How to Eat Out Safely if You’re Gluten-Free [Must-read Tips]
Special thanks to Jodee P. for her input from 15+ years of experience with celiac disease.
So you’re gluten-free, huh?
And you want to eat out?
Good for you!
There’s no reason not to live your best life even with dietary restrictions. However, figuring out how to dine out safely is key to your health.
I’ve compiled 6 “steps” to help guide you through the process of finding a safe restaurant, determining what to order, and ensuring your meal really is gluten-free.
Here’s the first step:
1. Research like Nobody’s Business
Time to do some digging!
Before going out to eat, search online for restaurants with gluten-free menus. These restaurants have gone out of their way to serve gluten-free customers, which means they care more about your needs than other restaurants.
Look for upscale establishments that are more likely to have formally-trained chefs. These chefs are skilled in modifying menu items, and you’re more likely to get a meal with good flavor.
Some fast-food chains have gluten-free items, including In-n-out, Chipotle, Waffle House, Sonic, Starbucks, Jersey Mike’s, Del Taco, and Chick-fil-a. It’s riskier, but it doesn’t break the bank, and sometimes that’s necessary.
Everyone’s gluten sensitivity is different. Some people might not have a problem with a gluten-free pizza cooked in an oven with gluten pizzas, while other people might be sick for days.
So gauge your own sensitivity to determine what works for you.
Once you have a list of potential restaurants, move to step #2. Remember to keep this list so you don’t have to repeat your research over and over!
2. Pick Up the Phone
Okay, the next step is to call the manager.
Don’t be nervous—
Their job is to help you!
The best time to call is late morning or late afternoon when the restaurant isn’t busy. You can talk to the manager or the chef, depending on who’s available and who has the answers to your questions.
You may be wondering:
What do you say?
First, explain your disease. Don’t go overboard, but make sure they understand what gluten is, how it affects you, and what foods you need to avoid.
Try something like this:
“I have celiac disease, which means I can’t eat anything that contains gluten without having a severe reaction. I can’t eat wheat, rye, barley, or oats, and there are several processed foods, like soy sauce, dressings, and breadcrumbs, that also contain gluten. I’m planning to come to your restaurant tomorrow, so I’d like to ask you a few questions about your menu.”
If they agree to answer your questions, then you have a green light! If they seem educated on gluten, ask them what menu items are gluten-free or what substitutions they can make.
If you’re super wary, ask them about specific menu items you’re interested in. Here are a few topics you could address:
Salads: Are your cutting boards and knives kept separate from gluten-containing foods? What ingredients are in your dressing?
Soups: What type of soup base do you use?
Meats: Do you cook your meat in au jus? What seasonings do you use on your meat? Do you use imitation bacon or self-basting turkey? What is in your marinade/brine?
Fried food: Do you keep your oil for non-breaded items separate from breaded items?
Dairy: Do you use any dairy substitutes (if so, what are the ingredients)?
Before you hang up:
Ask about their allergy protocols.
Some restaurants, like P.F. Chang’s, use different colored plates or allergy flags to differentiate modified dishes. Other restaurants ensure that allergy-specific meals are served by the chef or the manager and not the waiter.
Asking about these protocols will help you protect yourself if a mistake is made.
After you hang up:
Assess the manager/chef’s attitude. Did they seem helpful and informed? Then this is a great choice!
Did they seem annoyed and uninterested? Then you might want to find a different restaurant.
It’s nothing personal:
Honestly, some restaurants just aren’t equipped to deal with people with food intolerances, which makes you a bit of a burden for them. So you might want to avoid going to these restaurants because they’re more likely to make a mistake.
3. Show Up and Knock Their Socks Off!
You made it to the restaurant!
Be polite, no matter what!
The staff’s interaction with you will shape their perceptions of people who eat gluten-free. The kinder you are, the more they’ll want to serve you again! So wow them with your smile :)
(Side note: Try to go before or after the busiest times. The staff will be more likely to get your order correct.)
Once you sit down, tell the waiter you’re gluten-free. They should know what options are best for you or at least who to refer you to.
Pro tip if they aren’t taking you seriously:
Use words like “medically restricted” to add validity to your story. You can also say “it’s kind of like food poisoning” if you want to really get their attention.
Restaurant cards are an awesome resource to educate the staff. Essentially, they are 3x5 cards explaining the disease with details on what foods you can’t be exposed to. There’s an app you can download that has everything written out for you in a variety of languages, or you can go to the website and print out the actual card.
4. Place Your Order (Don’t Be Scared!)
The waiter is ready to take your order.
Suggest that the other party members order first. Ordering last will help the waiter to remember the details of your order better.
When it’s your turn, give specific instructions if the dish isn’t usually gluten-free, such as “Please make sure there are no croutons on the salad.”
Remember to smile :)
5. Perform the Triple-Check—Nicely
You see your meal balanced on a tray making its way towards you! Yay!
If you are aware of the restaurant’s allergy protocols, check for them. Is it the right plate? Is the chef supposed to bring it out? Make sure everything is in order.
Want to be 100% sure it’s gluten-free?
There’s a device called a gluten sensor that you can use to test your food. The device itself is a one-time purchase of about $180, plus the capsules that you use to test the food each time that cost about $5 per capsule.
If this isn’t practical for you to use every time you go out to eat, it can be helpful when you’re on vacation or on a cruise and don’t want to risk being sick the whole trip.
Sensor or not, confirm with your waiter that your meal is gluten-free. If they got it wrong, don’t be afraid to send it back. Getting yourself sick isn’t worth the embarrassment of speaking up. Just be polite about it.
Then enjoy your meal!
6. Tip Your Server G-E-N-E-R-O-U-S-L-Y
If they got your order correct, leave them a big tip!
You want the waiter to have a positive experience with you so that the next time a customer needs a gluten-free meal, they get excited instead of groaning.
Eating out can seem like a hassle, and sometimes it really is. It can seem SO overwhelming when you’re first diagnosed. However, once you’ve investigated 5-10 good restaurants, most of the hard stuff is over. Keep going back to those restaurants.
But what if you’re going out of town?
The internet is full of resources for every city. Just search “Gluten-free San Francisco” or visit Findmeglutenfree.com (they also have an app).
You’ll still want to re-explain and re-confirm with your waiters, but the more you help educate them, the more you’ll trust them. People are so much more educated now than they were 20 years ago, and more and more restaurants are offering gluten-free options.
After you have some reps under your belt, eating out can become relaxing, fun, and just plain delicious—which is the best part!