How to Eat Out Gluten Free without Being Obnoxious
How to eat gluten free in restaurants is a learned skill. A restaurant can be a scary place for the celiac or gluten intolerant person. When you know you’re going to have an uncomfortable “digestive episode” if you ingest a crumb of gluten, and that the reaction from that crumb can cause damage in your gut that takes months to heal, you have to be careful!
On the other hand, I know that servers get a lot of requests for gluten free food from people they think have made this dietary choice only because they feel they should. I’ve certainly seen a change in gluten awareness in the eight years since I’ve been gluten free. Generally, people have become much more aware of gluten intolerance issues. However, I’m also seeing more disclaimers such as that there is gluten in the kitchen and, basically, you have no guarantees. I realize that businesses need to protect themselves legally. Sometimes, I have to go with my “gut” feeling – pardon the pun! – that the people I’m dealing with will make every effort to be careful.
I’ve also found that some areas of North America are more gluten aware than others. If the server doesn’t know what gluten is, I usually walk out and explore other options.
As I write this, we are just driving away from a smallish town in central Kentucky where I was simply turned away from two consecutive restaurants because they had nothing gluten free to offer me. I finally took my chances with a salad bar in a chain restaurant near the hotels.
Work with Them
Sometimes a restaurant owner will ask me to explain gluten to them and will be eager to work with me. On more than one occasion, they have shown me the ingredient labels on products such as salad dressings that the restaurant uses. I’d much prefer they bring me a container of salad dressing to read rather than leave me guessing.
If you’re newly diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or even if you’ve been at this for awhile, you’ll find my Gluten List a handy tool. It lists alphabetically all sorts of ingredients that contain gluten. Then, as you check the ingredient labels, you can look up any words you are unfamiliar with.
How to Eat Gluten Free in Restaurants
Check Out the Restaurant's Website
The best-case scenario when choosing a restaurant is when you can view a restaurant’s website in advance, see that they are gluten free friendly, and mention to them when you make a reservation that you will be requiring gluten free food.
Ask When Making a Reservation
If nothing about gluten is mentioned on the website, I will say something like, “I’m sure you have some gluten free dishes on the menu…,” and wait for the response. We will talk it through until I’m satisfied.
See if Gluten Free Items are Labeled on the Menu
When I don’t have a reservation or haven’t been able to actually talk to a person when making one, I’ll take a quick look at the menu right away to see if gluten free options have been marked.
Ask Your Server
If gluten free options are not labeled on the menu, or I haven't had a chance to check, I’ll ask the server if they have a gluten free menu or if they know which items on the regular menu are gluten free.
Choose the Most Likely-to-be-Safe Item
Many times, I will just choose something from the menu that I think should naturally be gluten free. I will say to the server, “If I order _ and __, will that be gluten free?" I find that this is the simplest approach and seems to be the best for putting everyone at ease. It gives us a starting point for discussion rather than the server needing to sort through the whole menu and check out items I may not be interested in.
My default choice is a salad with meat on it. Sometimes I'll ask if a certain salad will be gluten free if they omit the croutons.
Always double check that the meat is not breaded or seasoned with anything that might contain gluten.
If they tell you that the french fries are gluten free, double check that by asking if they are cooked in a dedicated fryer where nothing breaded has been cooked. Some places don't realize how careful they need to be, although most are getting better at it.
Remind Your Server
Always tell your server as you place your order that your meal needs to be gluten free. Some time will usually have passed between the initial conversation about which options are gluten free and the actual placing of your order. Don't expect the server to remember that you're the special one!
I have ordered a salad that was labeled gluten free on the menu, and then it was delivered with a slice of toast sitting on top of it! It wasn’t gluten free toast, either! Apparently the salad on its own was gluten free.
Have a Backup
After all of these precautions, just to be on the safe side, I like to carry Gluten Relief capsules in my purse and take one before eating away from home unless I’m in a totally gluten free restaurant.
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Tips for Restaurants
For food to be gluten free, it needs to have never come in contact with gluten. Gluten free food is:
- cooked on a clean grill or pan
- not deep-fried in oil that has cooked battered food
- free from crumbs. It has never had wheat croutons on it. You can’t simply pick the croutons off, because crumbs will remain.
- free from regular soy sauce. Gluten free soy sauce, called tamari, is acceptable.
Gluten Free Baked Goods
You will seldom find gluten free baked goods made in the same establishment that bakes with wheat. With all of the flour dust flying around, there is too much risk of cross contamination. That’s why gluten free baking is usually sealed in it’s own package and brought in from a gluten free bakery.
For one bakery to make both gluten free and glutenous treats, the gluten free baking must be done first thing in the morning after the kitchen has been thoroughly cleaned.
Don't be afraid to eat out after a celiac or gluten-intolerant diagnosis. With some care and planning, dining in restaurants can be an enjoyable experience.