Going 100% Gluten-Free

Mama at The Liberated Kitchen

Mama with some home-canned goodness

Going gluten-free is harder than it looks. The pesky stuff is everywhere! Many people who are intolerant or have a wheat allergy can get away with not really worrying about trace amounts of contamination. But if you are going gluten-free because of an autoimmune problem like celiac disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, it’s imperative that you get away from even the slightest cross-contamination. Some households do have mixed kitchens, but they maintain strict protocols to keep gluten-free space safe. This post is about how to have a totally gluten-free household.

This is a step-by-step guide for doing it yourself. It can be an overwhelming process, so give yourself a few days, make sure you have safe snacks on hand before you start, and get a friend or two to help. If you’re in the Portland, Oregon, area and need some help or take care of the whole process for you, we’d love to liberate your kitchen. If you want help by phone or skype, I also offer coaching services!

Identifying Gluten

The first step in eliminating gluten is knowing how to spot it.

Gluten is a catch-all term for the protein in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and kamut. Oats also have a very similar protein, which some people react to in the same way. In addition, most oats are cross-contaminated because they are grown in fields that have grown glutenous grains and are processed on equipment shared with glutenous grains. Thus, any product that has wheat, rye, barley, or oats in it is NOT safe!

It’s not as simple as that, though… because these grains can be processed into other products that end up in the products you might want to eat. Sound convoluted? It is! A good rule of thumb is to avoid any ingredient that you don’t know the exact source of.

In the USA, labeling laws require companies to disclose whether products are processed with the top 8 allergens – wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish & shellfish. So if your product was processed in a factory with wheat, you can know it’s not safe! Unfortunately a product with no warning isn’t necessarily safe. It could have been processed with rye, barley, or oats, or could have been cross-contaminated during manufacturing or shipping! I’ve seen products that are labeled “naturally gluten-free” but which also disclose they have been processed in a factory with wheat. These products are not safe!

Even products that are certified gluten-free are not necessarily safe enough for people with autoimmune reactions to gluten. The reason is that these products can contain up to 20 parts per million of gluten. While some super-sensitive people do feel the difference when they get glutened from these products, most people do not react outwardly to this level of contamination. Unfortunately, the damage is still being done internally!

Correction: The 20 ppm designation is an FDA Proposed Rule. While some manufacturers have voluntarily used this guideline, others do not. This rule was supposed to have been made law by now, but that has not happened. Gluten Free Watchdog is a company that tests products that are certified gluten-free and gives the results to subscribers. They also post public service anouncements about products that exceed 20 ppm. There are at least 4 certification organizations in the USA alone. I’ve written about what their certifications guarantee, each is a bit different.

Always read the labels on the products you decide to try, and if you have any question whatsoever about how it was processed, call the manufacturer and ask. Don’t just ask “is this gluten-free?” Ask about whether wheat, barley, rye, or oats are processed or packaged in the same building, and ask about their policies to ensure no cross-contamination.

Gluten isn’t just in food. It’s also in playdough, some art supplies, some glues, the powder dusted on latex gloves, make-up, lotions, shampoos, and medicine… if you are truly eliminating gluten from your life, you need to watch out for these unexpected sources of contamination as well.

Honestly, there is no way to completely avoid gluten these days. You can, however, eliminate 99.9% of it from your life. The first place to start is your kitchen.

A Fresh Start For Your Home

You can imagine that if even 20 parts per million is enough to cause a problem, that cross-contamination is a real problem in a kitchen that hasn’t always been gluten-free. If you plan to go gluten-free, you’ll need a fresh start!

Remove All Products Containing or Contaminated With Gluten
The first step is to remove everything that contains gluten or might have come into contact with it. The rule of thumb is “when in doubt, throw it out… or donate it.”

It can be really hard to do this. Most of us have issues around wasting food, and most of us have attachments to foods that we like or have cultural attachments to. It’s likely you’ll run across a few things you just don’t want to give up. If that happens, put the item in the correct box and make a note of what the item is on your clipboard paper. You can revisit that later. For now, you are just sorting, and that needs to be the focus of the process. You are not getting rid of anything yet.

You will need four decent sized boxes (document boxes work well), a clipboard with a blank piece of paper, a permanent marker, and a pen/pencil.

