How to Go Gluten-Free: The First Steps

photo credit: Flickr nathangibbs

Since this month is National Celiac Awareness Month, I thought I’d share some tips throughout the month to help you get started on a gluten-free diet. But even if you’re no longer a newbie, hopefully this information can be a good refresher, and if you have additional tips, please share them in the comments. Many brains together is better than just my little ol’ noggin!

Did you just learn that you should follow a gluten-free diet on the advice of your doctor or nutritionist, either from a diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten intolerance? Or have you simply made the decision to go gluten-free, suspecting gluten may be at the root of your health issues?

Regardless of what brought you to this point, I can imagine you’re running the full gamut of feelings, from happiness, (I finally found a solution to my multi-year battle with illness – it’s not all in my head!) to loss (you mean I can’t eat Grandma’s famous cake anymore?), frustration (there isn’t anything I can eat!), anger (this is mom/dad/the government/modern agriculture’s fault!), to simply feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly, everything you eat every day, from the cereal you have for breakfast, to the bread on your sandwich at lunch, to the beer you enjoy with dinner are all off-limits. What will you eat? How can you do this?

First of all, try to relax. It will seem overwhelming at first. There will be a period of transition – this isn’t something that you will have “down” overnight. For a while, grocery shopping will take longer than it used to. You might stumble and accidentally ingest gluten along the way as you learn. You will grieve your loss for gluten. This all normal. I’ve been there. Even after nearly 3 years gluten-free, I find there are things I didn’t know, have accidentally ingested gluten, and occasionally have bad days related to the fact that I am on a gluten-free diet.

It’s not easy at first, but I can tell you this. It’s all worth it.

And this will get easier.

You’ll feel like there are a lot of things you can’t have. Everywhere you look, there’s something you can’t have. No, you can’t have bread. No, you can’t have that cereal. No, you can’t have your beer. No, no NO.

Kinda makes you want to throw a tantrum, doesn’t it?

Take a deep breath.

Before we get started on that, let’s start with saying YES to something. Yes, you can have fresh vegetables. Potatoes, lettuce, asparagus, bell peppers, cucumbers, broccoli – they’re all gluten-free. Yes, you can have fresh fruit. Strawberries? Peaches? Blueberries? Apples? Yes, yes, and yes – all gluten-free! Yes, you can have fresh seafood and fresh meat (watch for added broths and marinades). You can have plain rice (and dress it up at home), so stock up on that too. How about a dinner of roast chicken, a baked potato, and some green beans with smoky pecans? Or lamb chops with a Mediterranean pepper salad? How about strawberry gelato for dessert? These are all simple, easy-to-make, fresh dishes that are naturally gluten-free. No need to buy expensive special “gluten-free” items or a million flours. You can visit the grocery store (or farmer’s market!) and fill your cart with tons of fresh, unprocessed foods like this and be well on your way to a gluten-free lifestyle.

But what about the food already at home? Yes, you will have to go through your refrigerator, your pantry, and your freezer. Read labels. Toss (or place in a designated section of the pantry for the gluten-eaters in your home, if you’re not ridding the entire house of gluten) the obvious items first – bread, flour tortillas, wheat cereals, crackers, pasta and cookies. The frozen pizzas, the cookie dough ice cream, and the frozen lasagna have to go too. If you used to bake, your flours should go. (I promise, you can learn to bake gluten-free!) Then, start looking at the labels of the remaining processed foods. Look for gluten-containing ingredients: wheat, wheat flour, wheat starch, barley, barley malt, rye, flour (bleached or unbleached), and malt (for a complete list, check out this “unsafe items” list on If your food contains any of those “unsafe” ingredients, get rid of it (Now might be a great time to start a donation pile for the food pantry!). If you have butter, mayonnaise, jelly, peanut butter, or other condiments around, either get rid of those or mark them with a permanent marker that they are gluten-containing. Don’t eat from them any longer. Why? Because you or your family members previously have used a knife or spoon, scooped some of the condiment out of the container, spread it on their full-of-gluten bread/roll/toast, and then put the knife/spoon back into the jar for more. Crumbs will have gotten inside those jars, “cross-contaminating” them, and making them no longer gluten-free. You can buy separate “gluten-free” replacements and label them with a permanent marker to store in the fridge for the gluten-free eaters. (I’ll share more on cross-contamination of gluten in a future post.)  This will take a bit of time if you have a well-stocked pantry, but will help clear the way for your new gluten-free life.

