How to Throw a Gluten-free Dinner Party

For people who have celiac disease, breads, rolls and other products containing wheat, rye or barley are actually health hazards.
For people who have celiac disease, breads, rolls and other products containing wheat, rye or barley are actually health hazards.
Jan Tyler/Photodisc/Getty Images

Could you give up pasta, pizza and cookies? For most of us, that'd be tough. But what if they made you sick? For an estimated 2 million Americans with celiac disease -- that's about one out of 133 people -- foods that contain gluten, a protein that is naturally found in wheat, rye and barley, are off the table. [source: National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)] Literally.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune digestive disorder that causes inflammation throughout the body but specifically damages the small intestine when a person eats foods that contain gluten. Nutrients then can't be absorbed through the intestine into the bloodstream.

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For most people, eating gluten is no big deal. In fact, without it in our diet we might find ourselves tired, have headaches, gain weight, and experience vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. But for people with gluten sensitivity, even the smallest bite of a slice of wheat bread could cause chronic diarrhea and abdominal bloating, iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, depression, mouth sores, rashes and even seizures [source: NDDIC].

Celiac disease isn't the only reason someone may need to avoid gluten. Some people are sensitive to gluten without having the full-blown condition. In addition to the 1 percent of Americans with celiac disease, an estimated 15 percent of Americans may have an undiagnosed sensitivity to gluten [source: Voiland]. This population has high levels of gluten antibodies in their system, just like people with celiac disease, but unlike those with the disease, their level of gluten sensitivity has not yet caused intestinal inflammation.

There is no cure for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. The only treatment is to eliminate gluten from the diet. Whether it's a friend or family member with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity -- or a friend who has decided to join Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebs and follow today's gluten-free diet trend -- chances are increasing that you know someone who is living gluten free, or "GF."

You can easily accommodate a GF diet as long as you plan ahead, preparing pasta, pizza and desserts that include cookies in modified forms. In fact, it's easy to serve elegant, tasty foods to your friends and family. You may already be adjusting your menus for those who have lactose intolerance or food allergies or who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Uncomplicated substitutions, avoiding certain ingredients and careful label reading will help you put together a menu that will wow everyone, whether or not they avoid gluten. Let's start with ideas on how to put together a GF-friendly menu for your next dinner party.

Gluten-free Menu Ideas

Try risotto with vegetables as a substitute for pasta.
Try risotto with vegetables as a substitute for pasta.
Keri Pinzon/The Image Bank/Getty Images

When putting together a dinner party menu that accommodates a gluten-free diet, the most important thing to remember is to avoid all food that contains wheat:

  • Wheat bran
  • Wheat germ
  • Wheat starch
  • Cracked wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley, including malt
  • Triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid)

All other foods are fair game.

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Gluten can be a tricky ingredient to eliminate. Avoid all foods that contain all-purpose flour, enriched flour, bromated flour, durum flour (semolina), graham flour, phosphated flour, self-rising flour and white flour. It's important to understand that wheat-free foods aren't the same as gluten-free foods. Wheat-free foods may still contain gluten proteins. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, for example, is a flavor enhancer that is often derived from wheat.

Many processed foods are not gluten-free foods. For example, while rice is a gluten-free food, many prepared rice mixes are not. Ingredients that are used as binders, fillers and extenders such as in prepared sauces, seasonings, cold cuts and baked goods are often gluten-derived, or aren't from easily identifiable sources on the nutritional label. If you can't be sure the food you're considering for your menu is gluten-free, err on the side of caution and avoid it. Drop processed foods from your dinner menu, and you'll be off to a good start.

Now that you know what to avoid, what should you serve?

Fresh meats (beef, pork and poultry), fish and shellfish, fruits, vegetables, rice, corn and potatoes are all part of a healthy diet, including a healthy and naturally gluten-free diet. Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, sour cream and cheese are also gluten-free (although double-check labels to be 100 percent certain a gluten additive hasn't found its way in).

If you want to include grain-based foods such as breads and pastas, look for products with nutritious nonglutenous grains such as buckwheat, flax, millet, quinoa and teff. If your menu leans Italian, replace wheat-based pastas with those made with corn or rice flour, or consider a flavorful risotto rich with mushrooms or vegetables, or a hearty polenta. Thinking Mexican? Substitute corn tortillas for flour tortillas. As long as you avoid the three big culprits -- wheat, rye and barley -- your menu options are boundless.

Gluten-free Alcohol

Will your dinner party start off with drinks, finger foods and mingling? Are you wondering what to serve with dinner aside from water? The same rule applies for beverages as it does for foods: Avoid wheat, rye and barley. Your bar is likely to be already stocked with spirits that can be part of a gluten-free diet.

Distilled alcoholic beverages are gluten-free. That includes brandy, bourbon, cognac, gin, Scotch whisky, vermouth and vodka. During the distillation process, the protein that's problematic for those sensitive to gluten is removed. The theory is that when grain is distilled, the gluten peptides are too large to make it into the liquid that is the result of the separation process. The resulting alcohol is GF-friendly, which means cocktails are safe to serve. If you're throwing a Mexican feast, for example, make mojitos or margaritas without worry. Both rum and tequila are naturally gluten-free.

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Wines, including sake, port and sherry, are also gluten-free. Celebrating? Break out the champagne -- it, too, is gluten-free. Hard ciders made from apples or pears also do not contain gluten protein, but beers, ales and lagers do. Beers are brewed from grains such as malted barley grain. If you'd like to include beer on your menu, look for special gluten-free varieties such as those made with sorghum, rice, millet or buckwheat. Once brewed by small, specialty brewers only, gluten-free beer is proliferating. Even Anheuser-Busch makes a gluten-free beer these days.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Anheuser-Busch. "Redbridge beer." (July 8, 2011) http://www.redbridgebeer.com/
  • Bard's Beer. (July 8, 2011) http://www.bardsbeer.com/
  • Bee, Peta. "Giving up bread can make you fat: Gluten IS good for you." Mail Online. 2010. (July 8, 2011) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1279267/Giving-bread-make-FAT-Why-gluten-good-you.html
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  • Celiac.com (July 8, 2011) http://www.celiac.com/
  • Coeliac UK. 2011. (July 8, 2011) http://www.coeliac.org.uk/
  • Kirkpatrick, Noel. "Gluten-free beer." Mother Nature Network. 2010. (July 8, 2011) http://www.mnn.com/food/beverages/stories/gluten-free-beer
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  • North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. "Gluten-Free Diet Guide for Families." (July 8, 2011) http://www.naspghan.org/user-assets/Documents/pdf/diseaseInfo/GlutenFreeDietGuide-E.pdf
  • Springen, Karen. "A New Diet Villain." Newsweek. 2008. (July 8, 2011) http://www.newsweek.com/2008/12/02/a-new-diet-villain.html
  • Voiland, Adam. "Gluten-Free Diet: a Cure for Some, a Fad for Most." 2008. (July 8, 2011) http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/digestive-disorders/articles/2008/10/31/gluten-free-diet-a-cure-for-some-a-fad-for-most
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