How do you lunch gluten free when you are away from the comfort of your gluten free kitchen? Specifically, while at work? Are your colleagues cool about your dietary restrictions or are they less than sensitive? Do you go out for work lunches or eat alone at your desk? How do you successfully snack, or do you somehow always feel hungry?
To some, these may seem like silly questions. They may seem mundane or even petty. But to those of us who live strictly gluten free, they are questions that can consume and perplex us on a daily basis.
I remember when I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, and the lunch spots my coworkers and I used to enjoy on a weekly, and sometimes even daily basis, were no longer friendly to me. There was nothing on the menu I could eat, and sitting watching my friends eat was no picnic (pun intended).
It soon became better for everyone if I simply stayed back at the office come lunch time. Not only did this isolate me socially from my work colleagues, but the much-needed mid-day break away from work I used to enjoy was no longer part of my routine. To say that I was frustrated and bitter is an understatement.
It wasn’t my colleagues’ fault, and I didn’t feel they should have to miss out just because I did, so I downplayed the effect it had on me and on my stress level. To make matters worse, nothing I could pack from home for lunch or snacks was enticing or satisfying, so I often ate only simple carbs like plain gluten-free pretzels … for lunch! Needless to say my body was running on empty much of the time.
I’m not saying I’m proud of how I handled this shift in circumstances, but as I look back, it’s clear to me that my celiac diagnosis had a ripple effect on many aspects of my life and happiness. At least at first.
Fast forward nearly a decade and a half and there are far more choices for us gluten-free folks. From gluten-free menus to delicious breads and nutritious snacks. But with more awareness and options sometimes comes risk. Thinking you’re just a fad dieter, the waiter might not take your food restrictions seriously, or your co-workers might bring in food for you from a contaminated kitchen. You get the idea.
Below are some of my tips, favorite gluten-free products and go-to recipes to help make it through the modern work day. What are yours? I’d love to hear what you pack for lunch, how you snack smart or what you do about business lunches and catered meetings.
✤My purse, desk, car, briefcase and fridge … are all always stocked with gluten-free snacks. Snacking urges hit when they are least expected, and I never want to be distracted from work by a grumbly tummy. It’s just good diet sense to eat more small meals throughout the day anyway, so incorporating healthy snacks is a smart part of this strategy.
✤Some of my favorite snacks include fresh fruit like apples or bananas with peanut or almond butter, washed berries, applesauce, coconut yogurt, hummus and red peppers, trail mix, dry cereals like granola, and nutrition bars. I keep a variety of these bars in my purse and car year-round, so I’m never bored with my choices. In the summer months, I tend towards bars without chocolate, so there’s no chance of them melting from the heat, but come fall and winter, the chocolate dipped ones are fun treats to look forward to.
✤Popcorn is also a naturally gluten-free snack that provides a surprising amount of dietary fiber. Be sure that no gluten was added in random flavorings by checking package labels. Popcorn chips are another baked (not fried) snack on their own or with hummus, peanut butter or salsa. (For those with corn sensitivities, check out Mini Pops: popped sorghum grains!)
✤I often bring homemade gluten-free muffins with me wherever I might be going, be it on a plane or into the office. Bring a couple extra to share though – word will get around that you have the best muffins in the building.
✤Leftovers are no longer a dirty word. We grill at least a couple of times every week. There is nothing that isn’t better the next day with leftover grilled veggies: gluten-free pita sandwiches; gluten-free pizza; quinoa dishes; crustless quiche; gluten-free pasta … you get the idea. Make plenty of extra and you’ve got lunches planned for the week!
✤I also love veggie burgers. They are so easy to toss into a lunchbox if you have ready access to a microwave. Add a gluten-free bun, tortilla or bread, or just pair with some yummy sweet potato chips — they are a filling and nutritious way to grab a satisfying lunch.
✤Gluten-free pizza is a family favorite of ours and leftover pizza is delicious whether cold or hot. I use non-dairy cheese and no meat, so there’s really no reason not to pack a piece of pizza to take with you, no matter where you’re headed. Make a thick or stuffed crust pizza for an easy to hold and hearty lunch anytime!
✤Soups, chilis, stews and casseroles are perfect for lunches and are easily frozen in containers that can be grabbed from the freezer in the morning to be thawed by noon. Summer gazpachos to wintertime veggie chili – there is no end to the varieties of soups for every season and palate. Even homemade ravioli is easily packed as a portable lunch option, and it’s easier to make than you might think!
✤Gluten-free instant oatmeal is a staple in my life. I never leave home without it, actually! It’s wonderful to take on trips or just to the office, since all you need to find is a cup or a bowl and some boiling water. Healthy, filling and easy to make on the go, instant oatmeal is a great go-to food. Be sure to always buy certified gluten-free oats, however, since regular oats are contaminated with gluten grains. Also buy only the instant oats variety, so that no cooking is required. Instant oats allow you to simply stir in boiling water to prepare them.
✤Graham Crackers. These two simple words evoke all kinds of happy childhood memories for most, but gluten-free graham crackers have historically been elusive. After having devised my own homemade recipe, I now make a huge batch of these treats and pack them in baggies that go straight into my freezer. Grab-and-go baggies like this are perfect for snacks or lunches for anyone. These crackers are actually even delicious cold! (As a side note, sending in a big bag of homemade GF graham crackers for your child’s teacher to keep in the teacher’s lounge freezer, ensures that your child will never miss out on class snacks or treats!)
✤Eating out doesn’t have to be a hassle if you call ahead. For business lunches, try to pick the place or call in advance if you can. A salad is nearly always available, but many restaurants now offer gluten-free menus with far more enticing entrées. Satisfy yourself that the restaurant really understands and can prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen – a task far easier to undertake by phone with the manager before you go than at the table with your waiter and business colleagues.
✤If you can’t choose the restaurant or call ahead, go with the simplest things you can find on the menu: a burger without the bun, grilled fish, salads or a veggie plate. Skip anything from the fryer and be cautious of sauces and dressings. Don’t compromise on your safety just because you’re not with family or close friends who understand. If necessary, excuse yourself and have a conversation with the manager away from the table. Always make sure the waiter and/or the manager know you need a totally gluten-free meal, even if you are already ordering off the gluten-free menu. If you have to use the “A” word (allergy) to get your point across, so be it. These are not times to get picky about disease versus allergy; what’s most important is that they take your needs seriously.
✤Use my free gluten-free restaurant cook cards translated into 5 languages to help get your point across in nearly any type of restaurant, at home or abroad.
✤Catered lunches can pose more of a problem because they are often comprised simply of sandwiches and chips or pasta salad. This is where having a stocked desk drawer or purse comes in handy. If you’ve already eaten, you won’t feel tempted to cheat by picking the lunch meat off the bread, and you won’t feel depressed or left out of the free food feeding frenzy because you won’t be hungry. If your HR department is receptive to it, however, educate them on your needs and on how to include foods safe for your dietary restrictions in their next order.
More brands, products, recipes & ideas below! Please share your favorites in the comments section – we can all stand to learn a new trick from one another (and if you need a good eye-rolling, “been there, done that” laugh about the whole situation, watch this short video)!
LUNA® Bars (note: the entire LUNA line is now entirely gluten-free!)
Go Picnic® Ready-to-Eat Meals (Gluten-Free selections)
Jif® To Go™ Natural Peanut Butter cups (individual servings)
Hope Hummus tubes (individual servings)
*In some cases, manufacturers have provided me with samples of their products to review; in others, I have purchased the products or otherwise sampled them at tradeshows. I have not been compensated for my reviews or recommendations. My opinions are my own.