Handling the holidays with celiac disease can be anything but relaxing. They are full of long days with family, good food, and for people with celiac disease, they are often full of anxiety. Worry creeps in, “will I be able to eat anything?” you wonder. Will Aunt Martha be offended again when I remind her I can’t eat gluten?
Whether you’re newly diagnosed or a few years in, hopefully, this guide to handling the holidays with celiac disease will be helpful. It was put together by me, a registered dietitian specializing in celiac disease who’s also been living with celiac for over 10 years… so you best believe I’ll be sharing all of the juicy tips and tricks!
If you need more guidance, I have more resources, simple strategies, and specific guides for different holiday events in my Celiac Crash Course. Learn more about it here.
The holidays with celiac are basically asking you to live gluten-free on hard mode. Speaking from experience, there are a ton of plates to juggle and it can be very overwhelming, even for people who’ve been living with celiac disease for years.
First, you have to do everything you’ve been doing before the holidays but during the holidays. Meaning, you still need to make sure you’re checking food labels for gluten and avoiding cross-contact.
But now, you also have to do this with an audience. And you now have to translate all of the knowledge you’ve been building into understandable and convincing terms to your friends and family – who may or may not believe you.
And if you’re still trying to figure out how to stay celiac safe for yourself, this can feel like an impossible task. So I’m holding so much space for you and I’m going to be giving you a lot of resources to hopefully help ease some of these burdens.
And I also want to say, the sooner you’re able to get avoiding gluten and cross-contact to feel routine, the sooner the holidays will start to feel more routine as well. If you need help with this, I break down celiac safety into simple terms and give you simple strategies to put you on the fast-track to a life with celiac that feels routine, check out the course here.
All of that said – let’s first tackle one of the biggest stressors during the holidays: rude comments about celiac.
I honestly can say handling people’s comments about my needs is my biggest stressor when it comes to handling the holidays with celiac disease. From reminding people that this is a real condition to educating people that I can’t just take a bite, it can be overwhelming.
Luckily, my friends and family have caught on now that I’m 10 years in, so I get the comments WAY less. However, that doesn’t make them any less annoying when I do get them.
If you’re anything like me, then you’re probably annoyed by them too. So here are some tips on what to say or do when you hear the following:
During the holidays with celiac, you’re more than likely to come across someone pushing food on you. Depending on how good they are at pushing food, it can be hard to manage, here are some responses to keep ready:
Remember, your health comes before politeness.
Another stressful celiac holiday comment I often get is something along the lines of gluten touching my food not being a big deal. Except… cross-contact with celiac is a big deal. If someone says something like “oh please, it barely touched” here are some responses you can try out:
And if you want to earn some extra credit, one of the most life changing things I did with celiac was teach people how to cook for me. I held cross-contact cooking dates with my friends and family which really helped solidify how seriously I need to take the gluten-free status of my food.
Not only did those cooking demos help educate people and get them to take me seriously – but they also made is so now at events, I’m not the only one defending my needs. I have a whole group of people who understand and have my back.
If you want help with cross-contact cooking demos to teach your friend’s and family how to cook for you. I’ve got an ENTIRE library of dietitian-led cooking demos you can cook along to with friends and family to help teach them how to keep you safe in the Celiac Crash Course. Check it out here!
One of my biggest pet peeve’s is when people try to convince me to eat something during the holidays because another person with celiac ate it. This can be one of the trickiest things to navigate so here are some of my response ideas:
Remember, everyone who eats gluten-free is not the same. And never use someone else who is gluten-free eating something, as proof that it’s actually safe. Always make your own informed choices.
Ahhhh, the celiac deniers can make the h0lidays unbearable. A wise follower once told me “you can’t outgrow celiac but you can outgrow the people who don’t support you with it” and that sums up how I feel about celiac deniers very politely.
And sometimes, you don’t have a choice in running into them during the holidays, so here are some responses you might use if you find yourself in an unfortunate conversation with them:
(and so many other options of response)
If diet culture with celiac disease doesn’t butt it’s head out of the holiday season, I swear… It’s so unfortunate that weight bias and stigma perpetuate and impact people’s ability to manage conditions.
If you run into these comments, I’m holding so much space for you. And here are some responses you might use:
You do not have to maintain any conversations surrounding your weight if you do not want to. If you do continue with these discussions, feel free to refer to my post about celiac disease and weight gain in conversations you might have.
Having your gluten-free medical diet for celiac mistaken for pickiness during the holidays is can be painful. It can reinforce fears of being seen as a burden and make it hard to speak up with celiac.
And remember, you’re not being picky, you are protecting yourself from intestinal damage. Here are some phrases you can use to navigate these comments:
I also want to say, no one should or can make you eat anything you don’t want to eat. You’re allowed to be picky and gluten-free (if you are a picky eater).
