Being gluten-free doesn’t mean always eating at home in your “safe kitchen.” Follow these tips and suggestions when eating out to minimize your risk of an accidental gluten exposure.
Creating gluten-free dishes in the home is easy once you get your kitchen set-up (see Creating a Safe Kitchen), but eating out poses a whole new set of challenges at first. For the recently diagnosed celiac, it may be easier to not eat out or buy pre-packaged foods until you understand all the nuances of eating gluten-free. Unless you plan to eat in an establishment that is 100% gluten-free, the risk of cross-contamination will always be present. Here are some tried and true ways to help reduce your risk of accidentally ingesting gluten.
Before you go…
Choose where you are going to go eat before leaving the house – deciding on the fly can lead you into restaurants that potentially have minimal to no gluten-free options. (Once you find the establishments in your area that provide gluten-free dishes you like, making the decision on where to go becomes easier.) Visit the restaurant’s Website ahead of time and see which dishes look like they can be prepared gluten-free – many places will even list their gluten-free menu options.
If you’re not sure where to even begin looking for a gluten-free restaurant in your area, try doing a Google search for “celiac disease (CD) support group [insert city where you live]”. Contact the chapter by phone or email and ask them what establishments in your area they would endorse/suggest. You can also search state-by-state listings of gluten-free restaurants at gfrestaurants.com.
Once you’ve decided on the place and a couple menu items you are interested in, call ahead (earlier the better, before they get busy) and speak with a manager or a chef directly who can confirm what can be made gluten-free. This is also helpful if you weren’t able to locate a menu on their website. Simply ask which meals can be prepared gluten-free and hopefully the staff is knowledgeable enough to point you in the right direction. In the event that you land at a restaurant that is not familiar with gluten and hidden sources, we recommend carrying a restaurant card. These are laminated and portable cards that fold into any wallet or purse and can be ordered from www.triumphdining.com. These cards come in ten different languages and are specific to certain types of cuisine. They provide a list of what foods you can’t eat, where to check for hidden sources and what you can eat. These are very handy to pass onto the chef and to the waitstaff.
Or you can try making your own, adding the following items and any other dietary restrictions you might have.
I cannot eat:
Anything that contains gluten, which includes wheat, barley, rye, spelt, couscous, oats, bread, pasta, MSG, tempura, soy sauce or anything breaded or fried.
Please check the following:
These foods MIGHT have gluten in them: sauces, dressings, marinades, dips, soups, spreads, spice mixes and anything pre-packaged. Even a small exposure to gluten in these items will be enough to make me very sick. Thanks for double checking!
I can eat:
Any type of animal protein (poached, grilled, sauteed), fruits, vegetables, corn, rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, wheat-free tamari, potatoes, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, oils, cheese (if you can) and pure spices.
I can also get sick from cross-contamination. If a utensil, cutting board, pan, grill surface or cooking oil has been used to cook food that contains anything from the top list please don’t use it to prepare my food unless it’s been cleaned with soap and water first.
Ordering and Eating
Once at the restaurant, even if you’ve covered all the above suggestions ahead of time, you still need to be on your toes. Try to spend a few minutes with the waitperson before everyone else is asked for their order. A good time might be when they come to take drink orders or to tell about the specials. Motion for the waitperson to come close to you — trying to explain things over a table of people can be difficult and embarrassing.
Explain your dietary needs before you order and ask the waiter to check with the chef about if something contains gluten or how it is prepared. For example, there have been many times when a waiter is asked if there is a dedicated fryer for French fries and they insist there is, only to discover there is not when they check with the kitchen.
Here is a checklist of questions to tell and ask your server. This is especially important if you are a highly sensitive celiac. (See Common Cross-Contaminated Menu Items):
- I am gluten-free and I have a couple questions about the ________dish.
- Does the chef have any dedicated utensils for making gluten-free foods?
- Which dressings are gluten-free? (Remember certain balsamic vinaigrettes, if they have caramel color, can contain gluten. A safe bet is lemons and olive oil or carry your own.)
- Are gluten-free foods fried in the same oil as gluten containing foods?
- Is the grill used for both gluten and gluten-free dishes?
- What sauces and soups are gluten-free?
- Do you mind double-checking with the chef to see what dishes or if _____ dish can be made gluten-free?
- Don’t be afraid to ask for modifications to your selections. For example, ask for rice, polenta, potatoes or a vegetable instead of pasta or couscous.
When the food arrives, check everything out – mistakes can be made!
If there is something you feel might not be safe, ask the waiter again. Politely say, “I’m so sorry, but are you sure there is no wheat or soy sauce in here? I just need to be so careful.”
If your salad had croutons on it, or your hamburger came with a bun by mistake, before you send it back, be sure they know it must be thrown away and start over since you can eat nothing that has touched wheat if you have CD.
Then, once all these bases have been covered, enjoy your meal and the company you are with. If you eat while stressed, your digestion will slow down and can cause gas and bloating, so be sure to relax and eat slowly!
While dining out can be challenging, in time you will discover new restaurants and dishes that are just as delicious – if not more so – than your past ones. Remember, you can’t be too careful!