By Jillian Rodriguez
Winding our way through the aisles of the supermarket, the familiar landscape of our neighborhood grocery store now looms large; shelves stocked with products that hold a strange power over me simply on the merit of the ingredients they contain.
Sure, it sounds pretty dramatic. But anyone who is gluten-free will tell you the ways in which the diet takes mundane daily activities and transforms them into anxiety-ridden ordeals. In American culture, food is much more than a transactional exchange for nourishment. We gather around food. We build relationships over food. We use food to forge bonds, find love, and land a job. Toss a gluten-free diet into the mix, and it can throw the whole thing off.
I’ll admit, I was off-balance for awhile. Instead of learning to navigate the world of food with my new limitations, I often stocked up on frozen meals and gluten-free alternatives. You can get away with that in college (although I don’t recommend it!), but after a few years of living like a shut-in, I realized I was bored with my rotating menu of 6-8 packaged meals. I missed going out to eat with friends. I wanted to go out on dates, despite the awkwardness of having to explain a medical condition to someone you’ve just met. I wanted to travel and explore without worrying about food.
After more than a decade of living with Celiac Disease, I’m now a pro at negotiating every corner of the gluten-free life. By necessity, I’ve learned the best way to fill that awkward pause when your host realizes they accidentally used wheat flour in the chili (I get it, it’s a great thickener!). I’ve found new ways to bond with family members, without making them feel bad that I can no longer enjoy that famous family recipe. Even better, I managed to still get out there and find love — and guess what? My current partner was diagnosed with Celiac Disease three years into our relationship. Life is weird, but it’s been kind of awesome having a partner-in-crime for GF grocery trips and eating out — plus, now we get to have a dedicated gluten-free kitchen.
I’ve realized that across the board, the missing ingredient all along has been simplicity. Microwavable meals and frozen food didn’t satisfy me because they lacked simple, real ingredients. As a GF newbie, I was also overthinking how my dietary restrictions would impact those around me. In reality, most people were just eager to learn more and accommodate my needs. These days, maintaining a clean, simple lifestyle is my best bet for maintaining a healthy GF diet and feeling good. Now, our trips to the grocery store are dominated by the produce section and organic, local products. I always keep a GFB on hand for on-the-go excursions so that I never have to guess if something is gluten-free. You should see my carry-on when I travel — it’s mostly just stacks of GFBs.
For me, there’s beauty in simplicity. I’d rather buy whole foods with simple ingredients than have to stand in the aisle, Googling an ingredient with a complicated name. I’d love to hear how you manage grocery shopping and living gluten-free — share your experience in the comments below!