I’d also say if you’re newly diagnosed or plan to be around new people, expect to answer a lot of questions. Celiac disease often isn’t well-known and people genuinely don’t understand it. If you feel uncomfortable in situations, you are allowed to remove yourself (again, I love pulling the “I need to use the restroom” escape plan).
Another option is to simply ignore people who are continually unsupportive. Sometimes it’s best simply to draw that boundary for the sake of your mental health and your enjoyment of the holidays.
And all of that said, know that I’m holding space for you friend. As someone who’s been living with celiac for over 10 years, it definitely gets better and you do have to work for it.
Disclaimer: the above responses are quick responses I thought of and use when hearing these claims made. This, of course, is not an all-inclusive list of how to respond to these situations. Ultimately, you get to decide what the best way to respond is.
I wrote a whole blog post last year giving tips on how to enjoy events as a guest safely during the holiday season. It’s a quick read and might be worth checking out if you need to prepare yourself more for being a guest. On top of the tips I provided there, here are a few more!
Whether you made the decision to bring your own dishes to share or if there are gluten-free options on the table, ask/advocate to go first. Communicate with other guests (or better yet, the host) that you need to go first in order to limit cross-contact and stay safe.
While you are serving yourself first, serve yourself extra just in case you want seconds. This will allow you to not have to worry about any cross-contact that might happen between when you served yourself and others.
If you find that the idea of serving yourself food gives you a lot of anxiety, I give lots of tips and strategies for a variety of different scenarios in the Celiac Crash Course. Check it out here.
If you don’t know if something is safe, spare yourself the trouble and don’t eat it. My general rule of thumb is to stay on the side of caution. Google is your friend but sometimes you just can determine if a drink or ingredient is safe. Alternatively – you might not know if a food, in general, is safe depending on how it was prepared. If you don’t know, say no.
(If you’re looking to see what drinks are safe for you, check out this page!)
I wrote a post on my top tips for gluten-free hosting during the holiday season that I encourage you to check out if you’re hosting someone who is GF this year. In addition to that post, here are a few tips to get you started:
Everyone living gluten-free has different needs and levels of comfort and care. For example, some people might be comfortable with you preparing them safe food (but if you choose to do this, please do your research to prevent cross-contact – my best tip is to treat gluten like it’s raw meat when preparing food) others might politely reject your food.
Which leads me into my next tip which is:
Handling the holidays with celiac disease can be stressful, even if you took a ton of precautions when preparing their food, someone with celiac just might not want to risk it. Or they might have witnessed cross-contact, (learn more about cross-contact here) or just simply not feel comfortable with eating it.
Don’t be offended if someone living gluten-free doesn’t eat your GF food (or if they bring their own food). Respect their decision – it’s hard living GF. Know that they aren’t doing it out of malice, they are doing it to protect their health.
The holidays with celiac disease can be stressful, I shared how to manage being a guest, host, and dealing with rude comments and I want to wrap things up with a few reminders to help you have the most enjoyable holiday yet.
Support with celiac disease during the holidays is incredibly important. Managing celiac disease can be isolating, restrictive, and overwhelming. Having people in your corner to help will make a huge difference.
There are lot’s of different kinds of support to seek out during this time. Having friends and family who can help advocate for you is important.
And so is having an outlet of other people with celiac who “just get it” to vent to. As you go into the holiday season, take inventory of the types of support you have and make sure if you have any gaps, that you are finding ways to bridge them.
Your safety with celiac during the holidays will rely heavily on your ability to set boundaries. One of the most important boundaries you’ll need to get comfortable with is using the word “no”.
Get comfortable with politely saying “no” when you don’t know if something is safe. You are your best advocate and “no thank you” is a powerful tool during this season. I know many of use have been raised to be people-pleasers, and saying “no” will be one of the most helpful skills you will learn with celiac.
Don’t get all “preachy” about eating gluten-free during holiday dinners with celiac. It can be easy to think everyone should go gluten-free – and just like your diet is your own business, everyone else’s diet is THEIR own business.
We want people to only go gluten-free if they need to. So balance the actual risk family members have for developing celiac and their need to get screened with not pushing diet culture rhetoric about gluten.
There’s a fine line and if you need help with it, I’ve got handouts to help guide these conversations with family in the Celiac Crash Course.
Lastly, when participating in the holidays with celiac, remember what the holidays are about. Focus on your loved ones and don’t let your dietary restrictions prevent you from enjoying them.
I know the holiday season can be especially hard because suddenly you have to educate everyone on your gluten-free needs, practice all of your celiac safety skills, and still socialize with everyone. That’s a lot to have to do at once, and if you need help and want simple strategies to prepare you for this, I’ve got a ton more resources in my Celiac Crash Course! Be sure to check it out here.