Tips for Dining Out as a Celiac
As a Celiac and gluten-free health coach, I frequently get asked about eating out.
Since I am gluten free, grain free, soy free (click here to know more about that), and incredibly picky about how pans and utensils are used and the methods utilized to avoid cross contamination, it really is much simpler, more pleasant, and more cost effective for me to eat in. So, my simple response is, “I generally don’t eat out.”
However, evidenced by the frown that suddenly appears, that doesn’t seem to be the answer that people are seeking from me! In honor of Celiac Awareness Month, I thought I’d expand on this topic a bit and help those frowns turn upside down! (Thanks to celiaccentral.org for the three main tips listed).
Commercial Kitchen Mayhem
If you haven’t been in a busy restaurant kitchen, it can be a complete madhouse. Even a very organized and well-run kitchen has a lot going on all at once. Picture preparing a large dinner in your own kitchen – all burners of the stove with various items boiling and simmering; the oven on high with anything from meat to fish to bread baking; a fryer cooking up chicken and french fries…and veggies and salad on the cutting board next to the chocolate cake being prepared. Now put that image on overdrive…plates for 5-500 being prepared!
Although my general career has not been in food service, I’ve been witness to plenty of commercial kitchens, and most recently, I’ve started cooking in one to prepare delicious allergen-free meals and pizzas.
The painstaking process I personally use to stay safe and keep my products safe (I pack up and take all of my own dedicated gluten-free pans and utensils with me, plus spread out clean paper over any surface I use, plus avoid using any shared surfaces for cooking [fryer, grill, etc.] or even dishwashing) is not typically one that is adopted in the majority of commercial kitchens. Most commercial kitchens, even the incredibly clean ones, are laden with various flours, oils, and other cooking substances that, if ingested, would cause me to be on the floor, writhing in pain and praying for a bathroom close by.
However, from time to time it is lovely to have food prepared for me. It really has become a luxury and a treat for the reasons I mention above. Below I’ve outlined some basics to follow for dining out as safely as possible.
Quick Tips for Dining Out as a Celiac
Tip #1: Always call ahead!
(My personal rule: if the person who answers says “What is gluten?” or “Do you mean sugar free?” then just steer clear and choose another restaurant!)
When you call ahead, ask to speak to the manager if he or she is available. I don’t recommend calling at the lunch or dinner hours, when they are harried and tending to a very busy kitchen and dining area.
Ask as many questions as you need to in order to assure yourself that they can accommodate your needs and food sensitivities. Even though gluten sensitivity is not necessarily an allergy, I often find that it’s easier to call and say I have Celiac Disease and/or severe food allergies or an intolerance, so that the person at the restaurant fully understands that I can and will be sick if my food is not prepared accordingly.
I highly recommend NOT bringing your own bread or other items to the restaurant unless you have specifically called and talked with the manager that will be on duty when you are visiting. There are many regulations that restaurants have to follow, and by law they may not be permitted to let you bring anything to the restaurant.
Tip#2: Be detailed and specific when ordering; ask as many questions as you need to in order to feel safe about your meal
When I first made the transition to being gluten free, I always felt like such a burden. A burden, that is, until I didn’t ask specific questions and follow my typical regimen of informing the wait staff and manager and chef (yes, it can be exhausting), and wound up in the bathroom for the next forty-five minutes while my boss and client sat uncomfortably at the table, wondering if I’d left and gone to a movie!
(Let go about “being a burden” – this is your health we’re talking about!)
If the waiter doesn’t know what gluten is, call in the manager…even if you’ve called ahead.
If you read over the menu and it says “low gluten” – it simply may not be safe for you to eat there. With the new FDA ruling of gluten-free meaning “less than 20 parts per million [ppm],” my guess is that many restaurants may adopt this new terminology in order to protect themselves. This also means that while they may be careful about practices to avoid the risk of cross-contamination, there may not even be enough space in the kitchen to prepare you something that avoids the flour cloud used for the pastry preparation.
If any of the staff that you talk with seems bothered by your request or questions, again, even if you’ve called ahead – speak with the manager or go elsewhere, as painful as that can be in the moment (see why I don’t eat out much?)
Personal tip: If I’m with a large group, I try to get a seat on the corner or end, and I ask the server to take my order last. That way, I can ask him or her all of my questions, and not hold up the rest of the group during the ordering process (or allow that “burdened” feeling to creep in again!)
Another personal tip: Stick with the basics. If there will need to be a lot of changes to your dish due to personal eating preferences, it might be better to order a steak and baked potato. Apply the KISS method…Keep It Simple, Sweetie!
Tip#3: When your meal arrives, never EVER assume!
Finally! You’ve gotten through the ordering process! Your plate arrives! Your mouth watering, fork in hand…you’re ready to dig in!
Wait…what is that sticking out of the marinara sauce? Is that ranch dressing drizzled over your salad? Do I see CROUTON CRUMBS at the bottom of my salad bowl?? (Yes, this really happened to me!)
Save yourself (and your dining companions) the discomfort of waiting for the staff to return to check on you, or worse – don’t risk eating something that appears to be suspicious and risk becoming ill.
Take five seconds as the plate arrives, and confirm with the person serving it that the meal is gluten free. If there are ANY signs of gluten on your plate – send it back! This includes if bread is served on the same plate with your meal, even if the rest is gluten free. If there is bread on your plate, you are likely to experience gluten exposure. (For example, chances are that the item made for you was not made within the special care of what the kitchen had reported, or someone was careless in adding bread to your plate – thereby draping your plate with crumbs from the bag of breadsticks.)
Thankfully, more and more restaurants are becoming more educated and aware of the needs of the Celiac population and the gluten sensitive. Just like any major change, it’s a work in progress! If the restaurant has done a great job accommodating your needs, or the wait staff has gone above and beyond to ensure your meal is safe, be sure to say so (and leave a nice tip)! Share a review on findmeglutenfree.com or glutenfreeregistry.com. Let the corporate office know of your great experience, so the location can be commended for their good work.
Interested in allergy-friendly meal options or bakery products that are produced in a dedicated facility? Send n e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We provide meal planning, delicious meals, and gourmet baked goods that are always free of gluten, grain, and soy.