HOW can I prevent cross-contamination?

By Jenny Stegen | October 24, 2020

Invest in some new cookware

If you are living with someone with celiac disease, or responsible for preparing gluten-free food on a regular basis, you definitely need to invest in some new cookware. Make sure you keep it separate from other kitchen items. You can label your new gluten free items and store them in their own designated space. Gluten Free Labels is a company that makes dishwasher safe labels just for this purpose. They are so handy!

New purchases I would suggest include a toaster, frying pan, colander, cutting board, pizza cutter, a new rubber spatula, whisk, turner, and possibly a handheld mixer or KitchenAid (depending on how much you cook and bake). It's also a good idea to invest in some new plastic Rubbermaid storage containers. If you like to use a waffle iron or griddle you will need new ones that you can designate as gluten free. You can find my very favorite kitchen tools under my favorite products page.

In order to prevent cross-contamination, it is ideal to purchase new items, however, I realize this is not always feasible. If this is the case, do your best to clean up your old kitchen supplies as well as possible. You can’t beat a good scrubbing with warm soapy water followed by a hot cycle in the dishwasher. It may not completely remove the residue - but it certainly helps!

Items you can safely continue to use include glass plates, bowls, cups, and silverware. Also, stainless steel bowls, utensils, pots, and pans. Before you start your gluten free diet, wash everything up really well to remove any traces of gluten that may be present.

Use parchment paper

You may also continue to use your cookie sheets, muffin pans, pizza pans, and other baking pans - even if there are old baked-on stains. The easy solution is to use a protective sheet of parchment paper or tin foil and voilà - you’ve got yourself a clean surface. I personally love parchment paper. Nothing sticks to it and it is very affordable. I use it to cover my cookie sheets, pizza pans, cake pans - everything. Same concept when you use liners in your muffin pan. I continue to use the sturdy baking pans that I received for wedding gifts over 20 years ago. You can sure get new ones if you wish, but this method has not failed in our home.

I will add that you cannot cover your grill grates with parchment paper - but foil works great for the grill.

Cookie sheet with stains and scratches

Look familiar?

Dylan scooping cookie dough onto cookie sheet covered with parchment paper

The solution - parchment paper!

Create a gluten free space

Next, you need to prepare a space for gluten free food products. I recommend a cupboard space, pantry shelf, or whatever works in your kitchen! You will definitely need separate supplies of peanut butter, butter, and jam. Be sure to label these things so they do not accidentally get contaminated. Since all four of our children have celiac disease, our kitchen is completely gluten free (well, 99.9% gluten free). My husband and I do not have the disease, but it works best for our family for everyone to eat the same. And it certainly reduces a lot of headaches in the kitchen!

The one thing my husband cannot give up is his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and his chocolate-covered granola bars. We keep his stash of gluten in a little corner cupboard and the kids know this little area is off-limits. With the amount of food our kids eat (which is enormous), we ended up turning our broom closet into a gluten free pantry. Lee got this amazing wire shelving system on Amazon and it has been the best investment. If you need more storage space for kitchen items, I advise you to get creative and invent a space or rearrange a space to accommodate your needs.

Our corner cupboard with our small stash of foods containing gluten

Lee's stash of gluten

The broom closet we transformed into a pantry for gluten free products

Our gluten free pantry

Be cautious of restaurants

The topic of safe restaurants has it's very own post with everything you need to know. Click here to learn more about how to choose celiac friendly restaurants.

Follow safe food prep practices

You now know the importance of a kitchen makeover. Of equal importance is the process by which you prepare the food in your kitchen. Most of you will very likely be preparing foods with and without gluten at the very same time. It is SO incredibly easy to cross-contaminate as you prepare these things simultaneously. It is less likely if you have a separate space or area to prepare your gluten free food.

Another option is to prepare gluten free foods in advance so they are not handled at the same time as foods containing gluten. Remember SURFACES (including your hands) and UTENSILS are your major culprits for cross-contamination. Surfaces include countertops, cutting boards, utensils, pans, and your OWN HANDS. That’s right - you must remember to wash your hands as you go back and forth between foods as you prepare them. You have to clean up countertops, cutting boards, and surfaces that may be covered with crumbs or pieces of food containing gluten. Utensils including pizza cutters, turners, mixing spoons, whisks, and spatulas must not be shared between foods (unless they are washed very well in between).