  1. Label the four boxes:
    • Dry goods – unopened
    • Perishable – unopened
    • Food – opened
    • Household Items
  2. Start at one end of the kitchen and systematically go through each cupboard and drawer that contains food. Read every label carefully, even if you are sure there is no gluten in there! Here are examples of the things you’ll put in each box:

    Dry goods – unopened
    Put everything that has gluten in it and won’t go bad unrefrigerated in this box. You can tell by reading the labels. If they have ingredients you do not know the origins of, google them to find out what they are and whether they could contain gluten. Some examples are packages of flour, packages of cereal, packaged snacks, and canned soups.

    Perishable – unopened
    Everything that has gluten but will go bad if unrefrigerated goes in this box. Some might surprise you – gluten can be added to things as innocent as cottage cheese! Again, read all the labels and call the manufacturer if necessary.

    Food – opened – Anything that either contains gluten, or might have been dipped into with something that contained gluten is fair game. Even items that would otherwise be gluten-free may have been contaminated. Spices are usually gluten-free since they have one single ingredient. However, if they have been open when you are baking, they could have been dusted with flour.

    You may have alternative flours or bulk goods, but if you shared a scoop with flour, they could be contaminated. If you have open jam, butter, dips, spreads, they could have been contaminated by dipping the knife back in after spreading on toast or by a chip. If you aren’t 100% sure it’s never come into contact with gluten, it’s got to go.

  3. Take your list of foods you don’t want to get rid of off the boxes and look at it again. If any of these items are things you just can not let go of right now, put a big red “G” on them in permanent make then go ahead and put them in a keep-for-now box (or in the fridge if necessary). Keep your list to look at later.

    All the unopened food can be donated to your local food bank or similar charity. You may find that you need to throw out the opened items. It is a small price to pay for your and/or your child’s health!

  4. Now it’s time for the nonfood items. Go through the kitchen systematically, putting everything that is contaminated with gluten into the Household Items box.

    Here are some things to look out for:

    • Old potholders and used sponges (It’s ok to hold onto dishtowels for now unless they’ve been used to wipe up flour. Just throw them all in the wash. You can use them for the first pass cleaning you’ll do later.)
    • Scratched plastic containers
    • Teflon items, especially if they are at all scratched
    • Wood, plastic, or silicone utensils and cutting boards
    • Containers or measuring cups that have been regularly used with gluten-containing items
    • Items with tiny crevices or lots of holes, like wire mesh screens and colanders
    • Serrated knives
    • Kitchen appliances that have scratches in the parts that contact food, which have vents, or which have been used frequently with gluten-containing items (think mixers, breadmakers, toaster ovens, toasters)
    • Baking sheets
    • Stoneware
    • Drawer organizers if they have crevices or are made of something porous (we’re still sad about our bamboo silverware sorter, but it had to go!)

    The good news is, you get to keep your stainless steel, cast iron, and glass. We’ll get to cleaning those in a minute.

    If you find that you just can’t give up some of these items yet, put them in a second box, labeled “Household Items – GLUTEN” and store them out of sight. The rest can be donated to your local charity or sold.

Cleaning The Kitchen

Now it’s time to clean! Everything in your kitchen is going to get a thorough scrubbing… and more than once! The important thing to remember is that once a sponge has touched gluten, it now has gluten on it, which it can spread around. You will go through a lot of sponges and rags – throw them out or donate them to someone who is not gluten-free once they’re dirty and get a new one. I don’t usually advocate waste, but you don’t want to take chances with your health. You are going to take two thorough passes through your entire kitchen, starting at the top, and working your way to the bottom.

  1. Clean your sink, handles, and fixtures thoroughly.
  2. If your cabinets do not reach the ceiling, take everything off the top of them and put in the dishwasher or stack up somewhere out of the way for washing later.
  3. Wipe down the tops of the cabinets with soap and water, so that they look clean.
  4. Throw out the sponge(s) you used for that, and repeat, with a fresh sponge and soap and water.
  5. Wash everything that had been on top of the cabinets, then put it back away.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 for each of your upper cabinets.
  7. Repeat steps 2-5 for your counters.
  8. Repeat steps 2-5 for your lower cabinets.
  9. Repeat steps 2-5 for your refrigerator – don’t forget to clean each rack!
  10. Clean your oven and stove thoroughly.
  11. Repeat steps 2-5 for the cabinet, refrigerator, dishwasher, and oven doors, handles, and faces, and the sink.
  12. Scrub down your table, chairs, doors, and anything else in the kitchen that I haven’t mentioned – always switching out sponges and taking a thorough second pass.
  13. Sweep & mop the floor.
  14. Reseason your cast iron using the self-clean cycle on your oven (we had to use my mom’s oven) and wash the pans you are keeping.