Now, what will you eat? Start making a grocery list. How about breakfast? Eggs are naturally gluten-free. So are fresh fruit and veggies. So is most bacon (I haven’t found any that contained gluten, but you will want to glance at the label to be sure).  Omelettes are easy and delicious, and you could enjoy those. But what about during the week? There are lots of quick gluten-free breakfast options – gluten-free cereals are in the market, as are snack bars such as LARA bars. Of course, you can always eat non “breakfast-y” foods for breakfast. For me, leftover dinners often are enjoyed for breakfast during the week. Reheating a baked sweet potato and warming up a little almond butter to go on top is delicious. Hard-boiled eggs and fresh fruit often do the trick when on the go. When you’re feeling more adventurous, check out these breakfast recipes for more inspiration.

Lunch? Think salads. Any type of salad is excellent, from the typical lettuce+tomato+cucumber+cheese+meat salad to a cobb salad. Just be cautious of ingredients that are seasoned or marinated, and read labels before eating the dressing. I find that olive oil and red wine vinegar works well if the salad dressing is questionable when I’m eating out. A great many bottled salad dressings are gluten-free, or you can always opt to make your own. Also, leftovers make great lunches. Or you can make wraps – use corn tortillas, large lettuce leaves, or toasted gluten-free waffles to make sandwiches or wraps. Stuff with anything your heart desires – hummus and sliced veggies, leftover roasted chicken, homemade tuna salad, etc.

How about snacks? Personally, I adore nuts and have lots of plain or roasted nuts available for snacking. Just beware of honey roasted nuts – many have wheat starch. You can make your own trail mixes by combining dried fruits and nuts (and even throw in some chocolate chips if you’re feeling indulgent!). LARA bars work well for quick snacks, as do cut-up carrots and celery sticks. Fruit is always a great snack. Gluten-free rice cakes smeared with peanut or almond butter are delicious.

Dinners are easier – at least, in my mind. I made a few suggestions above, or you can always think “one-pot” meals and go for chipotle chicken tortilla soup or a quinoa salad. How about pot roast in the slow cooker? You could make tacos with corn tortillas and homemade taco seasoning. Or stir-fried beef and broccoli! There are even gluten-free pastas out there, should you want some spaghetti or macaroni. For more ideas, check out these gluten-free recipes.

Make a menu plan for a week, and make a grocery list. That way, you’ll be armed with what you know you can purchase before you get to the store. This will help speed up the process. You’ll have to read a few labels here and there, but if you focus on unprocessed foods (fresh veggies, fruits, rice, and meats) then it will help.

You’ll get through this, I promise! And meanwhile, there’s a great community out there to help. I also have shared a lot of my favorite gluten-free blogs on my Blog Love page. Check them out, as there is a wealth of information out there for you!

Of course, there is so much more we can learn from one another. For those of you that are a bit more experienced in the gluten-free lifestyle, what tips can you offer? If you could go back and tell your newly gluten-free self something that would make his/her life easier during this transition time, what would it be?



  1. Mirna says

    Sandwiches and pizza!!! Those used to be my food on the go. Whera I live there are no gluten-free options, so I’m obligated to cook and carry my food with me everyday. That has been the hardest part of living GF so far.

    • altawrites says

      Mirna – It is such a transition to move away from sandwiches and pizza – it seems like our entire cuisine as a country is built from sandwiches and pizza, doesn’t it? At least there are GF bread and pizza crust options out there, but they are expensive. (You can order some of them online, I do believe)

    • Christine says

      Mirna, Bob’s Red Mill has gf pizza flour on amazon, and is very reasonably priced. Look for ones that have free shipping. I’ll make a batch and refrigerate the other half to make a few days later. Put gf pepperoni (Hormel), fresh basil, gf tomato sauce (Classico) with motz and garlic salt. Or sauteed spinach, kalamata olives, and feta with motz. Read the comments section of the Bob’s Amazon items, people have great tips of how to bake with the dough.
      Also, Udi’s bread can be freezed, so pick some of that up from Amazon as well. It’s AMAZING and tastes just like regular bread. I make gluten free ‘grilled cheese’ substituting blueberries and cream cheese.. YUM.
      I know how frustrating eating gf can be, but once you get the hang of it, and with a little creativity, you can make the food BETTER and less daunting than regular meals.

  2. says

    That is very good info, I know a few gluten free eaters and it always seems such a struggle, but your tips would help them, I will forward it on. Thanks!


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