“Eating out is always risky,” this is one of the first mottoes any newly diagnosed celiac or gluten intolerant individual is taught and it is one of the most important motto to remember even on your wedding day. After reading a post on gluten-free the other day, I thought I would set a few things straight for those brides who want to accommodate for gluten-free guests or plan gluten-free weddings. First off, gluten-free is NOT the same as wheat-free. Gluten-free, depending on the country you are located in means that is free of wheat, rye, barley, and oats (if you live in Canada, however the majority of oats in the U.S. are contaminated with wheat so it is best to avoid these as well for catered events). I could go into a much longer scientific explanation of this, but it would probably bore you. It is a medically based diet, and while there are some individuals who choose to “go gluten-free” for the majority of us, it was forced to prevent dire medical consequences and should not be taken lightly by brides, caterers, or wedding planners attempting to accommodate for guests.
Because of this, I have decided to give a few suggestions for both gluten-free brides and brides planning for gluten-free guests on how not to end up violently ill at a wedding due to my experiences over the years as a gluten-free bride and working within the food industry. Today I am only going to dive into ways to serve safe gluten-free food today, based off of my personal experiences however I hope that there will be posts in the future on creative ways to serve gluten-free food (because there are lots of them I promise).
- Just because a caterer tells you they can accommodate for gluten-free, does not mean it is true. When I was planning my wedding it was quite an eye opening experience finding a location that would safely accommodate gluten-free. One of the common trends I noticed was that everyone could “accommodate” for gluten-free, however when you began to ask questions like, “Do you check your ingredients to see if they are gluten-free? Do you have a separate room for your bakery in your facility than where you prepare the food? How would you prevent cross contamination,” etc… often times their knowledge would be terrifyingly lacking. In my experience with chefs and caterers who are not familiar with gluten-free for medical needs, they might think that if you cannot see them preparing or how they prepare the food, it will do no harm. If you are attempting to accommodate for a gluten-free guest, or hosting a gluten-free wedding these are questions that you should ask, failure to do so could end in agony or even a hospital trip for your guests. One idea that has been recently suggested to me for brides looking for kitchens that are ready to accommodate for gluten-free is to look for kitchens that will accommodate for kosher and ask them to full cleaning and scrubbing down of the kitchen before preparing gluten-free items to help reduce the amount of flour and crumbs within the kitchen that could make a gluten-free patron ill. Also make your caterer double check ALL of their ingredients (especially the sauces and starches) to ensure they are gluten-free. Gluten can hide in many forms and ways, thus it is extremely important that your ingredients are checked to see if they are safe to serve.
- Buffet style meals are agents of destruction and doom for gluten-free guests (unless the entire buffet is gluten-free but we will discuss this in a minute). Buffets are extremely easy to make your guests ill, even if you let them through the line first. Personally I have seen instances where workers have accidentally contaminated food by switching out spoons without the manager realizing, adding incorrect toppings that would normally go on a dish, or place “gluten-free” signs in front of the inaccurate dish. Just to be safe, if you are having select gluten-free items on a buffet, have a manager pull from the uncontaminated batches in the back to create gluten-free plates for your guests. This is a much safer option.
- Have everything be gluten-free. This seems like a simple answer to me for those who will have quite a few gluten-free guests (or are gluten-free yourselves). Do not let people guilt you into thinking a completely gluten-free wedding is the most horrible thing in the world, because this is a load of bunk. What we did for our wedding was designed our menu away from bread, offering lettuce wrapped burgers, steaks, fresh salad, roasted potatoes, fresh fruit, and bacon wrapped cheese filled dates as options. I had to hold my ground with our caterer that guests would not “miss” gluten filled options, even up until the day of the wedding. I do not think they expected me to go into “business” mode when I saw them bring out gluten-filled bread, but I can guarantee it disappeared within 5 minutes after an intense chat with the manager. Even with the bread “speed bump,” our meal plan was extremely successful and a year after our wedding people still talk about how fabulous the food was.
- Find a wedding planner who is extremely familiar with gluten-free diets. Hosting a gluten-free wedding or know that you will have quite a few gluten-free guests? Finding a wedding planner who has had successful experience with managing caterers will take away a lot of the stress. I personally did not do this, however I have been called in as an independent consultant for several wedding planners I know who have planned gluten-free weddings. Your planner will be the one barking at chefs and double-checking all of the ingredients to help ensure a safe and happy meal for your guests, thus you will not be living in fear of a hospital trip throughout your reception.
