Saturday, November 26, 2011

Canary Tip: Best Intentions and How to Prepare for Them

"I heard you have a cast member who is gluten-free."

"Yes, we do.  Jonathan is gluten-free."

"Well, he's in luck!  I made some cookies especially for him and they're gluten-free."

"Really?  Wow, he'll be so happy.  What flour did you use?"

"Just white flour.  No wheat flour at all.  They don't taste gluten-free one bit."

That was a dramatic recreation of a conversation between a volunteer and the company manager during a show I did last year.  She obviously meant well, and just the fact that she was donating food for the actors was already above and beyond.  But if it hadn't been for the company manager asking that simple question about flour, I could have become sick and extremely bloated from just a nibble of one of those cookies.  And given the fact that 1) this show, Metamorphoses, took place in water and required the cast to be in swimsuits a majority of the time, and 2) I am not a nibbler, it would not have been a pretty sight.  

But alas, the show must go on.

For those of us walking the path of dietary difference, whether by choice or necessity, this is quite a common scenario.   Weddings, catered events, eating out, potlucks, and basically any gathering that brings a variety of people together with a variety of eating habits will always carry an element of risk for us.  And  no matter how strongly we want to believe that something is safe to eat, neither the best of intentions  nor the blindest of faith can eliminate the possibility that a dish touted as gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, refined sugar-free, etc., may, in fact, not be. 

So especially during the holidays, when families and friends gather together and the spirit is in the air, there will be many well meaning gestures and hosts going above and beyond to ensure everyone has a good time. And ranging from favorite childhood dishes, devilish desserts, to the urge to smile and nod when someone's maternal/paternal instinct compels them to heap your plate with food well outside your dietary constraints, you may also be confronted by an obstacle course of temptations.

And while one alternative would be to avoid these challenges altogether and isolate yourself from family and friends (I used to be a pro at this), another alternative I would suggest to you is to confront the challenges and to "mainstream" yourself into these gatherings.  And while from the outside this can appear to be a dilemma between missing out on the social and familial aspect of the holidays and compromising your diet, at the heart of it it's not that way at all. 

The following are some tips I've learned along the way to help set yourself up for success in these situations.

Contingency Snacks.  A snack can serve the dual purpose of tiding you over as well as preventing you from making rash decisions in the name of hunger and low blood sugar. In the context of holiday gatherings, should you arrive at the party and discover that eating the food provided may not be the wisest decision, while it may be disappointing, it doesn't mean you have to leave immediately.  You have a backup plan that will allow you to still have access to both friends and family as well as a clean diet.  This is the "lite" version of the next tip.

Bring Food to Spare.  Building upon the snacks idea, if you're attending a potluck, bring something for everyone to share plus a little extra kept separate just for you.  This allows you to contribute to the festivities while still ensuring that you have something you know you can eat that can be kept safe from cross-contamination.  A few years ago, I remember making a large batch of roasted garlic hummus for a party.  Upon arriving, I set it down next to the other dips along with a bag of gluten-free chips and went to remove my coat.  Unfortunately, in the twenty seconds it took me to do that, a group of people had already descended upon it armed with pita chips and water crackers to dip directly into the hummus.  While I was happy that others were enjoying what I had brought, it taught me a valuable lesson about sharing.

Ask Questions.  Empower yourself to seek knowledge to better help you remain within your dietary constraints.  Do your best to communicate clearly and concisely and avoid asking questions from a place of anxiety or panic.  For example, saying "Would you mind telling me what you used to make your mashed potatoes?  I am gluten-free and dairy-free and want to make sure it's safe for me to enjoy them." can be much more helpful than saying, "You didn't use milk or anything with wheat did you?  I am allergic to dairy and gluten and get really sick when I eat them."  If you're curious about ingredients or preparation, most people are more than happy to share that information if they feel like they may be in a position to help.  And even if you don't know someone first-hand, see if you can find someone you do know who can ask on your behalf or at least make the introduction.  You may know what's right for your body, but you can't do it alone, particularly in these situations.

Avoid Assumptions.   If you can't find answers to your questions, avoid making them up.  Even if you're 90% sure that something doesn't contain something you can't eat, there's still that shade of doubt that could potentially compromise your diet.

First Out of the Gates.  Once you've learned all that you can, see if it's possible to be one of the first people through the line.  I learned this tip from reading Shauna James Ahern's "Gluten-Free Girl."  This is not to make yourself appear more important or hungrier than others.  It's just to help you avoid cross contamination in the situation that someone decides to use the serving spoon for stuffing in the potatoes, double dips their cracker, dresses all the turkey with gravy, etc. 

Make Peace with the Word "No."  You may hear it a lot during these gatherings when investigating whether or not something is safe to eat.  Another phrase you may encounter is "I don't know," which pretty much equates to a "No."  While they may be disappointing to hear, do your best to avoid becoming frustrated or upset.  Chances are slim to none that the people making these dishes actually meant to exclude you.  And if it wasn't intended personally, there's no reason to take it as such.  And on the flipside, you may also be in the position of saying "No" more frequently than you'd like.  Someone may really want you to eat more or persuade you into trying their award-winning ten-layer purple carrot cake.  And though they may give you puppy-dog eyes or even appear offended when you decline, if you simply explain that you cannot (as opposed to will not) eat what they are offering you, they will understand.  You can say "Yes" to the love behind those best intentions, but you don't have to say "Yes" to food or drink that may disrupt your wellness. 

Value Willpower.  Beyond hearing "No" and saying "No" to others, you will undoubtedly have to say "No" to yourself as well.  And while it's common to encounter those who begrudgingly acknowledge their dietary constraints, willpower does not have to be about deprivation or "losing out" on something.  When you say "No" to yourself, if it comes from a place of saying "Yes" to health and increasing your chances of enjoying the holidays, then undermining that by "cheating" doesn't make much sense.  If you remain true to yourself and the eating practices that promote harmony within, than you won't be cheating yourself of opportunities to find harmony around you, in the smiles, laughter, and cherished moments a camera can't capture.

With Thanksgiving just behind us, you may be thinking that these tips are a tad late.  But if anything, experiencing the holiday gatherings as someone who is food sensitive and not coming away unscathed is probably the best way to understand these tips and put them in perspective.  The lemonade you can squeeze from lemons, if you will.

While the holidays are a wonderful opportunity to take care of others and demonstrate how much we care,  we can sometimes forget about taking care of ourselves.  And ultimately, that's where it all begins.  Only you can take care of yourself and decide what's best for your body, mind, and soul.  And that is a powerful and wonderful responsibility to have.

In the countless choices we encounter on our life journey, only we can make them count.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Jonathan. I can relate only too well. It's really difficult for me to eat with my extended family because they just don't have any clue what I go through. When I try to explain it to them, I just don't think they get it at all. It's really hard because I feel like they think I'm a hypochondriac. It's also really hard when people go out of their way to prepare "gluten-free" food for me and then I have to refuse to eat it because they don't know how to prepare it properly and/or cross-contamination issues. It's also really hard when I want to be social with friends and have to end up taking my own food to a restaurant or eating beforehand. I think it's especially challenging for those of us who have Celiac Disease (like I do) or a severe gluten intolerance because the gluten-free diet it the current "hip" and "trendy" thing to do. It can be really trivializing for us. I can only hope that people will continue to gain knowledge about this very serious problem


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