Somehow the time has flown, and Emma, my 16-year-old daughter with celiac disease, is starting to date. My husband and I have the average parental concerns: Who she is going out with? Who is driving? Where she is going? Will there be an adult there?
But as parents of a gluten-free child, we have even more questions: Will our daughter’s date understand her food needs? What if her boyfriend thinks she is high maintenance? Will Emma be embarrassed to tell her date she is gluten free and cheat on her diet? And should we say anything to him?
I can remember my own first dates and puppy love, and I certainly didn’t want my parents nosing in on my relationships. Our children likely feel the same way. Dating is new territory in gluten-free adolescence, and it’s a good idea for both parents and children to be prepared.
First gluten-free dates
Breann Rowand, a 17-year-old from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, says her first date after getting diagnosed with celiac disease ended before it began. A boy asked her to go to a restaurant with him, but she had trouble finding a place where she felt safe eating gluten free. “He got frustrated, said he just couldn’t do it and canceled on me,” Rowand recalls. “I didn’t want to act like a pain in the butt. I just didn’t want to get sick, and he called it off.” She says it “was a heck of an introduction to gluten-free dating” and it gave her a shock.
Sarah Williams was 16 years old when she was diagnosed with celiac disease. Now 18 and a freshman at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, she says gluten-free dating has been a learning experience.
“The time I didn’t tell my date I was gluten free before our first night out, we went to a restaurant that didn’t have the best options for me. I was stuck with something I wasn’t comfortable with because the restaurant couldn’t accommodate [my diet],” Williams says. “He felt bad that he didn’t know about my gluten-free needs until we were at the restaurant.” In the end the relationship didn’t work out.
Despite lots of changes in the dating world, going out to dinner is still a popular choice for all ages. What can a gluten-free teenager do to manage a dinner date and not appear high maintenance, needy or, most feared of all, uncool?
First, a teen should be upfront about gluten-free needs. “It’s good for the date to know things about you,” Rowand says. “I think it would be kind of ‘Whoa!’ if you didn’t tell him.”
Williams honed her dating technique and worked on getting up the nerve to tell her date early on about being gluten free. Now if a guy asks her out, she agrees to the date and says, “By the way, I am gluten free. I have a really good restaurant I would like to try if you don’t mind.”
If her date wants to pick the location, Williams gets the name of the restaurant and calls ahead or finds a menu online to see if her diet needs can be met. Sometimes she arranges the meal with the restaurant staff by phone before the date.
Coffee shops, ice cream parlors or frozen yogurt places are good first date destinations because they don’t involve a full meal, and you can always find something that’s gluten free. Plain coffee and ice cream without gluten-containing add-ins are often gluten free. “Ice cream and ‘fro yo’ are my go-to’s,” Williams says. Rowand says TCBY is a good option.
Going out with a group can be a good idea because all the social interactions can take the focus off of a teenager who has to inquire about gluten-free food. The bright light of attention can get too hot for some teens when it’s just two.
A kiss is just a kiss?
Every parent of a gluten-free child has probably spent at least a moment or two thinking how easy it would be if their teen could find a date who is also gluten free.
That’s just what happened to Rowand. She and Taylor Miller, a gluten-free teen blogger, began dating in April 2013. “I think it is great to be with someone you can relate to. If we get sick, we can relate to each other. We can eat the same things and cook for each other,” Rowand says.
And kissing is not an issue, either.
Kissing is a touchy subject that some parents and teens might worry about, even if secretly. Williams says she’s among those concerned about the possibility that a kiss might carry gluten contamination.
Not surprisingly kissing and gluten cross-contamination has not been studied by medical researchers, and there are no hard facts to report. But celiac disease experts are not overly concerned about any real risk.
Peter Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York says if there is no visible food on the mouth, “the chance of there being any gluten present is infinitesimal.” He believes young people should be more concerned about eating safely and staying on a strict gluten-free diet during social situations.
“When people go to college, one of our studies showed [they] often fall off the gluten-free bandwagon,” Green explains. Kissing is a minor concern compared to drinking regular beer or frequently eating food without checking to be sure it is gluten free.
Stefano Guandalini, M.D., founder and medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, notes the lack of research on the subject and advises the use of common sense. He says, “It is conceivable that deep-kissing someone after he or she has eaten gluten is likely to provide contamination with minute particles of gluten that may then be ingested.” He recommends a polite rinsing of the mouth before this kind of kissing to avoid the slight potential for cross-contamination. Good manners and hygiene might dictate this move regardless of the gluten-free diet.