The Rest of the House

Unfortunately, the kitchen isn’t the only place gluten lurks. Especially if you have kids or allow eating in other rooms of the house. In each room of the house, use the same cleaning techniques to spot gluten and clean it up. Each house is different, but here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Carpets and upholstered furniture need to be vacuumed and wiped down. (Dry cleaning does not remove gluten.)
  • Doors and handles need to be cleaned with two passes, like in the kitchen.
  • Read the labels on all personal care products, and get rid of anything that contains gluten. Call the manufacturers if necessary.
  • Toys that have been played with by children after they ate or handled gluten need to be washed. LEGOs can go through the dishwasher in mesh bags.

Supplements and Medications

Supplements and medications are not regulated in the same way as foods. In order to find out what the fillers in your supplements and medications are, you must call the manufacturer or ask your pharmacist. There is also a site that lists medications which are believed to be gluten-free. If you find that you are on a medication which contains gluten, do not throw it out or discontinue its use without the approval of your physician. It is very dangerous to abruptly stop some medications.

Don’t let anyone tell you that since it’s “just a little bit”, it doesn’t matter. Even small quantities of gluten over long periods of time can trigger autoimmune problems and prevent recovery. Talk to a compounding pharmacist to see if the medication can be made without gluten or your allergen. You may even find that some of your prescriptions will no longer be necessary once you are gluten-free.

The FDA is currently looking into regulating gluten in medications. Take the survey!

Keep it Safe!

Now that you have a gluten-free kitchen, keep it that way! Don’t bring gluten into your house. If someone does bring gluten to your house, have them use a paper towel under it, then fold it up carefully and throw it away after eating. They should also thoroughly wash their hands and the area they ate in afterwards with soap and water. Hand sanitizer does not clean up gluten!

Do the Emotional Work

It’s normal to grieve when you are making any kind of a change. Adjusting to a new diet is especially difficult, because we are so connected to our food. If you found that feelings came up or there were foods or kitchen items you really didn’t want to give up, dealing with those feelings is going to be an important part of making your new diet sustainable. We’ll have a post about that soon.

This post is part of Real Food Whole Health’s Fresh Bites Friday, Gluten Free Wednesdays on the Gluten Free Homemaker, and Simple Lives Thursday on GNOWFGLINS.

This post is featured on Health & Wellness Friday on The Coconut Mama.

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17 comments to Going 100% Gluten-Free

  • Mama, this is a very informative post and great for newbies!

  • Alissa

    Hi Mama,
    I posted this question on celiac.com, but thought you might have some input as well… since we go to such great lengths to de-contaminate our homes, should we be asking people to wash their hands as they enter our home? I would think that anyone coming in who has been eating gluten could possibly re-contaminate things. I even make sure I wash my hands if I’ve been out somewhere, in case I have touched something gluteny (and get my kids to do the same). So it seems reasonable to ask others to do so as well, but I don’t want to come across as some crazy germophobe. What are your thoughts?

    • Mama

      That’s an excellent question. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask people to wash their hands when they come over, especially if you are clear and neutral about the fact that you are striving to keep your home 100% gluten-free. Personally, I don’t always ask people to wash their hands when they come over, but I *do* always ask kids who come over to wash their hands. They tend to have been messier with their food in the first place, then they go and play with my kids’ things, touch every surface in a 10 foot radius, and often grab at snacks that are put out for everyone. (No, I’m not talking about toddlers here, lol.)

      Remembering to wash your own hands frequently can go a long way to keeping you safe. You can also wipe down doorknobs and the like after your guests leave.

  • Excellent post! A great resource – I am sure I’ll be passing this along!

