Shauna James Ahern, author of the popular Gluten-Free Girl website, four cookbooks and a subscription recipe service, spent most of her life physically suffering, and not knowing why. When she was finally diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005, she rejoiced and found comfort in finally knowing what was wrong with her. Then that moment: She realized that it meant she had to go gluten-free.
When you—or your child or someone else in your family for whom you cook—is diagnosed with celiac, a gluten-free diet is the only panacea. There is no pill to take and no procedure to cure this disease. So, like Shauna did over ten years ago, you have to embrace the upheaval that this diagnosis brings to the thing that is the center of most of our lives: food. It’s scary and intimidating but, as it turns out, easier than ever to manage.
Shauna is our kind of girl. Not just because she loves to cook and eat, but because she lives to share that love of cooking and eating with others. If you’ve recently learned that you have to go gluten free or start cooking gluten free for your family, you’ll want Shauna’s essential tips and advice on how to go about it—and to soak up her spirit, too. If there’s anyone who can help you through the process of embracing gluten-free cooking and eating as the manageable, delicious lifestyle it is, it’s her.
Related: Two weeks of gluten-free school lunches.
Kneading dough | Gluten-Free Girl
The moment that you or a loved one hears they have a serious food allergy can be overwhelming. What advice would you give parents who have just been told that their child has celiac disease, is gluten intolerant, or has another serious food allergy?
Say “Yes!” to it. That’s what I always tell people: Just say YES to it. It can be very hard to, but will radically change your life. Your impulse will be to resist, and that is natural, but it’s actually a relief to say yes and embrace it. Acknowledge that this is the way your body is built. And if you’re a parent, it’s a really good message to reinforce for your kids. People also ask me, “How can you not cheat?” Well, you know how bad it will feel if you do! But a lot of it is just acknowledging that this is simply how you are and there’s nothing’s wrong with you.
Start with what you can eat.
Farmer’s Market bounty | Gluten-Free Girl
A lot of people think of a gluten-free diet as consisting of specially made gluten-free products (like modified breads, cookies, etc.), but that’s not necessarily the case. What kinds of foods should you focus on first?
Always start with what you can eat, not with what you can’t. Focus on what is naturally gluten-free. My first [post diagnosis] walk around the grocery store took 3 hours! This was pre-labeling—it didn’t exists in 2005! I would actually call up all these companies to uncover whether their products would be safe or not. And then I realized that I don’t have to call for things like kale, pork chops, pure quinoa. Start with the simple stuff: most produce, mashed potatoes, fish, a roast chicken. I mean, what other disease can you heal by eating simple, fresh foods?!
Learn where gluten hides.Carrot Salad with Feta and Sesame | Gluten-Free Girl
When you do buy packaged foods, what are some things to watch out for?
Educate yourself on places where gluten may hide. In some ways, celiac is harder to manage nowadays because a lot of companies and products have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, but haven’t taken the same precautions to ensure that there is no cross contamination. There are a lot of companies putting out gluten-free products with wonderful intentions, but are not strict in implementing gluten-free facilities. Take oats for example: Some oat products are gluten free, but if your allergy is severe or you have celiac, you should look for certified gluten-free oats, which are grown apart from wheat. The same goes for rice. And just because something is wheat-free does not mean it’s always gluten free.
Make it a family affair.
Fried Chicken | Gluten-Free Girl
How do you balance meal planning through the lens of gluten-free, especially if there are siblings who are not gluten-free?
Make it a family affair. I advise to start by keeping it simple, by making small tweaks to the familiar. We rotate familiar dishes that we know the kids love, but sometimes change them just slightly to throw in, for example, an ethnic twist. So, if it’s meatballs Tuesday, one week we’ll add different spices to make them Swedish. Or maybe a few peppers to introduce some heat the next time. Maybe it’s guacamole and “tacos,” but served over rice instead of with tortillas. I really believe success comes when it’s a whole family effort: that’s a very strong message to send to your kids. If everyone learns to love what is already gluten-free, they don’t have to feel left out.
Listen to your gut.
Danny and Lucy | Gluten-Free Girl
How do you know if your child has a gluten allergy or celiac disease? Are most doctors equipped to administer a test?
Listen to your gut. The test for celiac is an easy blood panel, but the challenge can be in asking the doctors to administer it in the first place. Celiac has 300 separate symptoms, and that’s why it’s so under diagnosed. Not everyone gets symptoms right away, but my advice would be: If you do feel that parental spidey-sense, if the kid is having a hard time growing, behavioral issues, digestive issues, just say to your doctor, “Let’s eliminate this possibility.” And make sure that they are actively eating gluten when they get the test.
Gluten-Free Blueberry Muffins | Gluten-Free Girl
Okay, so since going gluten-free, it seems like you’ve got a great handle on everything, especially when cooking at home. How do you manage when you’re not at home?
Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead! There are definitely still times of frustration, especially while traveling. Managing is all about planning ahead and, again, knowing how to cook helps. For example, when I travel, we bring our own food. And with the kids, we frame it as packing a picnic to turn it into something fun. Always have fruit and other gluten-free snacks on hand.
Honestly, my frustrations are usually not for me, but for my kids. My daughter, who also has a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, can feel a little left out. But life isn’t perfect, and I think it’s a good lesson about compassion. It teaches her to be aware of others that may be feeling left out in other ways, too.
Learn to love cooking.
Summer Vegetable Hash | Gluten-Free Girl
Any last words of wisdom for our readers?
Learn to love cooking. It may not happen overnight, but cooking is your path to healing. And learn to cook as a family. You’ll get more out of it than just food.
Pancakes | Gluten-Free Girl
Really and truly, if you are suffering from celiac disease, have a child who is, or simply want to learn more, enter Shauna’s welcoming world of cookbooks and her wide range of recipes that are developed with her expertise and her trained chef husband’s help. Also, her blog is loaded with helpful information like this list of where to look for hidden gluten, including in non-food products, and her new subscription recipe service, Feeding Our People, delivers three rigorously tested gluten-free, dairy-free, and refined-sugar-free recipe every week, like a constantly evolving cookbook.
So much support. So many great resources.
More than that, though, I love that Shauna believes that cooking is restorative. She longs for a time when there wasn’t so much fuss and rather more humility about food. If you ask me, it’s why her cooking is so delicious—even for those of us who aren’t gluten-free. Case in point, the gluten-free granola recipe that she has kindly shared with us. It’s a recipe that the whole family—gluten-free or not—will happily devour any time of day.
Yields 8 to 9 cups
3 cups certified gluten-free rolled oats
1 cup chopped cashews
1 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup butterscotch chips
1. Heat the oven to 325°. Line a 13 x 18-inch baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Combine the gluten-free oats, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Toss them together until everything is combined. Pour in the olive oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract and stir with a rubber spatula until the oats and nuts are evenly coated.
3. Spread the granola in an even layer on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then stir the granola up on the baking sheet. Continue baking until the cashews begin to brown and the smell of the maple syrup wafts in the air, another 15 to 20 minutes. Remember that granola will not come out of the oven as crisp as you want, so don’t use that as a gauge for doneness.
4. Put the baking sheet on a countertop and walk away. Let the granola cool completely to room temperature on the baking sheet. Add the raisins and butterscotch chips and mix to combine. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks or in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.