Gluten-Free Party Etiquette

May 30, 2012 at 9:51 am 13 comments

[Summer is quickly approaching, and your schedule is probably packed with barbecues, picnics and other social gatherings. We asked NFCA volunteer Annsley Klehr, owner of Gluten Freedoms, a gluten-free consulting company, to share her tips for managing those awkward moments when you’re gluten-free at a gluten-filled party.]

A month or two ago I received an email from a neighbor asking me for a recipe for a gluten-free flourless chocolate cake.  I willingly obliged, noting in my email that I would be happy to advise her on certain brands and kitchen procedures to avoid cross-contamination.  She thanked me and that was that.

Fast forward several weeks, my family and I are invited to this neighbor’s daughter’s birthday party.  I have already briefed my daughter that she will not be able to eat the desserts there, so we brought a piece of chocolate for her.  We walk in the door to the rich aroma of Mediterranean style appetizers such as hummus, baba ganoush, chips, veggies, etc.  I happily allowed my daughter a few corn chips and veggies.

Annsley and Husband

Me and My Decoy

When it came time for dessert, I realized that my neighbor had asked me for the gluten-free flourless chocolate cake recipe so that she could make it for my daughter and myself.  I knew her household wasn’t gluten-free, so I could not be sure how she prepared the cake, what ingredients she used or if there was a risk of cross-contamination.  The host offered the cake (which was touching gluten-containing desserts) to me in front of all the guests, saying, “I made this especially for you.  It’s gluten-free.”  Then came the ice cream cones filled with chocolate mousse – both gluten-containing and gluten-free versions.  My first reaction was an overwhelming appreciation for such thoughtfulness, and then anxiety.

How could I tell her how much I appreciated all of this food and then NOT eat it?  There was nothing I could say to her but “Thank you.”

I felt so embarrassed by the whole situation I wanted to sink through the floor.  I wasn’t even worried about my 3 year-old daughter because no one would be looking at her for social graces.  I was sitting on the couch surrounded by guests, my daughter floating around the room and my husband at my feet.  I was handed a piece of chocolate cake and the gluten-free cone and I found myself profusely thanking my host for all of her efforts as my heart raced.  I knew I couldn’t eat any of it. The risk of cross-contamination and the thought of a gluten attack were too high. All of the sudden, a hand reached out in front of me, freeing my hand of my cone.  I looked up and all I could see was a mass of curls; it was my husband.  He readily bit into the cone without uttering a word.  I new I’d married him for a reason.  By eating the cake for me, my husband relieved me of a potentially uncomfortable situation!  (The chocolate cake I could conceal in a napkin in my hand).

These situations will always happen, and people living gluten-free have to be prepared.  Here are a few tips to help you navigate awkward social situations:

1.  Call Ahead

Call your host or hostess and let them know that you plan on attending, and that you will either come with your own supply of food or carefully vet all of their ingredients and thoroughly explain cooking procedures to avoid cross-contamination.  If you have a child attending the party, ask the host for the menu in advance so that you can plan to bring gluten-free substitutes.  If the party is being catered, call the catering company and speak with them directly.

2.  Stash a Snack 

Sometimes it may feel awkward to say anything or have a special plate.  In that case, make sure that you grab something to eat before or after the party and always have a snack, like a nut bar or piece of fruit in your bag.

3.  Be Your Gracious Self

As awkward as it may feel, saying “Please” and “Thank you” for foods you can’t eat are still greatly appreciated.  People have gone out of their way to make you feel comfortable, so in return, try to make them feel comfortable, too.  Parties are not the time to educate your hosts, so if you are presented with something that you can’t eat, accept it and express your thanks, then find a time to subtly dispose it or hand off to a friend.

4.  Bring a Decoy

Have someone or something you can swiftly pass your food off to without anyone noticing.  I often alert a friend going to the party with me of situations like these and ask if that friend might kindly take my portion so as not to offend anyone.

5.  Redirect Attention

If you’re looking to avoid drawing attention to what you’re eating or not eating at a party, then always try to have a drink or plate in your hand.  I find that having something on my plate helps to avoid questions and makes it easier to decline other foods.

Don’t let your anxiety prevent you from enjoying a party.  Keep to these few tips and you’ll have a good time no matter what situations you encounter!

– Annsley Klehr

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Food n Thought Peddler  |  May 30, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Good post! I think I’ve done everything except #4, decoy is a great strategy 🙂 I think if I’m going to a party where people are not that familiar to me, I will just bring my own food no matter what, in case nothing else is available.

  • 2. Heather Anne  |  May 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks so much! I never eat at anyone else’s home and I always feel bad when they go out of their way to make something gf. However, I’m very sensitive and just can’t take the risk anymore! These are great tips and I’m going to try them very soon! 🙂

  • 3. Willa Blair  |  May 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Great tips, especially the last one. Unfortunately, I have been “glutened” by well-meaning friends. So I tend to avoid parties and pot lucks unless I know the person hosting them really well and feel comfortable outlining my needs. Even then, cross-contamination is hard to avoid.

  • 4. Kathy Maurin  |  May 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    You should have just asked her. You could have sucked it up and ate the part of the cake that wasnt touching gluten. Doubt she went to all of that time and expense and poured flour on it. Kinda rude. Less rude to ask a simple question. What did u think she wanted the recipe for , and if u gave it to here that was your opening to explain gluten free baking.

    • 5. Terrah  |  May 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm

      It sure seems like you are being a tad rude. I am going to just assume you dont mean to be. It also seems like you didnt read the entire post, but again, I will assume you did.