What about kissing and gluten in lipstick, lip balm and lip gloss? These products can contain trace amounts of gluten, though the exact amount has never really been studied. It’s unlikely there is enough gluten in a date’s lipstick to cause real problems, especially given the amount you’d have to share and swallow. Worried parents might point to stories about allergic teens who have had reactions when kissing, but allergies work much differently than celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and the risks of a harmful reaction would seem to be much lower.
Sometimes no matter how seriously your child takes the need for the gluten-free diet, young love can scramble a teenager’s brain.
If you notice your child’s dating life coincides with out-of-character frustration or symptoms related to gluten exposure emerge, it’s time to talk about the subject.
He or she might be having trouble getting a boyfriend or girlfriend to understand the diet. Your child could be taking gluten-free risks to avoid seeming different. Or he or she could be ingesting gluten accidentally by not seeking answers about cross-contamination in restaurants. For some children it’s one thing to ask in front of family and another to ask in front of a boy or girl you want to impress.
Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, Ph.D., is a family and child therapist in Santa Clara, California, and author of The Skill-ionaire in Every Child. Beaudoin, her 14-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter have celiac disease. She says assertive children should do better in this situation because they are able to stand their ground and find ways to ensure they stay gluten free. But children who aren’t as assertive might cave into pressure and not stick to the diet. “Teens are more interested in peer relationships than family relationships. They’ll make mistakes and explore,” Beaudoin says. She advises teenagers to talk to their dates about their gluten-free lifestyle. “I like to tell kids that everyone’s body has a limitation whether it’s poor eyesight, being overweight or diabetic. Gluten free is the limitation for some children,” she says.
Teens should treat eating gluten like any other activity that’s not allowed in their adolescent life or conflicts with their values. “It is the same approach a teenager would take to refuse high-risk behavior like drinking or drugs,” she explains.
If your teen seems to be having trouble dealing with dating and the gluten-free diet, for example he or she gets sick after going on a date, it’s time for a conversation between the two of you. Beaudoin cautions against being accusatory and advises asking questions to get your son or daughter thinking. These could include: How does eating gluten make you feel? How do you think cheating on the diet will affect you over a few weeks or months? Why are you having trouble talking to your date about it? How can you bring it up? “It is best for the child to come up with the answer for their own struggles,” she explains.
If the problem doesn’t resolve, you may consider talking to your child along with his or her girlfriend or boyfriend. Though your son or daughter might resist the idea, he or she might secretly need some support in dealing with the subject. If you have continuing concerns about a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s attitude about the gluten-free diet, you can think about discussing it with them directly. But this is a slippery slope, and Beaudoin says it should be a last resort because it can end up causing your child to rebel against you and the diet. Ultimately your child is responsible for maintaining their own diet.
Dating is not always easy, and adding a gluten-free diet into the mix can be another complication. Establishing a good relationship with your child and giving them a base of knowledge about being gluten free help build confidence. That confidence is an important tool in navigating the dating world.
Gluten-free date night
While dinner dates are fun and can be managed safely by gluten-free teens, here are some alternatives that also work well with the gluten-free diet.
- Bowl or play laser tag. This puts the focus on the activity more than the food. If eating is part of the plan, call ahead to see what the best gluten-free options are. If the pickings are slim, have something to eat before you go out and just order a safe snack and drink.
- Take a hike. Bring a bag lunch and head for the hills. Your date will include safe food and lots of exercise.
- Go on a picnic. The weather will be warmer soon enough. Pack a picnic basket with gluten-free goodies.
- Visit a museum. Many museums have coffee shops, and you can take a quick break and enjoy a drink.
- Catch a movie. A lot of movie popcorn is gluten free, though you should check with the theater beforehand. Otherwise, gluten-free candy and snacks are usually available. Soft drinks are a safe gluten-free thirst quencher.
- Make dinner at your house. With so many fun recipes available online, it’s easy to find a meal that should be manageable for two teens. Make a shopping list, hit the grocery store and head into the kitchen.
- Bake something gluten free. This is a good idea around the holidays when cookies and other treats are on everyone’s mind.
Amy Leger is the family editor for Gluten-Free Living. She also is the founder of and writes frequent articles for her website, TheSavvyCeliac.com. She is married and has two daughters, one of whom has celiac disease.