May 30, 2012

How To Go Gluten-Free: Eating Out At Restaurants

photo credit: Flickr harry harris

Since this month is National Celiac Awareness Month, I thought I’d share some tips throughout the month to help you get started on a gluten-free diet. Previously, I’ve shared why I’m gluten-free (and the symptoms of a gluten intolerance or celiac disease), some tips on how to go gluten-free for the beginner, and how to avoid cross-contamination in your home. But even if you’re no longer a newbie, hopefully this information can be a good refresher. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments. Many brains together is better than just my little ol’ noggin!

Week before last, I shared tips on how to avoid cross-contamination in your home. Personally, I eat food prepared in my home most of the time. It’s the safest option for me, it’s less expensive, and I eat a healthier, more balanced diet when I am eating whole foods and cooking from scratch. However, none of us can eat at home 100% of the time. For most of us, it’s impossible. I often pack food when I’m going away – I bring my lunch every day to work, and I pack snacks for short day trips, and I pack ingredients for cooking (and make a visit to the grocery) when we go on vacation, trying to stay in places with cooking options whenever possible. But there are times I will be eating out at a restaurant, and I’d like for that experience to be not only safe, but also enjoyable. Nowadays, many restaurants are becoming more aware of the need to cater to gluten-free living, which has started to provide more opportunities for those of us that must live this way to enjoy the restaurant experience.

For starters, many restaurants are now carrying gluten-free menus. Hooray! This helps make the process a bit easier, but if the Domino’s not-so-gluten-free pizza crust is any indication, we must be cautious. Not every restaurant that carries a gluten-free menu or says they have gluten-free items has the proper practices and procedures in place to ensure a safe meal. If you cannot eat gluten, there is a certain level of due diligence you have to do to make sure you won’t become sick.

When I first started a gluten-free diet, I would visit a restaurant, look at the menu, and pick out an item that looked as though it was “probably safe”, cross my fingers, and hope for the best. I didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to myself – I really wasn’t fond of being branded the “picky” eater. (Which honestly, was probably more in my head than a real problem.) Because I wouldn’t speak up, over and over, I’d get sick. As I was gluten-free for a longer period of time, I started to really understand just how sick I was every time I’d eat out. I’d pay for my inaction with days and weeks of misery. It finally came to a point where I knew I would either have to give up eating out, or I’d have to advocate for myself when others were preparing food for me. I’d have to suck it up and speak out.

If the restaurant is new to me, and I will be dining with people that I’d rather not explain my entire dietary situation with, I call ahead and go over my needs with the restaurant. I request to speak to a manager or the chef. I ask questions about cross-contamination. If the restaurant doesn’t have a gluten-free menu, I look at their menu online, if available, and I ask questions about certain seemingly safe menu items (grilled steak with veggies? Salad with grilled chicken? Fajitas?). I ask if there is a marinade – and is it safe? Are the vegetables steamed in clean water or is the pasta water used? (Yes, some restaurants, particularly Italian restaurants, steam veggies with pasta water.) What about seasonings? Is chicken broth used, and is it gluten-free? I discuss using clean utensils and cooking surfaces. Sometimes, I will plan ahead what I am going to eat there, based on these discussions, so I can make the ordering process easier. Then I can talk with the wait staff when I arrive, let them know of my conversation and what I would like to order, and it makes the process a bit less painful and disorganized, especially if they are busy.

I also have Triumph Dining dining cards. I personally think they’re quite helpful, especially if I don’t have an opportunity to call ahead. I use them to explain to the wait staff my dietary needs, and give them the card and tell them this will help explain my needs to the chef. Sometimes, the chef will come out to talk with me, as they will sometimes want to clarify directly with me that what they plan on making will be suitable.

