Celiac Disease & Cross-Contamination: Tips and Tricks

celiac avoid cross contamination

Let’s say you have a 13 year old child. And the DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING, your child gets diagnosed with celiac disease. Let’s say you also have three other children, all under the age of 8. In addition to figuring out this new disease, you also need to worry about cross-contamination. How much should you worry? How do you keep your child safe? That is the topic of today’s blog post.

I received an email yesterday that reads as follows:

Hey there,
My 13 year old daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease the day before Thanksgiving. That was a hell of a crash course for us and heartbreak for her. We’re a family of 6 and I can’t afford to switch the whole family to a gluten free diet. I have a 2,4 and an 8 year old and the biggest concern is cross contamination. I have separate cooking utensils and cleaning utensils but kids are messy. I’m still on information overload. What’s the best way to make sure I’m not !}’#%*~¥ this up? Or maybe I just need to chill the hell out and take it a day at a time? I just want her healthy.

And then a follow up email that said:

See? I’m so jacked up I forgot my damn manners to thank you.
Thank You!

My first piece of advice? Breathe. Breathe. And then breathe again. This is a lifetime journey and you are not going to learn everything in a day. (If you want to try…my book on living with celiac disease is available on Amazon and it’s readable in a day. And yes…this is a shameless plug.)

So…on to the question of cross-contamination. It’s important and it’s a pain. But it is doable. While it certainly would be a lot easier if the whole family went gluten-free, that is a totally personal choice. When I was diagnosed, my kids were young and the Dude Ranch did NOT go gluten free. But we did take a lot of precautions (discussed below).

I will say…it’s pretty easy to keep gluten out of most of the rooms in your house.

The bedroom? Unless you’re into some unusual practices (none of my business), I’d say it’s pretty safe. Bathroom? Should be good. Family room? Iffy if you’ve got kids, but not too bad. Just limit the eating area to the kitchen if at all possible and have the family wash their hands after every meal.

But the kitchen? This is where danger lurks. If cross-contamination is gonna happen, odds are it’s gonna happen here. See that kitchen in the picture up top? That is a celiac nightmare. Clutter is not your friend. The less clutter, the less chance for cross-contamination. Besides the clutter, what other steps should you take? Funny you should ask.

Here is my advice on how to best avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen:

  1. Buy separate cooking utensils and cookware to use for ONLY gluten free food. Everything we bought was red to make it easier to differentiate. Things you’ll need include your own toaster, cutting board, colander and pots and pans. Yep…it’s expensive to have celiac. Note that we did not buy separate silverware. Actually, I take that back. We did but realized it was overkill. If the silverware goes thru the dishwasher, it should be fine. If you do not have a dishwasher, get separate silverware.
  2. If possible, have one counter in your kitchen completely gluten-free at all times. That becomes a safe-space. I understand this may not be realistic for everyone.
  3. Again, if possible, keep gluten-free food separate from food with gluten. In the fridge and freezer, have one shelf for gluten-free good. Try to get one kitchen cabinet for just gluten-free food. It makes it so much easier when things are separated.
  4. Get a different colored sponge for your gluten-free dishes. Again, do red to keep it consistent.
  5. Put “gluten free” stickers in any location where there is no gluten allowed. This especially helps when you have company.
  6. Do not allow any hands in the ice bin. Get a scoop.
  7. Watch out for contaminating condiments, butter and the like. If a utensil touches gluten and that same utensil then dips in GF food, it’s no longer safe.
  8. Make sure your family is 100% on board and knows the rules of the kitchen. And trust me, getting your teen to stop cutting her bagels on my friggin’ counter is easier than it sounds. Yes…that comes from experience.
  9. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Mistakes are going to happen. Learn from them and move on.
  10. Be patient and always, always, always err on the side of caution.

In the beginning, this is all overwhelming. Just understand that we have ALL been there and it get’s easier as time goes on. Eventually, it becomes “almost” second nature.

May the gluten-free gods be with you. You got this!!

Oh…and one more piece of advice to the mom who wrote the email. Celiac disease is genetic and if a family member has it, it increases the chance that another one has it. You may want to get everyone tested.

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15 thoughts on “Celiac Disease & Cross-Contamination: Tips and Tricks”

  1. GD – while you “touched” on it, you didn’t say it explicitly, so I will.

    Do not allow your kids (or yourself) touch gluten-laden foods/utensils and then TOUCH something that is to remain gluten-free. Hands and utensils must be washed thoroughly (and wiped with clean towels). Or use gloves and remove/change them.

    Yeah, its a pain, but its the only way to ensure there’s no transfer of crumbs between a gluten and a gluten-free plate.

    This is probably really tough with kids – especially in places where they’re accustom to sharing (schools, playgrounds, sports, etc.).