- Utensils, utensils, utensils! Separate utensils for gluten-free menu items and cakes are imperative! One stray knife cutting into your gluten-free cake will ruin it for the rest of your gluten-free guests. I have stood “guard” at several weddings to prevent workers from contaminating the gluten-free cakes with knives that had cut gluten filled cakes, this is a great idea if you are having multiple gluten-free guests or have the gluten-free cake located covered somewhere in the back of the house where an employee can bring it out and serve to gluten-free guests.
- Prepackaged foods are your friend. Prepackaged gluten-free items, or meals prepared at gluten-free restaurants or dedicated gluten-free bakeries are excellent options for your gluten-free guests. One of the most wonderful wedding experiences I have had was when a dear friend had prepackaged gluten-free goodies delivered to our hotel room as a “welcome gift.” The bride and groom also respected our wishes and encouraged us to bring in our “to go” from a local gluten-free restaurant which we then placed on the caterers plates and ate our meals like traditional guests. This leads me into discussing my worst experience in nine years living gluten-free….
- Always ask your guests their preference on how to handle gluten-free. If you are a bride and you know that you have friends who are gluten-free, but they have not asked for accommodation or asked you to not accommodate, PLEASE respect their request and warn your caterer that there may be guests declining meal options. As a guest with a violent and extremely sensitive reaction to gluten, eating out anywhere much less a wedding can be a terrifying and life threatening event. Often times I decline meals at weddings because I have not discussed personally with the caterer my meal option, thus I have no idea if they understand sourcing gluten-free ingredients much less prevent cross contamination. I know that some brides have the best intentions, but there is nothing more horrifying and tear inducing to a guest than being screamed at and insulted by the maitre d’ at a black tie wedding held at the fanciest country club in a major city when you attempt to politely decline a meal. Yes, this really did happen to me recently, and I had to go to a LOT of therapy afterwards to be able to move on from this experience. To this day, I still have not told the bride what happened, as I did not want it to be a lasting memory that would ruin her wedding day.
- Just because you make it at your gluten-filled home does not mean it is safe. I get this one a lot from brides, “Oh well I’ll just make something gluten-free for them.” This can easily end in disaster. Baking pans, wooden spoons, basic ingredients you use on a regular basis like sugar, butter, spices etc… can serve as easy sources of cross contamination. Always double-check with your guest what they feel most comfortable with. A great idea is to call a local (or national) gluten-free bakery and have them ship gluten-free cupcakes and other desserts to your hotel or venue and have them held in the back or on a separate table from the gluten containing items for your gluten-free guests. This will help prevent cross contamination and promote a peace of mind with your guests.
- Whatever you do – do NOT send gluten-free baked goods to a traditional wheat bakery to be decorated or have gluten-free items baked in a wheat bakery if you have a medical need for gluten-free. As someone with experience in the food industry and had friends who have learned their lesson the hard way, please do not do this. Bakeries may claim to have the ability to create items that are gluten-free, however often times they just create items that do not have gluten-containing ingredients. On average it can take up to several days (depending on air filtering systems) in combination of a thorough wet cleaning for the flour within the air of a bakery to be filtered out enough to produce safe gluten-free items for individuals with medical needs – I have interacted with many bakers who have the best of intentions but do not realize this and will try and convince you that producing items in their bakery is safe.
These suggestions are just the start of coming up with ideas on how to serve gluten-free guests and are based off of my personal experiences. I probably forgot half a dozen items as well (feel free to add on in the comments). I think the one take home message that brides and families should remember is to respect your guest’s wishes on how to handle gluten-free. I take a rather vigilant stance when planning for gluten-free due to my increased sensitivity to it, however not everyone takes this stance. Not everyone has the same level of sensitivity of gluten, but you should do your best to provide safe and happy experience for your guests. Have any other suggestions? Or ideas for easy to make gluten-free options? Feel free to share! You could write a book on ways to accommodate for allergies and food sensitivities at weddings, thus all suggestions are welcome!