Diary of a Dad - Gluten Free World
When my son Mike, age 9, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007, my wife and I initially decided the whole family would go gluten free in solidarity with him. Then we saw the prices of gluten-free foods. “Sorry, champ,” we told him. “You have to go solo.” Until now. As his father, I wanted to better understand a little of what Mike goes through every day—not just the food he eats but the emotional impact, as well. So I decided to go gluten free for a week.
I plan to begin my gluten-free week tomorrow. In preparation, I’m off to the supermarket to pick up two half gallons of gluten-free chocolate fudge chunk ice cream. I love cookies, especially chocolate chip. If I have to give them up, I’m going to replace them with something just as bad. I tell Mike I’m going gluten-free this week and he laughs. “Good luck,” he says and walks away snickering.
My gluten-free week starts. After showering, I weigh in to establish a benchmark. Breakfast is gluten-free pancakes. We have gluten-free pancakes regularly on weekends and they’re great. After breakfast, we’re off to church and on the way, my wife reminds me I cannot receive communion. I hadn’t thought about that. Only two hours into my gluten-free week and I realize I’m going to need to be much more diligent.
Lunch is a turkey and cheese sandwich on gluten-free bread from a local bakery. Pretty good, so I decide that’s what I’ll pack for work on Monday. Dinner is chicken cutlets and pasta, both gluten free. My daughter Katie’s pasta looks much better than mine. I am envious.
My family has had much practice at eating gluten free so most of the legwork is already done. I can only imagine the difficulty a newly diagnosed person faces in identifying foods—and everything else—they can and cannot consume.
Off to work with my brown bagged gluten-free sandwich. Breakfast for me is coffee and yogurt. My regular yogurt brand is gluten free according to the manufacturer’s website. Lunch is my sandwich, a diet soda and a small bag of corn chips, which are a regular lunch staple for me. Before lunch, I visited the manufacturer’s website for ingredient information and thankfully, my chips of choice are safe.
I work for a large corporation that has an extensive on-site cafeteria. I check in with the cafeteria office and discover they don’t have a list of available gluten-free foods and don’t really accommodate food allergies. I haven’t even had lunch yet and already I feel like an ‘outsider.’ The cafeteria manager agrees to review the menu with their nutritionist and publish on our employee website all the foods offered that are gluten free. Only time will tell if that happens.
I get home late from work, after my wife and kids have eaten dinner. Mike ate all of ‘our’ leftovers from the night before and my wife has forgotten about my new dietary needs. I’m starved, and with little choice, I settle for scrambled eggs with no toast (no toast!). My chocolate fudge chunk ice cream turns out to be the highlight of my day.
I awake starved. Grab my packed lunch (turkey and cheese cold cuts wrapped in corn tortillas) and head off to work. Same breakfast as most days -- yogurt and coffee. Mid-morning, I stop by my friend’s desk. Kelli has celiac disease and I ask about her experiences with the company cafeteria. Kelli suggests I stick with salad with oil and vinegar only. Nothing else, she says, can be trusted. She tells me she brings her lunch every day. If she doesn’t brown bag it, she usually doesn’t eat.
After lunch, I grab M&Ms from a colleague’s desk and head off to meetings for the rest of the day. Meetings are good this week, as they help keep my mind off of my usual afternoon snack: chocolate chip cookies from the cafeteria.
After work, I pick up Mike at karate class and we get home after 7:00 pm. My wife feels bad about my scrambled egg dinner the night before and has roast pork, mashed potatoes and vegetables waiting for me. She has even picked up a special treat: a gluten-free chocolate fudge cupcake from the local bakery. And what a treat it is.
I decide to work from home today. I have a lot to get accomplished and need to be away from the office distractions. Breakfast is a toasted, gluten-free French baguette smothered in butter and Grandma’s homemade raspberry jam. I work until about 11:30 and then take a break to drive to the local gluten-free bakery.
This bakery just opened its doors and having it nearby has been a godsend for us. I pick up two loaves of bread and four more gluten-free chocolate fudge cupcakes. Lunch is a roast beef and melted cheese sandwich. A cupcake rounds out my noontime meal quite nicely. Mike comes home from school not long after and is very vocal in his disagreement with my planned cupcake split—three for me, one for him.
This evening, dinner is leftovers from the night before. While we eat, my wife asks how I enjoyed working from home today. I’ve worked from home before but today seemed much better than other times. It doesn’t take long to realize that today was better because of my new diet. The comfort of home and knowing that gluten-free foods were in easy reach gave me an unmistakable feeling of safety.
