Coeliac NZ Youth Ambassador Sarah Albom shares her advice about renting and being coeliac-safe as a university student living away from home.
In March 2018, Sarah Albom was living in university accommodation. I had lived away from home before, but this was the first time I was fully in charge of myself and my life. As a newly fledged adult, I was grappling with these weird concepts like independence and responsibility. Then, a spanner in the works. I got diagnosed with Coeliac Disease.
As a newly diagnosed Coeliac, it was hard to get my head around which foods are gluten-free and that I couldn’t share appliances. It’s important for Coeliacs to strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet. No matter what immediate symptoms a Coeliac shows after accidentally ingesting gluten, we all have the same internal response. Every time we eat gluten, our immune system destroys the lining of our small intestine.
Coeliacs made my living situation confusing and expensive. Trying to rent for the first time, I found there were the added problems of disrespectful flatmates, expensive food, and cooking without cross-contamination.
I sometimes see a tip pop up online about how it’s better not to live with friends - no chance of ruining a friendship over dirty dishes. In my experience, this doesn’t work at all. I need to live with people that I know I can rely on to keep their food tidy, to make sure their gluten products don’t spill onto my shelf, and to wipe up when they’re done cooking. The only time I’ve flatted with someone I didn’t completely trust, I found myself glutened after we had a dispute about chores.
The problem of flatting as a Coeliac is that the responsibility falls onto others more than yourself. It can be hard to find people you trust to keep you safe. But, good flatmates exist! Be clear and upfront about the severity of your illness before you move in, and don’t be discouraged if everyone isn’t willing to respect your needs. The best option is flatting with other gluten-free people.
So far, I’ve lived in situations where the kitchen is entirely gluten free, where a flatmate handmade bread but thoroughly cleaned up afterward, and where I just made a small separate kitchen set-up with an electric pan in a different room. There are plenty of different ways to manage this disease, and sometimes you just need to get creative.
Also difficult is the cost of food. I think every new adult gets a slight shock at how much of their weekly budget goes towards food. Coeliacs just exacerbate the issue. I keep my costs down by eating naturally gluten-free. I use starches like rice and potatoes, and make lots of curries or stir fries. If I need to pack a cold lunch, I’ll avoid sandwiches (aside from GF bread being overly pricey, I don’t like the taste). Instead, I’ll do a little spread - GF crackers, canned tuna, vegetable slices, and a piece of fruit.
Outside of GF food, meat and cheese are getting expensive. I’ve started substituting meat with proteins like eggs, beans, or tofu. Egg-fried rice is my comfort food. Even better is to look for any local grocers. There’s an Asian supermarket ten minutes walk from my house that sells vegetables at about half the price of my local Countdown. I always buy seasonal vegetables and have built up a small recipe book with different recipes for winter and summer veggies.
These everyday costs are what I wanted to push in my interview with The Check Up. It can be scary to try and live on your own while also having such a big dietary limitation. But coeliac disease does not define who we are, and it should not prevent us from experiencing the same milestones as anyone else in our community. We just need a little creativity and flexibility to find the best ways for us to live.
Credit: Sarah Albom, producer of 'Don't Pass the Bread'; and recently interviewed for The Check-Up - Episode 3 Season 6 - including a feature about coeliac disease.