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How to Stick to a Gluten Free Diet + A Vietnamese-Inspired Meatball Sandwich Recipe

I remember when I got diagnosed with celiac disease, roughly 5 years ago. I was in grad school and my health was in poor condition. It was a scary time for me because I knew something was going wrong in my body, but I didn’t know quite what. I did know that I had an iron deficiency, but I was taking my iron tablets every day and my blood work was not budging.

I felt terrible every day. Just walking up a flight of stairs made my head pound. I found myself falling asleep at my desk while trying to read papers. Even after getting 8 hours of sleep, I’d wake up feeling exhausted. After a while I couldn’t take it anymore; I had to find out what was wrong with me. Luckily, I happened to work in a research group that studied GI diseases (ie: celiac, Crohn’s, IBS). The things my fellow grad students, who studied celiac disease, were talking about during seminars started to sound familiar. Nutrition deficiencies. Malabsorption. I developed a hunch that I might have celiac disease.

Coincidentally, a post-doctoral fellow was doing a pilot study and needed to collect samples from subjects who have inflammatory GI diseases. I enrolled in the study and they took a tiny slice of my small intestine to examine. In return, I received the results that I had advanced damage in my gut from celiac disease.

Initially, I felt an immense sense of relief. When it came to the cause of my health issues, I had feared the worst. But celiac disease was something I could wrap my head around. However, as time went on, it hit me: I have to eat gluten free FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. At first, the thought was depressing.

When you first find out that you have to follow a gluten free diet, you might feel like your life is heading in this direction.

Fast-forward to 5 years later and I’m thriving on the gluten free diet. How did I get here? Here are my tips for how to stick to being gluten free - and enjoy it.

Fall in Love with Cooking

If you embrace your inner Julia Child, it can make being gluten free so much easier. First off, you can trust the food you’re eating to not be contaminated with gluten because you made it. In addition, if you’re cooking from scratch, you’re using whole ingredients. This is better for your overall health, and on top of that, cutting down on processed foods can make your tummy happier. As an added bonus, it works out to be cheaper if you make your own meals, as opposed to buying meals each day.

Once you get into it, cooking can be a bit of an adventure. I like to play ‘what-can-I-make-out-of-what’s-left-in-the-fridge?’ On the day before grocery day, the contents of my fridge tend to be sparse. I’ve had many years of valuable cooking experience though. I can look at a group of ingredients and come up with a recipe. Often the result is delicious.

The other night, I cut up some sausage and pan fried it with spinach and red onion. It went swimmingly with some brown rice pasta :)

If you’re lacking in the cooking skills department, it’s never too late to learn. There are tons of cooking tutorials on YouTube that you can watch and follow along. Let’s say you need to learn simple skills, like making an omlette - there are videos for that. If you want to learn more complex recipes, like how to make macarons, there are videos for that. Trust me, you can find a YouTube tutorial for pretty much anything. The other day I searched how to open a bottle of sparkling wine and found plenty of help. And if you happen to have some extra cash, you could even take cooking classes. Dietitian-led group classes are often available through grocery stores like Sobey’s and Zehrs.

Make Cooking a Social Activity

“Splendorous, I want to cook more but it stresses me out! It feels like a chore.” Well, I suggest cooking with others because it can make being in the kitchen more fun. Try picking a recipe to test out with a couple friends. You can make a whole evening out of it: go buy the groceries together, help each other make the recipe, and then watch a movie while you devour your good work.

If you have kids, bring them into the kitchen. Some of my earliest memories are of me standing on a chair so I could reach the kitchen counter to help my mom make sandwiches. As I got older, I cooked increasingly more complex recipes with my mom. Eventually I got to the point where my mom would bring out a cookbook so I could choose a recipe to make on my own. These experiences taught me to feel comfortable in the kitchen and I’ve taken my skills into adulthood. By cooking with your child you’re setting them up for success; plus, you get a helper in the kitchen.