I am going to give you an example that demonstrates incorrect and correct methods of gluten free food prep. This will give you a better understanding of the process of cross-contamination and how it can be prevented:

First, the INCORRECT example:
You are making a gluten-free grilled cheese sandwich for your child's friend with celiac disease. You have a loaf of gluten free bread in your freezer. You pull a few slices off the frozen loaf and place them in the microwave to thaw. You lay them on the microwave plate that is covered in crumbs. While the bread is defrosting you pull the tub of butter out of the refrigerator. You remove the bread slices from the microwave and butter them with your butter that is full of toast crumbs. You lay the buttered bread in your old, scratched-up, non-stick pan. At the same time, you decide to make your own child a grilled cheese in a separate pan using regular wheat bread. You butter your child's bread, place it in the other pan and get out the cheese slices. You place the cheese on each sandwich. You get out the turner and flip your child's grilled cheese then flip the gluten free grilled cheese. After a few minutes, they are nice and toasty and ready to eat. You use the turner to get them out of the pan and serve them up to the hungry kids.

Now, the CORRECT example:
You are making a gluten free grilled cheese sandwich for your child's friend with celiac disease. You start by washing your hands. You have a loaf of gluten free bread in your freezer. You pull a few slices off the frozen loaf and place them on a clean plate. You place them in the microwave to defrost and get out a new stick of butter to butter the gluten free bread. You lay the buttered bread in your stainless steel pan that you washed with warm soapy water. At the same time, you decide to make your own child's grilled cheese in a separate pan using regular wheat bread. You butter your child's bread and place it in the other pan. You wash your hands before getting cheese slices out of the refrigerator. You open up the cheese slices and place them on the gluten free sandwich first, then on the regular sandwich. You wash your hands again and find two clean turning tools and flip your child's grilled cheese with one and your gluten free grilled cheese with the other. After a few minutes, they are nice and toasty and ready to eat. You remove them from the pan with their designated turners and serve them up to the hungry kids.

The example above demonstrates many common cross-contamination mistakes. These are the mistakes listed in order (which are bolded in the paragraph above):

  1. The crumbs on the microwave plate contaminated the gluten-free bread
  2. The butter from the tub contaminated the gluten free bread
  3. The scratched up non-stick pan contaminated your gluten free bread
  4. Your hands contaminated the cheese after touching the wheat bread
  5. The turner contaminated the gluten free sandwich after it was used to flip the wheat bread sandwich
  6. The turner again contaminated the gluten-free sandwich when it was used to remove it from the pan and serve it

These are the correct steps listed in order (which are bolded in the paragraph above):

  1. Hands were washed before any food prep took place - always a good habit in the kitchen
  2. The gluten free bread was placed on a clean plate before being placed in the microwave
  3. A fresh supply of butter was used to butter the gluten free bread
  4. A steel pan without scratches was used and washed well before use
  5. After touching the wheat bread you washed your hands before handling the cheese
  6. Separate, clean turners were used for flipping and serving the sandwiches

Reading these steps may seem overwhelming, but with practice and repetition, the process becomes habit. I created a post summarizing the steps to take in the kitchen to keep your food safe. To go along with it, I created two printable graphics (see below) entitled CRUMBS and LAWS that illustrate and simplify this process. Now that you have a better understanding of how to prevent cross-contamination, take a look at these graphics. Print them off and post them in your kitchen to serve as a visual reminder of everything you have learned.

Choose foods wisely

I created a step by step guide to follow as you read labels. This is your no-fail guide to choosing safe foods. It takes into account sources of cross-contamination. I suggest you print my label reading flow chart to go along with it.

Also, use this spectrum of risk as a general guide as you are choosing foods.

Remember, fresh foods (things without a label) are always your safest choices: fruits, vegetables, eggs, unprocessed meats, fish, poultry.

Ok, you've learned all about cross-contamination:

  • What it is
  • Why it's important
  • Where it is found
  • How to prevent it

Only one thing left:  When to start following a strict gluten free diet. Read more to learn. This is the final step.

You've Got This!

Jenny's Signature