After dinner, Mike and I split the last of the cupcakes—we even share some with his sister Katie.
I wake up in a great mood. The comfort and safety I felt the day before are still with me. I know right away there won’t be any gluten ‘wanting’ for me today because I’ve mentally planned out my food for the day. I have my usual breakfast and eat the same roast beef sandwich for lunch that I had the day before. Yes, I’m a creature of habit. When I find something I like, I usually stick with it for a while.
Since I always toast the bread I make my sandwiches with, I’ve noticed that it takes gluten-free bread much longer than regular bread to brown. In our toaster oven at home, regular bread takes less than four minutes to brown. Browning gluten-free bread takes almost twice that long.
Later in the day, Amanda, my teammate and afternoon snack partner, comes by with a big, good-looking cookie for me. “You weren’t around, so I picked you up a…,” she starts to say before remembering my new diet. She feels horrible and so do I. I now understand a little bit how Mike feels when well-meaning friends and parents push cookies, cake and pizza on him at birthday and soccer parties. It must be really tough on him. Just thinking about it breaks my heart.
After getting home from work, dinner is beef stew and white rice. I toast up a piece of gluten-free bread (7½ minutes) to accompany dinner. Another thing I’m noticing about being gluten free is that I feel less full after I eat. I had a good-size serving of stew and rice and bread, yet I still feel like I could eat more. I break out the chocolate fudge chunk ice cream.
I’m in the office early today at 6:30 a.m. Breakfast is only coffee. After yesterday’s near gift from Amanda, I figure I’ll play it safe and save my yogurt for my afternoon snack.
My wife plans out Mike’s food intake hours in advance every day. I’ve always eaten whatever is convenient, whenever it’s convenient. I sigh when I realize I am planning hours in advance around a little tub of yogurt.
Lunch is a roast beef and melted cheese sandwich, corn chips and a diet soda. A creature of habit.
Speaking of habits, my family’s habit is to make every Friday night pizza night at our house. Mike usually has a frozen, rice-crust pizza from the supermarket and the rest of us have fresh takeout pizza. Tonight is essentially the same, but with a little twist. My wife and daughter have the takeout pizza. Mike and I have fresh, handmade gluten-free pizza from our new local bakery.
I had been concerned about how pizza night would work out this week so it was a great surprise to come home and find my wife had ordered pizza from the bakery. I’ve tried this pizza before and so I know I won’t be disappointed. My wife also picked up more cupcakes while at the bakery. Mike and I are in heaven.
It’s my last day being gluten free. During breakfast (eggs, bacon, gluten-free toast), Katie asks if I will continue being gluten free. Before I can respond, Mike answers for me. “No way!” he says adamantly. “Dad’s been eating my pizza, my cupcakes and my bread. No more. They’re mine!”
Later in the morning, we head to Katie’s end-of-season soccer party. After a fun soccer game of adults versus kids, the coaches break out pizza, cookies and brownies. Mike has been through this before and he simply walks away. I stare longingly. When we get home, I settle for a sandwich and Mike has hotdogs.
Mike and I hang out at home and watch sports on TV while the girls go out shopping. Late in the afternoon, my wife calls to tell us she’s discovered a restaurant in a neighboring town that caters to those with gluten sensitivities. Mike and I hop in the car and meet them ten minutes away.
The restaurant is great. The waitress brings two breadbaskets to the table, one with regular bread for the girls and one with gluten free for Mike and me. I have chicken marsala on a bed of gluten-free pasta. Mike has gluten-free penne carbonara.
Looking back on the week, I can’t help but think about how lucky we are living where we do. The new bakery, the variety of food stores in town and the restaurant we just discovered all help to make my family’s day-to-day living much easier. At the end of dinner, we ask but the restaurant doesn’t have gluten-free desserts. When we get home, Mike and I find the last two cupcakes.
I get out of bed and weigh in. My benchmark is unchanged.
Earlier in the week, I had planned to have a big bagel with breakfast this morning in celebration of my minor accomplishment. However, after getting a better understanding of the things Mike goes through each day, I decide to pass on the bagel. I need to be more considerate and less overt with the things I eat around Mike.
This week has also given me a new admiration for everyone who goes through this and other special diets. And in particular, I have a great new admiration for my son. While Mike is only 9 years old, he is, in many respects, a bigger man than I. LW
Tom Charla is married to Living Without’s design director Oksana Charla. They live in Glastonbury, Connecticut, with their two children, Mike and Katie.