Eating gluten-free poses it’s own challenges, but when you are eating out at a restaurant, it opens up a whole new set of challenges. First of all, you must trust that the restaurant you’ve chosen is knowledgeable about serving a gluten-free customer. Have they taken the precautions to prevent cross contamination in a kitchen that is also being used to cook items composed of gluten?
Also, if you are newly diagnosed, you may be feeling a bit nervous about speaking up about your need to be totally gluten free. That being said, the better you become at communicating your need to be gluten free, the less nervous and the safer you will be.
Here are some tips to make gluten-free restaurant dining a possibility:
- . Do your homework before you leave home
Make sure that you do your due diligence before you go to a restaurant. There are several things you can do to prepare. These include:
- Look into restaurants associated with the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP). This program helps restaurants learn what it means to be gluten-free, and teaches about the safe preparation of foods, and more.
- Speak to the chef before you go to the restaurant to see if/how he will accommodate your dietary needs. Be sure to call when it is less busy in the restaurant, so that he can give you his undivided attention.
- Whenever possible, view the menu before going to the restaurant. Some restaurants post their menus online. In fact, many national restaurants such as Chili’s, Red Robin and Ruby Tuesday post their gluten-free menus online. If the restaurant you are considering does not have one online, you can always ask them to fax or email it to you. You can then search for gluten-free menu items, or find non gluten-free menu items that could possibly be prepared in a gluten-free manner by the chef.
- Never go out when you are extremely hungry
Mistakes are more likely to occur when you head to a restaurant on an empty stomach. Be sure to eat something light before you leave home, and to bring snacks along. For example, the rest of your table may be eating breadsticks while they wait for the meal to arrive. You can safely eat some of your gluten-free snacks during this time.
- Explain the seriousness to your server
It is very important that you be polite to your server, while emphasizing that you cannot have gluten. It can be helpful to explain it as having a “severe allergy” or “severe reaction” to gluten. Most people are aware of the seriousness of peanut allergies, and hearing the words “allergy” or “reaction” can validate that this is also serious. Fortunately, more people are becoming familiar with hearing about those who have gluten sensitivities. This is so much easier than when I was first diagnosed.
If your server does not seem to understand what you are explaining, ask politely if you can speak to the chef.
You may want to carry a “restaurant card” with you, which you can provide to the chef. It can include what foods items you cannot eat (things with wheat, rye, barley, and oats), and those that are safe. www.CeliacTravel.com/cards/ is one website where you can download a free restaurant card in several different languages (this could be helpful depending on the type of restaurant you are visiting).
- Do not be afraid to ask questions
Initially, you may feel fearful to ask questions, but all it takes is one bad food experience in a restaurant, and it can be a good reminder of the need to be assertive and clarify menu items.
You want to ask questions such as what the ingredients are in a menu item, what the preparation methods entail, and what precautions the kitchen staff take to ensure cross contamination does not occur. For example, cross contamination could occur if the same spoon is used to handle spaghetti for another customer’s order, and then used for mixing your fresh salad dressing.
- If you are served something inappropriate, say something
A very good example is if your burger comes to you and it is resting on a bun (that is not gluten-free). Because the bun has touched your burger, it has been contaminated with gluten, and it is not safe for you to eat. Therefore, you need to become comfortable telling servers in a polite manner. You will need to remind them that you will need a whole new burger made, because simply removing the bun is going to result in a severe “reaction.”
I have done this quite often when my salad arrives with croutons decorating the top of it.