Tips for Dining Out Gluten Free

I’ve recently had a number of friends come to me with questions about dining out gluten free. And as I'm sure there are others with similar questions and concerns, I thought I'd share here what I've shared with them. 

First, let me validate that dining out can be a real pain when following a strict gluten free (gf) diet. It can be frustrating, confusing, and even embarrassing at times. Gosh, I remember hating eating out when I first got diagnosed with Celiac Sprue. I felt like I had no options at restaurants; that, and I loathed drawing attention to myself with my “special diet”. Sound familiar? Well, guess what? 

Dining out gf is not only possible but it can even be easyHonest.

Though I’ve been eating gf for roughly a decade I am no expert. That being said, I have picked up a thing or two about dining out that will hopefully address some of your questions and/or concerns. And I promise, it only gets easier. When it comes to eating gf, it's all about knowledge. The more you know, the more confident and competent you'll be in all things gluten. 

Tips for Dining Out Gluten Free:

1. Call in advance. Call ahead of time and ask if they are able to accommodate gf requests safely. What options do they have? Does the staff understand how to avoid any cross contamination?

2. Inform your waiter/waitress of your situation upon being seated. Let them know you are on a strict medical gf diet. Or tell them you have a severe allergy to gluten. Either way, make sure they know. Then continue to remind them of your diet; remind them when ordering and when your food arrives. It’s your health on the line; you are your own and only advocate.

3. Ask about gf options. Do they have a gf specific menu? Are gf dishes marked on the regular menu? If not, ask what gf options they have. They may have to go back and forth between you and the cook a couple of times and that’s ok. And sometimes, the cook may even come out to your table. Just be extremely gracious and thank everyone excessively.

4. Ask about food preparation. Do you use any spice blends? Do you use any flour in the preparation? Do you use any dressing, soy sauce, bbq sauce, etc.? Are they gf?

5. Ask how they prevent cross contamination. This is important. While your food may be gf, if it comes into contact with anything with gluten it is no longer gf. Take French fries for example. French fries can be gf if cooked in their own oil. However, if the French fries are cooked in the same oil used to cook onion rings, fried chicken, or anything else they are not gf. When it comes to French fries always ask – even if they advertise having gf fries.

What do you do to prevent cross-contamination? Will my food be cooked/ prepared on a separate clean surface – grill, counter, etc. Will separate clean utensils be used to cook/prepare the food? Will it come into contact with any form of gluten? Will my food be delivered separately so not to come into contact with anyone else’s plates/meals?

6. Remind the waiter/waitress of your needs once you’re actually ordering. Waiters/waitresses have numerous tables throughout the night and may not always remember. So when it comes time to order, be sure to again state that your food needs to be gf. They’re not going to be offended; if anything, they’ll thank you for reminding them. 

5. When your food comes, ask if it’s gf. I usually say something like, “…and this is gf?” with a big smile. This gives them another chance to blow the whistle if they accidently forgot and saves you from a tummy ache (or whatever your resulting symptoms may be).

6. If it’s not gf do ask for a new plate of food. If you receive something that is clearly not gf, tell them. I know it’s easy to feel bad, but do not sacrifice your health because you feel bad asking for a redo. I used to say, “Oh it’s ok,” and wipe my meat clean of a gluten containing sauce; don’t do that either. I ended up eating gluten and getting sick every time. Kindly tell them and request new food. And if you’re unsure if something is gf, ask to speak to the chef or a manager. Not only do you need gf food, but you’ll also be helping them to learn for future customers.

7. It’s ok to walk. There will be times when a restaurant cannot or will not accommodate you. Should that happen, leave. It’s your health. Hopefully by your leaving they’ll start to consider providing gf options - or maybe not. I say if you feel uncomfortable, walk.

8. Remember, restaurants are not gf experts. In an ideal world, every restaurant and their staff would be required to complete an onsite gf training. And there are restaurants that have completed such trainings. That being said, they are not experts – not usually. Learning to accommodate a gf diet is not easy and doesn’t just happen over night (as I’m sure you all are aware). I share this because I don’t want any of you to fall under the trap of assuming your cook and waiter/waitress know it all just because they’ve had gf training, offer a gf menu, or are gf friendly. I suggest always asking at least a few questions – if only to get a feel of their knowledge. You can then help them out where they may have missed something; that will help them improve their services and ability to provide gf food. For example, Dominos advertises they have a gf pizza crust… but last I checked the sauce they use is not gf.

5 Napkin Burger offers gf buns and fries. Yummy!

And now that I’ve scared you, let me add that if they advertise gf food, they probably have gf food. 
So smile. Ask. Praise their efforts. And ask some more.

9. They want to make you happy. They want you to come back. More often than not, they are unbelievably helpful and kind. So speak up, be kind, and you typically will be fine. Please and thank you. 

10. Practice makes perfect… and easy. It may sound as though it’s going to be a huge hassle every time you eat out – what with this list and all. While you’re getting used to it, you may take more time in ensuring your food is gf. However, you’ll get more efficient in having these conversations. You’ll pick up on little things that tell you automatically if something is or isn’t gf. You’ll learn which questions to ask first, thereby ruling out others. It really will become a breeze. And there will always be that one or two restaurants that remain completely clueless or unwilling to change. And that’s when you go out for ice cream. hehe

And if I were to add an 11, it would be to smile, thank, smile, thank, smile, thank... 

Restaurants really are trying to accommodate gf diets more and more. On the rare chance you do get sick after eating out, try and evaluate what went wrong so that next time you can avoid the situation. Don't call the restaurant in a huff with threats of liability, or they may decide to give up providing gf options all together. After all, providing gf options is a service, not a requirement. And as difficult as it can be for us, it’s often difficult for them too. But those restaurants that try and are improving are greatly appreciated. 

Hope this helps some. And good luck!

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