A surprise phone-call in August 2021 is how we discovered that my then thirteen-year-old daughter had Coeliac disease. We’d gone to her GP a few months earlier with some minor concerns – nothing big, just generally feeling unwell. The GP did a blood test, and we mostly forgot about it. Until that day in August, when the GP called and said, ‘You won’t believe this but she has Coeliac disease’.
Coeliac disease hadn’t been on our radar at all, and I knew almost nothing about it. My first worry was how to tell my daughter. My next worry was that we were travelling to Italy two days later – home of pasta and pizza. I didn’t know much about gluten, but I was fairly sure it was present in pasta and pizza. ‘Could she eat it for just the next two weeks?’ I asked the doctor. ‘I could tell her when we get home?’
But no. Gluten was damaging her intestine, the doctor explained, and she could never eat it again.
My daughter took it better than I expected, though looking back, I think the full impact of the lifestyle change ahead wasn’t clear. It hit with a sledgehammer two days later when we arrived on our campsite in Italy and I asked in the site restaurant what gluten free options they had. ‘None,’ was the reply. I still remember the feeling of panic. What had I done, bringing my daughter away, with no idea whether or not she could get food for the next two weeks? Luckily, the next few restaurants we tried were better – most had gluten free pasta, some had gluten free pizza, and some even had (the holy grail) chips cooked in separate fryer.
Eating in the mobile home was a bigger challenge. The campsite supermarket had very few gluten free options and on the first couple of days, my daughter had smoothies for breakfast and crisps for lunch. On the third day, we found GF frozen chips in a nearby Lidl which felt like a huge win at the time, bearing in mind, five days earlier we’d had no idea she had Coeliac disease and knew absolutely nothing about which foods contained gluten.
In the year-and-a-half since then, a gluten free diet has become instinctive. Dinners are easy, much to my early surprise. We make gluten free dinner every day and the whole family eats it without ever thinking about the fact that it’s GF. We quickly discovered that rice is naturally gluten free and that GF pasta tastes the same as normal pasta. Frustratingly, the branded GF pasta available in other supermarkets is eye-wateringly expensive. We buy GF flour and all baking done in the house is gluten free. We rely heavily on baking for treats because to date, GF cake options available to purchase in shops or bakeries haven’t been great. I’d love to be proved wrong!
Breakfast is more of a challenge as my daughter doesn’t love GF cereals and doesn’t eat GF breads or toast at all. I make GF banana bread and she has that with yogurt and fruit. Lunch is the biggest challenge. She’s tried every brand of gluten free bread, bagel and wrap on the market and doesn’t like any of them. Having tried them myself, I can’t argue with her verdict. So lunch tends to be a gluten free flapjack from her school canteen with a couple of rice cakes, and we’re still searching for a solution.
Eating out in Ireland has also been a challenge and we mostly don’t. Last summer, I phoned three restaurants on my husband’s birthday to ask if they could do GF burger and chips. One offered a burger with no bun, one offered a burger in between two pieces of gluten free sliced pan, and one gave a flat ‘no’. Chips were also not an option in any of the places I called as none of them used separate fryers. Our best discovery has been Milanos who do pretty much everything gluten free, Bunsen who do GF burger buns, and Coal, a restaurant near us in Blackrock, who have a fantastic array of GF options. Thai and Indian food is also great.
When she was first diagnosed, lots of people told us there’s a great array of gluten free foods available today, compared to how it was twenty years ago. This is true, and this is of course great. But if you’re a teenager who has just discovered she can never have a donut again, it’s quite the adjustment.
For any families new to Coeliac disease, I’d say home cooking, baking and family meals are easier than expected. You get very used to reading ingredient lists and using the food list? Holidays, travel, and eating out are trickier, but there are great resources online (Facebook groups for information sharing, Trip Advisor for finding ‘gluten free restaurants near me’) and Google is your best friend. The Coeliac Society also have travel cards that are great to give to restaurants abroad? There is still a lack of awareness in the hospitality sector that’s hard to fathom, but we’ll continue asking about the options everywhere we go – and continue saying ‘thanks but no thanks’ to offers of burgers in gluten free sliced pan!