  2. I have a shared kitchen in the family vacation home. Here’s what I do. I have a red gluten-free bread bin that all my breads/cookies/etc go in. I have the top shelf of the pantry. I have some gluten free wood utensils, a small frying pan, a spatula, and two bamboo cutting boards with a rubber ring around the outside to differentiate. my “gluten free area” is where the coffee maker lives. I have stickers that go on all my condiments, and am going to buy a cheese dome so that I can have safe cheese. I wipe down surfaces a lot. And I try not to share family snacks. One of my biggest challenges was teaching people not to put the stuff back in if it wasn’t finished (chips/crackers/etc). I have containers for those, too. Take the gluten-free stuff out first, arrange it on its own platter. THEN the gluten stuff. I’ve recently bought some Stasher bags that can be washed in the dishwasher, since my fam has a bad habit of washing ziplocks and reusing (fine if no food allergies..). I don’t toast things up there. for a kid, find some options for any glutenous candy they like. My fam has a horrible habit of reaching hands into stuff to munch… so that is something to keep an eye out for!

  3. I find it easier to isolate the gluten than the other way. My husband and son prepare their bread toast etc on a microwave stand where those items are also stored. They have their own margarine (hubby is allergic to dairy) mayo mustard etc . They prepare any food or I gredients that are free of gluten first the tackle the gluten stuff. As far as family meals we just find it easiest to keep everything gluten free. Noodle dishes are all made with gf noodles. Rice veg meat etc. Are naturally gf. Then they can just add their gluttony goodness on the side safe from the rest of the food.

  4. My kiddo was 3 when he was diagnosed a few weeks before Thanksgiving and then I was diagnosed right after. It was a hot mess to say the least. One day I was feeding my kid some of his favorite chips and by the time I remembered to read the label I broke down crying right in the restaurant because they had wheat in them. Lots of mistakes were made. That was 6 years ago. Our whole family went GF so the kitchen is a safe space. Our budget did increase but cooking from scratch and minimizing GF products has helped a lot and brought it lower than before GF. I would add that GF meals can be cheaper when you look at meats, rice, and veggies. It took us a few years to get there though. Deep breaths and lots of Googling. Take it one day at a time. It is hard to do all the things at once so triage. All the previous advice has been good for the how. Take care of your kiddo mentally. I was so devastated that there was something “broken” in me and struggled with some depression.
    What is a bright shining light is that this is manageable through diet and it does get better. Hang in there ❤

    1. I love your advice to triage. I highly second that point! Diagnosis is overwhelming and I felt like everything had to be addressed all at once, but once I started to calm down I realized it was okay to replace things and develop systems over time. The main thing was to immediately stop consuming gluten.

      For our small home (and forgetful inhabitants), we finally made the whole place gluten free so I wouldn’t be policing my family. This has brought so much peace and freedom! But we’re still working on replacing kitchen items we had to give away, as well as trying to figure out where to find certain basic ingredients, such as safe green lentils, of all things. I actually dramatically high-fived my husband in the grocery store last night when the almonds I can eat were finally back in stock. We have what we need, but not always what we want; for example, I still haven’t been able to replace my large wooden cutting board. Every time I chop vegetables on our small (affordable) wooden board, half of the vegetables fall off onto the counter. Fun times. But this small board was one of the first things I bought for myself that was safe to prep food on, so I am pretty grateful for it even as it prompts choice words. I am now seeing that every step, every change I can make is a victory, even on days when I am in no mood to celebrate. So I won’t tell the mom of a newly diagnosed teen to “celebrate every victory!” (I would deserve a punch in the head for that), but I do want to encourage her that every single step DOES matter and will contribute to supporting her daughter’s health and recovery.

  5. I’ve changed my diet and cut back on the “replacement foods” like GF bread and pasta. This has made an extra toaster unnecessary. The good ones are expensive. I treat them as a treat now, not a staple. Also, the gluten-free replacement foods are especially high in simple carbs and processed flours. Tapioca flour (Cassava) is an allergen all its own and is used in tons of GF foods now. Once I moved away from the “protein, vegetable, starch” plate idea that I grew up with, my dinners look more like “protein, veg, veg” and I get variety and flavor without spending ridiculous amounts on bread. Packing lunches for school (I’m in Grad school and work, so to save money and time I pack my lunches), are frequently meat rolls, salads, fruit, yogurt, leftovers from dinner, hummus, veggies, etc. If starches/carbs are your friend, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice are good staples to have in the house. Cut a vent hole in a potato, wrap it in a paper towel and microwave it until it’s “baked” then do potato bar with ground or shredded meat (great for leftover turkey), cheese, veggies (steamed broccoli or something?) for the family is an easy way to have a meal and makes for good lunch the next day too.