      What you suggest above and below is not always possible. I have had PLENTY of people ask me for gf recipes before and they DONT want to know the particulars. Some of them are just simply going on the fad diet and dont really care, or need to care, about cross contamination.
      I have a SEVERE wheat allergy, and cant even smell bread. I have a great boyfriend that I can “decoy” to, but he isnt always milling with me when people are shoving food in my face. So I just kindly tell the person that I cannot have that. Sometimes they will try to rationalize with me, and at that point I just simply point out that if I eat it, they are responsible for injecting me with my EpiPen and they usually back off. I try not to go to that rude of a reply, but sometimes it is necessary.
      Recently someone at work tried to tell me it was ‘ok’ to be in a vent-less room with playdoh because it wasnt at my table. She didnt understand that the fumes from it can make me go into anaphylactic shock. I tried to tell her very quickly, but she just kept trying to rationalize with me, so eventually it came to the point that I had to just leave the room. Normally, that is a very rude response, but considering that my ability to breath was at stake, the rude factor went onto her trying to detain me in an unhealthy situation.

      My point with those stories is to point out that not ALWAYS can you impart your gluten-free knowledge on someone.
      If they dont want it, and you arent in a position to give it to them, you just simply give them what they want and back away from the situation.
      Some people would be very annoyed with her if she HAD offered the unwarranted information. I think she did the correct thing in offering to teach her more, and not just assuming that she would need to.

      Also, she didnt know at the time that she was invited to the party where the hostess was using the cake recipe, so how could she have known to tell her that she would bring her own snacks?

      • 6. Kathy Maurin  |  May 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm

        Wasnt being rude just truthful. When she was invite to the part or the daughter was was the time to address the situation. terrah you situation is totally different. Anaphalactic shock is totally different than celiac. As celiacs we have a duty to educate, an most people are understanding and willing to learn. It is easy to bring something along or keep something in the car for situations such as this. A couple of quick questions to the hostess and you will know if its safe. Most of my friends have been very understanding and willing to make a little extra effort. My point was the paranoia can be a little excessive. Dishonesty and subtrafuge isnt a good thing to teach your children either. I also am a very sensitive reactor and this isnt a fad for me

    • 7. Annsley  |  June 22, 2012 at 12:11 am

      Thank you for your response and another point of view. After she personally emailed me and I responded explaining that some people are more sensitive and I would offer specific brands to use, she didn’t respond. I took that as not being quite that interested in understanding the cross-contamination. I really didn’t feel as though it were my place to ask her at her party after I’m sure she felt like she went out of her way. Perhaps if it were a close friend I might have. Any way, I’m waaay to sensitive and would NEVER eat anything on a plate with gluten.

  • 8. Kathy Maurin  |  May 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Also you could have told her befor hand you would bee bringin gf snacks that is what I do.

  • 9. Carole  |  May 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    These are great strategies! My 11 year old daughter was recently diagnosed with Celiac and my husband also has the disease. Almost every time we have ate food cooked in another person’s kitchen since my daughter’s diagnosis, she has become ill. My husband has never had immediate symptoms – he gets a painful rash that starts the next day and lasts weeks after exposure.We have decided that our family is no longer able to eat food prepared in another person’s home. I really do not want to be rude and do not want anyone to be mad at me. I just love my 2 celiacs so much that I can not take any chances – no matter how small. I will be a little more frank about the decisions we have made for our family regarding eating but I plan to use these strategies for all of the other events we find ourselves at. I want my family to be invited to parties and I really do appreciate the fact that anyone takes the time to do something special for us. I just feel much more comfortable if we bring our own food. In the end, I would rather have something think that I am rude for not letting my little girl eat the cake that was made for her than to hold her later that night while she is in extreme pain because I told her she could eat it. There is nothing in the world that is worse than seeing your child in pain because you decided it was ok for her to eat something – and you were wrong. I will take rude over that feeling any day.

    • 10. Annsley  |  June 22, 2012 at 12:13 am

      I 100% agree! It’s never worth the risk in my opinion. I rarely if ever eat in other people’s homes. All my good friends know my situation ahead of time, but in awkward situations, I just come prepared!

  • 11. Tina  |  June 1, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Thank you for writng this article. I would love it if you wrote an article on Gluten Free Extended Family Etiquette.

  • 12. Jennifer  |  June 25, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Thank you for this post. I completely understand the feeling of guilt at parties, to the point I have eaten things I knew would make me sick because I hate making people feel awkward or uncomfortable. All of my friends know I am gluten-free but they don’t always know that I am dairy-free too. I usually just say ahead of time that I am bringing a side or my own dessert. The issue I run into is usually I have to bring enough to share. However, many times because gluten-free ingredients can get expensive it costs a lot more money than the gluten-containing version (cakes/cupcakes for example). I love the idea of a decoy, my boyfriend is very supportive so I am sure he could help me out in that department. Thank you for sharing this!

  • 13. KTG  |  August 1, 2012 at 4:30 am

    See for me, I am just intolerant.. So if someone went to the effort to make me gluten free stuff (which I don’t even expect or encourage from others) I don’t worry about cross contamination much, since it really does not affect me. In fact, at disneyland I asked for a Gluten Free bun for a chili dog. and the sweet cashier went overboard making sure I have a GF hot dog, and I had to wait 20 min. extra to have an uncross contaminated batch of chili made for me. again very sweet, but I would have been cool with just the GF bun. However… when you have celiacs, that is a game changer.


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