  • Hannah

    Awesome post! I’ve been “gluten-free” (or so I thought!) since January 1 of this year, but still feeling rotten. I live in a household with others who eat gluten, and I now realize SO MANY ways I may be exposing myself to gluten contamination.
    My question is, could I be exposing myself to gluten by washing dishes of the rest of my family after they eat gluten containing foods? I often have dry hands or cracked hands…was wondering if a microscopic amount of gluten could enter my system that way.

    • Hi Hannah,
      I’m glad you got something out of this post. Mixed households are very difficult to safely maintain, so I’m glad you are going to look into that now.

      Your question is a great one. Most people will not get sick from simply touching gluten while washing dishes, but I wouldn’t want to risk it. Any time you come into contact with gluten, you risk accidentally ingesting it. Some people’s skin reacts to gluten – TinyHands’s eczema is worse when her hands come into contact with our rabbit feed, for instance. You may find that if you don’t touch it any more your dry cracked hands may improve. Gluten itself doesn’t absorb through skin, to my knowledge, however you should avoid using it in personal care products because it will be on your hands, on your face, in your hair, etc, and tiny amounts may accidentally be ingested. I don’t know how the body reacts to gluten contact through open wounds, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.

      The biggest issue I think you would probably have from washing the dishes is that the sponge you use on the gluten dishes could end up getting used for your gluten-free dishes! You need to have a separate, different colored sponge and a clean sink when washing gluten-free cookware! You can get shared glass and stainless steel clean, but not if you are using contaminated sponges or dishrags. It’s best if your family can pre-wash the gluten stuff, then it can go into a dishwasher.

  • JJ

    Hi…thank you for all your great information!! I am a chef and therefore have extensive cook/bakeware issues. The thought of trying to clean out my home kitchen gives me nightmares!!! I was wondering about things like food processors with (hard plastic?) bowls…glass blenders with plastic bases…crock pot made of ceramic…I have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of items that I have collected over many years. I was just recently diagnosed, (but have been sick 24+ years) trying to figure out how to proceed cooking in my home for myself, but without all the equipment (if it really needs to be tossed) will be more than difficult, since I have very limited income now because I have been so sick. Isn’t there anyway to ” sterilize” things we have already? Do you say throw away all dish towels and wash rags, (sponges I understand) but towels can be laundered, bleached or other cleaners used, no?
    Was told by my gastro to go see a dietician ASAP, but found out today that my very expensive health ins policy won’t pay for that either ($165 first hour/$75 each additional hour) I am really at my end with these expenses. Do people get any assistance from anywhere, disability, anything???
    Thank you for your help!!

    • Hi JJ,
      First off, congratulations on your diagnosis. It may not seem like it at first, but this will be a huge blessing! Once you get used to gluten-free life you will feel so much better

      Sterilizing old kitchen stuff won’t “kill” the gluten – it’s a protein, and even after going through sterilizing processes it’s still there. So you need to wash it off. But of course, that’s tricky if an item is porous, has lots of crevices, or is scratched up.

      That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get some of your old stuff clean and safe to use.

      As for your cooking supplies – ceramic is fine. What you want to avoid continuing to use is stoneware since it is porous rather than glazed. For cast iron pans, you can run them through a self clean oven cycle and reseason them. Stainless steel and glass are fine, too – just scrub them thoroughly and run them through the dishwasher.

      Anything with little crevices, holes, or groves has got to go. Wood is porous and has got to go. Kitchen towels may be ok if you launder them a few times, but keeping older potholders or dishtowels used with a rolling pin or to clean up gluteny messes is a bad idea. Hard plastic that’s in good condition is probably ok, but if you’ve used it with flour a whole lot and/or it is at all scratched it probably needs to be replaced.

      Old baking sheets and pans can be used if you line them with parchment or foil each time.

      We didn’t replace everything we got rid of at first… in fact, we’re still working without some things we got rid of. As for the cost of a dietitian, some insurances do cover it. Where you are can make a big difference in what is available to you as far as financial assistance goes. It might be worth asking your local department of human services.

      Good luck to you!

