If only one member of a family requires a gluten-free diet, meal time can be a juggle for families and almost always requires extra planning.
For example, when the Benton family goes out for pizza, mom Kate has to pack a few slices of gluten-free pizza from home for the youngest of her three children, 6-year-old Molly, who has celiac disease and would get sick from eating regular pizza crust.
That bring-your-own food plan also goes for birthday parties, airplane rides, vacations, and meals at friends' houses. Even their baby sitters need to follow special instructions on how to safely prepare food in the Bentons' kitchen.
Gluten-free diets are necessary for a variety of health reasons, but most often because of celiac disease -- a lifelong autoimmune condition affecting both children and adults. People with the disease get sick if they consume gluten, a protein found in certain grains such as wheat. Medical journals report a sharp increase in the number of celiac cases, and a recent story in Medscape Today estimates 1 percent of the population now suffers from the disease.
In the Benton family, no one else has celiac disease -- or any type of food allergy -- except Molly. Diagnosed as a toddler four years ago, it took a while after that for the West suburban family to figure out how to handle meal time.
"It was overwhelming at first. But I've tried to strike a balance," between Molly's needs and her 9- and 11-year-old son's needs, Kate Benton said. "I try to cook a gluten-free dinner so she doesn't always feel like she's eating separate from us ... but the most overwhelming part, still, is the contamination issue."
Contaminating food with gluten can happen in inconspicuous ways, such as in a toaster, from a knife, or a cutting board. So the Bentons take extra precautions.
"At some point, we say, is 99 percent good enough? I hope so," Kate Benton said. "We've learned that just because it says it has no wheat in it doesn't mean there hasn't been contamination. It's hard to know how vigilant you have to be."
Some ideas the Benton family has found useful:
• Putting red and green dot stickers on products. Red means "do not eat" because it contains gluten, and the green dot means it's safe for Molly to eat.
• Buy condiments in squeeze bottles whenever possible, to protect the product from being contaminated.
• Grill a lot, and use marinades that don't have flour in them.
• Serve Mexican foods, such as quesadillas, that can be made with gluten-free corn instead of flour tortillas.
• Have a go-to list of restaurants where the family can safely eat out. The number of restaurants with gluten-free offerings has expanded greatly in recent years.
• Buy a bread maker and use it exclusively to make gluten-free loaves of bread, so there are ready-made sandwich slices.
• Use gluten-free pizza crust to make a pizza, cut it into pieces, and store it in the freezer.
• Make gluten-free cupcakes and freeze them. Then, before a party or dinner, defrost one and add frosting.
• Gluten-free products can be expensive, so stock up when products are on sale.
Molly Benton has been eating gluten-free since age 2, so she doesn't "miss" foods. That's a bigger challenge for older kids or young adults who must suddenly eliminate gluten from their diets, steering clear of foods they like, such as pizza, bread and cereal, said Dr. Stephen Holland, a Naperville gastroenterologist.
People new to gluten-free living can get tips and moral support from monthly celiac support groups Holland organizes in Wheaton. For information on the group, contact him through napervillegi.com.
When the group meets, members share information about restaurants and gluten-free foods.
"The (food) offerings have always been there, but they haven't been clear. It's the middle of the store where you have the problems," Holland said.
For a comprehensive list of resources and gluten-free foods, Holland recommends the website celiac.org.
In Jen Cafferty's family, everyone -- including the dog -- eats gluten-free. Cafferty, a Downers Grove resident, made a career out of teaching people how to live gluten-free through workshops and her recipe- and tip-filled website, So Simple Gluten Free with Jen (gfreelife.com).
"It takes a year for you to be OK, and it's really hard when you don't have support from your family," she said. "The problem with the gluten-free stuff right now is people need the right information."