A Quick Bite With Gluten Free Garage Creator Ronnilyn Pustil
Did you know that 1 in 133 Canadians have Celiac disease? It’s a condition that damages the lining of the intestines and prevents the body from being able to absorb nutrition from foods. For people with Celiac gluten, which is found in grains like wheat, barley and rye, is behind this damage. There’s no cure for Celiac but it can be managed by a strict gluten-free diet. When Ronnilyn Pustil’s daughter 3-year old Lily was vomiting in the night she took her to the doctor to discover the Celiac was the culprit. It started their whole family on a journey to becoming gluten free. Navigating the world as a parent of a kid with Celiac also inspired Ronnilyn to launch the Gluten Free Garage Popup Marketplace at Toronto’s Wychwood Barns this Sunday. The GFG will feature local gluten free vendors, bakeries, and restaurants, samples of amazing gluten free products plus educational support from The Canadian Celiac Association. It’s going to be an amazing event for anyone with gluten issues, kids with gluten issues or just wants to know more about gluten free options.
We caught up with Ronnilyn about what it’s like to make the switch to gluten free living and to see how Lily is doing, three years later. Hint: that’s her beaming in the picture with her Mom so we think it’s going pretty well!
Q: When did you realize that Lily had celiac?
A: When she was three and a half years old, over the Christmas holidays, Lily started throwing up in the middle of the night. At first we thought she had the stomach flu, but during the day she was fine so we ruled that out. The doctor thought she had acid reflux and prescribed some medicine. I had a feeling that wasn’t it, so I didn’t fill the prescription. That night she threw up again. I took her back to the doctor the next morning and asked him to run some tests. He did blood work, including a test for celiac. I had no idea what it was. A few days later, he called to say that her celiac test came back and her antibody levels were off the charts.
In retrospect, there were signs that something was wrong; we just didn’t pick up on them. From the time she was a toddler, Lily had skinny little legs and arms and a big round belly. And she was still taking long naps when most other kids her age had stopped napping. She had darkish circles under her eyes. And she was pretty petite. She had this huge personality but her little body hadn’t caught up to it.
Within about one month of going gluten free, Lily started filling out and gaining weight and the dark circles under her eyes faded. After about three months, she was completely thriving! Her body totally blossomed. It was quite amazing to behold.
Q: How radical a change to the way your family ate did it represent?
A: When we found out about Lily, neither my husband nor I knew what celiac disease or gluten was! That night, we each sat at our computers and researched like crazy. We decided that we would make our house a gluten-free zone, for several reasons. We didn’t want to risk Lily inadvertently eating gluten at home or getting cross-contaminated. Also, we didn’t want to have to say no to her when it came to food in our house. We knew there were going to be plenty of times when she was going to feel deprived, but not at home. We also have a small kitchen, so it was just easier to get rid of all the gluten and start over from scratch.
When we started stocking our cupboards, fridge and freezer with gluten-free food, we felt like we were all embarking on this journey together with Lily, as a family. We were all in it together. I guess we always ate pretty healthy, but now instead of whole-wheat pasta and breads, we eat products made from gluten-free grains, like rice and quinoa. We definitely eat way cleaner now. We read ingredient labels more diligently, we eat less processed food, we’re way more aware of what we put into our bodies.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in terms of making the switch to gluten free?
A: I guess the biggest challenge has been the lack of spontaneity when we go out. We can’t be carefree and head out for the day and stop just anywhere to grab a bite. We bring snacks with us wherever we go and we need to plan ahead in terms of finding restaurants we can eat at. In the summer, we pack a lot of picnic lunches! Thankfully, there are more and more restaurants and bakeries that cater to people who are gluten free. Another challenge is the birthday parties and school celebrations and play dates—all that stuff that typically involves snacks and baked goods. Now I’m that mother who calls or emails ahead and finds out what they’re serving so I can bring something similar for Lily.
Q: What’s your favourite, can’t-live-without-it gluten-free product?
