made sure to bring a dessert that was every bit as satisfying as that centerpiece cake, so she didn't feel like she was missing out. For big events, Joan sometimes brings several dishes to share and have plenty of variety on her plate and not feel (or look!) deprived. When you tote your own goodies, remember to bring your own serving implements and keep your dishes separate from others to avoid cross-contamination.
Whether you're attending a party or throwing one yourself, you can choose to take a page from either Joan's or Anya's books. Like Joan, you could maintain the healthy perspective that food is just one part of what makes a successful celebration—and consider the event, the guests, the entertainment and the decorations just as worthy of your attention. Chances are you'll have a fabulous time.
Now, that is the gluten-free way to enjoy a party!
Author Joyce Hendley, who holds a Master's in Nutrition, is a freelance health writer and contributing editor at EatingWell magazine.