    Even if you’re sure that the item was Gluten Free last year, check it again. This is also why I stick to whole foods because fresh produce doesn’t change “recipe” at random. Check anything that has the potential to go into your CD person’s mouth – that includes ALL medications from aspirin to antibiotics. GlutenFreeDrugs.com is a great resource for that.

    I don’t have an extra toaster. My kitchen wouldn’t fit extra appliances.
    Anything porous – stoneware, cutting boards (wood or stone), and cast iron I have GLUTEN FREE ONLY versions of. It’s the porous items that are the highest risk of holding on to gluten. Also, chipped or worn pots/pans where the non-stick surface or ceramic surface has chipped will hold onto gluten. You can keep them for the rest of the family, but I recommend replacing them if possible.
    The Celiac Center at U of Chicago recommended to me that after hand washing (to get the gluten off things) then disinfecting in the dishwasher was best. Yes, both. Gluten isn’t water-soluble so scrubbing is important. We have a different sponge for my items. Our dishware is all glass and metal. Our dishwasher has been broken for a while so we do everything by hand. Conscientious scrubbing has resulted in no illness on my part.
    We have one counter where the toaster is that is where my husband preps his sandwiches and anything that could crumble on that counter.
    I can’t stress this enough:
    THROW OUT YOUR WOODEN CUTTING BOARDS. This is one of the most common items people don’t think about using when they’re going GF. If you have one that’s been CCed, just keeping it around is a risk – others will use it. Wood feels good under the knife, so people are more likely to grab it when prepping food and not think about what lurks in the wood fibers. I get and replace my silicon cutting mats every year or whenever they get too marked up.

    As GD says, you’re not going to get this all overnight. Just keep notes and work with your family. It’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, 13 of which have been in a mixed food household and I still slip up sometimes.

    1. Thank you very much for noting CAST IRON as a porous cooking surface, and hand washing items to remove particles before they are sanitized in the dishwasher.
      – Dx’d Celiac 10 years; FODMAPer

  6. I’m still learning the ropes so to speak, and have to say… No matter how careful you and your family are, mistakes will be made. We all have them in the beginning! It takes time for some of these precautions to sink in (especially with kids!) If a mistake is made, try to think of it as a learning experience rather than beating yourself up over it. Getting everyone to understand the importance of the issue is key. My husband initially thought I was overreacting about things, and treated it as if it was like one of my more mild food allergies (I have many, both severe & mild). After seeing my improvement from going GF & the result of the few times I was “glutened” later, it finally sunk in that preventing cross contamination is a must. We now have what he jokingly calls his “Gluten cabinet of shame” where any and all foods containing gluten are kept. On a side note, always remind people that have eaten foods containing gluten NOT to give kisses (even on the cheek) to someone that has CD unless they brush their teeth/rinse/wash their mouths off as food particles can linger in saliva and on the lips for quite a while. A slobbery smooch from a younger sibling, or Great Aunt Maude could be troublesome. An ounce of prevention and all that. Best wishes on a smooth transition to a CD safe household!

  7. Also, since the person diagnosed is 13, they’re old enough to be responsible about having some kitchen tools. If possible, they can set up a mini kitchen with a toaster oven, microwave, mini refrig, and some utensils and plates in part of their bedroom. This would be as elaborate as budget allows and could include a sink if the room is up against the bathroom on one wall. Great way to keep the child safer and teach them a little self reliance.

    I think it’s important to point out that using flour in a kitchen where part of it must remain gluten free is an iffy thing. It takes more than a day for all the flour to get out of the air (as anyone with a baker’s allergy can tell you). So it would be better if this year she uses premade cookie dough and pie crust for holiday meals and then she can decide later what to do about the flour issue.

  8. When I was diagnosed we did many of the things you outlined at first. But then since both kids who were still living at home were diagnosed within the next year, we transitioned to a mostly gluten free home. My wife still has a few things with gluten that help her like a particular bread for morning toast with butter. She has her own marked toaster and the kerrygold butter tubs she uses are marked with a Sharpie, “Mom – Not GF!!!” She will often order a dish with gluten when we go out to eat or when she’s out with friends. Other than that we all just learned how to make everything without gluten. So kinda the reverse of marking the gluten free utensils and areas. We mark everything that isn’t!

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Who I am. And who I'm not.

Who I am. And who I'm not.

I AM someone who's been gluten-free since 2007 due to a diagnosis of severe celiac disease. I'm someone who can steer you in the right direction when it comes to going gluten-free. And I'm someone who will always give you the naked truth about going gluten free.

I AM NOT someone who embraces this gluten-free craziness. I didn’t find freedom, a better life or any of that other crap when I got diagnosed. With all due respect to Hunter S. Thompson, I found fear and loathing of an unknown world. But if I can share my wisdom, tell my stories and make the transition easier on you, I’ve done my job.

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