A: I can’t choose just one—there are so many! In the past three years since Lily’s diagnosis, the gluten-free market has exploded. You can walk into most grocery stores today (like our favourites, Fiesta Farms and The Healthy Butcher) and find a selection of packaged and frozen gluten-free foods, which is great! And now Toronto has its very own gluten-free mecca, Goodbye Gluten, a 100% gluten-free store that also sells fresh baked and prepared foods. But it’s more difficult to find fresh, delicious gluten-free products that are locally made. There’s definitely been a lot of trial and error to find the products we like—which is why it’s so important to me that people can sample stuff before buying at the Gluten Free Garage. I am convinced that Toronto has the best gluten-free bakeries—and most of them will be at our event!
Q: What is the biggest misconception when it comes to eating gluten free?
A: That the food doesn’t taste good, or that it’s dry and crumbly. There is no reason to eat bad gluten-free food these days. It’s no longer your grandmother’s gluten free! That is what we aim to show people at the Gluten Free Garage.
Another big misconception is that something is gluten free if it doesn’t contain any gluten ingredients. If a product or dish is made in an environment where there is the possibility of cross-contamination, that product or dish is not necessarily gluten free, at least for not people with celiac disease. That’s why it’s really important to ask the people who are making your food about the practices in their kitchen. I’m not saying to only eat at places that are strictly gluten free—we like to eat out and there are many places serving up safe and delicious gluten-free food, like Hero Burgers, Magic Oven, Akasaka, Live Food Bar and Supermarket—but don’t be shy to ask questions. And ask the right questions.
Q: Do you also eat gluten free?
A: At home I eat gluten free, but when I’m out with my husband or friends I don’t always strictly adhere to it. However, I find that I do feel better, definitely less bloated and more energetic, when I avoid gluten.
Q: What gave you the idea to launch the Gluten Free Garage?
A: In the past three years since Lily’s diagnosis, I’ve literally watched the gluten-free market explode before my eyes. Last fall I went to a gluten-free “shopping spree” hosted by the Halton Peel chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association. It took place in a banquet hall in Oakville one evening. It was a great event with lots of local vendors and delicious gluten-free baked goods. As I was walking around sampling the brownies and cookies, I wished that Lily could be there to try all the goodies, because I certainly didn’t need to be eating them all!
Then I thought that it would be great to have a gluten-free marketplace in Toronto that was held during the day, so it could be more family friendly and child accessible. We actually know quite a few kids with celiac disease. And I knew it had to be at the Artscape Wychwood Barns because it’s such a special space, it’s where my favourite farmers’ market takes place every Saturday and it’s the hub of our community. This gave me the idea to bill the event as a “farmers’ market with a gluten-free twist.” I love the way the market feels—it’s lively, friendly, local, urban, environmentally conscious, intimate, community-oriented. We’re hoping to create the same kind of vibe at the Gluten Free Garage. With this event, I want to share my most favourite finds in the city so others can get a taste of what’s going on gluten free in Toronto and connect with the GF community. For the most part, our exhibitors are local and were all handpicked. At first we went after people and businesses whose products and places we enjoy and frequent. Then we visited the farmers’ markets and tried out new products and restaurants, and one person and place led to another. I’m amazed at all the gluten-free goings-on in this city. It’s not only that there are more options, because they’re certainly increasing all the time, it’s that there are more tasty and wholesome options.
The Gluten Free Garage will offer something for everyone on the gluten-free spectrum—whether they have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, whether they choose to go gluten free for other health reasons or because it makes them feel better, whether they’re gluten-free chic or just plain curious. The Toronto chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association will be on-hand to provide information and support (part of the proceeds from the event go to them) as well as several health professionals (including a naturopath, nutritionist and holistic pharmacist).
Q: Do you cook with your kids?
A: Oh yes! They love being in the kitchen and helping to bake or prepare meals. Tonight we made pizza. We used O’Doughs pizza crust and I put out a variety of toppings and everyone got to make their own personal pizza. They like to chop vegetables and make salads and they love to bake, especially when it involves chocolate chips!
Q: What’s your go-to dinner recipe for a busy weekday evening?
A: Chicken and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice is always a hit. It’s fast and easy to whip up and we usually have all the ingredients on hand, including gluten-free tamari and hoisin sauce.
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