  • JJ

    Thanks for your quick response to my questions!! Every time I start to think of the amount of equipment I have to get rid of, I get overwhelmed!!! I’ m wondering if the companies that make the equipment would be willing to sell me new bowls for my food processor and blender, instead of having to buy everything brand new. My food processor alone cost $350+ , and I just bought it about a year ago. I feel like my whole house is “contaminated” with gluten, as I was an avid baker (was preparing recipes to start a bakery with my sister) and feel like I might never get it truly gluten free!! I can’t throw out everything 🙁 and besides that, I have been feeling so sick for so long (even though I’ve had every test under the sun!) I’m not even very hopeful going gluten free will make me feel better now. As you can see, I ‘m depressed about this whole situation….not to mention…how do I continue being a chef…I am not at liberty to cook gluten free at work, so aren’t I just going to contaminate myself there anyway?? Uuugghhh!!!!! Sorry for the venting…I hope you will be understanding as I grieve the loss of my whole life 🙁 I will lose my healthcare if I lose/quit my job, too……OVERWHELMED!!!

    • Hi JJ,
      First off, you are not alone. It is 100% normal to go through the grieving process when you get a diagnosis, and start to realize all the ways your life needs to change. There is also a really big learning curve. No one gets their house and life perfectly gluten-free right away. Forgive yourself for taking some time and feeling bad. It’s OK to be down about having to adjust to a new diet, especially when cooking has been such a big part of your life.

      As for the equipment, you can get replacement pieces for parts of your food processor from most companies, which is cheaper than buying new. Or maybe you can sell your old food processor and other nice equipment and then buy new for the essentials.

      I know that it may seem that being gluten free is just another thing that won’t really work… but if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac it is *very* likely that this is the root cause of the problems you have been experiencing for decades. It can seem so crazy that something so simple can make a big difference, but for so many people, it truly does!

      As a chef, you actually have an advantage with all this gluten-free stuff. You know how to cook real food, which will make it a lot easier to stick to healing foods at home and keep you safer from cross-contamination. You may even be able to turn your chef background into a new niche. In my area there are dedicated gluten-free bakeries (one of them even one Cupcake Wars!), gluten-free restaurants, and gluten-free personal chefs! With so many people finding out they have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you may be able to carve out a great business helping others eat safely once you get the hang of it yourself.

      I know money is tight, but I also wanted to mention that I do offer coaching via Skype, phone, or in person (in the Portland, OR area) for $50/hour. If you want someone to talk to about the emotional aspects, or want help with your specific issues with getting gluten free I can help!

  • JJ

    Again, thank you for your quick response! I am trying to do as much research as I can online, so I can get approval from the dr. Not to actually go to the dietician he suggested (just don’t have the money right now) I know I would benefit, but if it comes down to it, it’s either her or my house payment, I need to keep up on house payment. Will try to save here and there from other parts of budget, but it may take a while. I will keep your suggestions in mind!!

    • I know the feeling! Keeping that roof over your head is definitely a priority 🙂 There is a wealth of information on-line, and you may be able to find local support as well. Have you looked into GIG? (Gluten Intolerance Group)? http://www.gluten.net/local-branches.aspx If there isn’t a local chapter, it might even be worth starting one! Our group has monthly meetings that meet at a hospital conference room. Guest speakers come talk on a variety of topics, gluten-free vendors bring samples, and people find mentorship and support. It’s really a great thing!

  • Gianna


    I was recently diagnosed and not at all worried because I’ve watched my mom deal with this for years. However, a lot of things are coming up that I wasn’t ready for. I have a small apartment with a small kitchen, no dishwasher, and a bread loving boyfriend. I was prepared to get different pots and pans but are plates and glasses also necessary? I also do not get any severe reactions to being exposed so I am going to have a really hard time knowing if I am or not.

    Am I at risk if I put something in the oven on foil or in a pan when gluten has been cooked in there prior to this?

    Thank you! =)

    • Hi Gianna,
      You can make this work, but it’s going to be important to be vigilant about cross contamination. You can share plates and glasses, but make sure to wash your dishes carefully. If it were me, I’d simply re-wash my glass plates and glasses with a gluten-free sponge just before eating. (Have color coded sponges and separate places to keep them so that you never mix them up).

      The oven will be fine. Line your shared pans with foil or parchment to be safe. The main concern I’d have is when your boyfriend is baking. Loose flour gets absolutely everywhere. I’m available for coaching if you and your boyfriend need a little extra support to make this work.

  • […] still 100% gluten-free, though Kid1 and TinyHands occasionally cheat or fail to worry about cross-contamination when they […]

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