In fact, last year, I attended a week-long conference that was held in the Dallas area at a hotel. I contacted the person coordinating the conference and informed them of my dietary needs (I even gave her some usual solutions that most hotel kitchens come up with – a grilled chicken breast and salad, or steamed vegetables), and asked if I needed to contact the hotel directly (and said I was happy to do so). This person coordinating the event contacted the chef at the hotel, forwarded my description of my needs, and she received a response saying that they could take care of me. The first day I arrived, and the conference broke for lunch, the chef came out to talk to me directly. He asked what I’d like to eat for lunch. I stammered…I’d never had such freedom on my lunch order! The chef expressed clear understanding of my needs, checked for clarification when needed, and had a willing and helpful attitude. I felt comfortable eating here, and that feeling, to me, is important. I said I would be happy with a simple meal of grilled meat and veggies. I asked what he had, and he explained he’d just received in some fresh salmon (and he listed some other meats). I went for the salmon. He described that he could grill it, and serve it with an Asian cabbage slaw. It was excellent – better than I could have possibly hoped for. The rest of the week spent there was just as lovely, and every meal was completely safe. At a conference, especially one where I am to spend all day concentrating and learning tons of material (like I did at this one), keeping healthy is essential. I made sure the organization holding the conference knew just how much I appreciated the quality service at that hotel.

If I am treated well and provide a safe meal, I do all that I can to reward the restaurant for their extra level of service. I tip well. I make positive reviews of the restaurant. I also make a point to return as often as I can. Currently, I have a handful of restaurants that I can frequent safely, and I visit those restaurants time and time again. This also makes it a bit easier when I am going out to eat with someone – I can suggest one of my favorites, and make the whole dining experience less stressful for everyone.

If for some reason I cannot eat at the restaurant that I’m visiting – maybe they only serve pizza, for example, or I tried to contact them only to be met with confusion on how to handle my diet, a total lack of willingness to listen, understand, or work with me, and I was extremely uncomfortable eating there, I will try to eat something beforehand if I can. If that’s not possible, I carry an “emergency snack” with me, such as a small bag of nuts, a LARA bar, or other portable bit of food, so I don’t starve and give in to questionable food. I also might treat myself later to something safe and delicious to make up for my not-so-interesting meal, if possible, so I don’t feel deprived. To me, “cheating”, even if it’s merely eating something that “seems to be” gluten-free, just isn’t worth two weeks of misery. (And those are just outward symptoms. I know some people have little-to-no noticeable reaction to gluten, but even those little amounts still wreak havoc on their insides. Just. Not. Worth. It.)

Eating out isn’t the easiest of processes. Personally, I feel like a kid in a candy store when I discover that there are a few restaurants out there that are mostly or entirely gluten-free. It’s exciting to know that more and more people are becoming aware of the gluten-free diet. However, not everyone truly understands what it means to prepare a safe gluten-free meal for someone who is on a gluten-free diet out of necessity. We have to advocate for ourselves and for our gluten-free family members. Fortunately, education can go a long way, especially if you find a restaurant that is willing to listen and learn how to best serve you. And with a little work on your part, you can help to ensure a safe meal for yourself and/or your family.

What tips can you share to help ensure a safe gluten-free visit to a restaurant?

 

 

 

 

6 Responses to “How To Go Gluten-Free: Eating Out At Restaurants”

  1. Hi there!
    Great article. I particularly could relate to restaurants that were unwilling/unable to help since they had no knowledge of what gluten even was. I find that eating at Asian restaurants are the most challenging since they really don’t have that much exposure to food allergies.
    Hopefully this will improve in the future! :)
    Also, please check out our blog: http://krisandtgogfree.blogspot.com/
    Thanks and I look forward to reading your next post!

  2. Too funny that you are doing a post on this, I just did one yesterday but I was looking for all your helpful ideas. That sounds like a dream vacation having a chef ask me what do I want to eat. Having an emergency snack is a good idea because lately I have realized it is SO not worth it to have a “taste” literally of something and digestion and all goes out the window. I found a restaurant near me that has a gluten free menu option and it was such an amazing experience. Not having the stress of clairfying things I can eat, public embarassment…etc. was awesome. Plus the food really was amazing. Of course my favorite part was when they surprised me with a gluten free roll- I would have been happy to just have the wine and the roll at that point. Thanks for the helpful tips although I don’t think I’m brave enough to call the restaurant before I go, although it has crossed my mind.

  3. Great tips! I commented on your post in the Udi’s Community before reading this. I see from reading this we have both felt the same way about asking questions at restaurants. I am sure that is how many feel. One other thing to remember, the more we speak up about gluten-free the more awareness there is! :)

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