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Gluten-Free Dining in Restaurants

Tips for Safe Gluten-Free Restaurant Meals

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Updated May 16, 2014

For people with celiac disease, restaurant dining can be very challenging. In fact, in a study by Columbia University, 86% of celiac patients said the difficulties of dining out had a negative impact on them. In a larger study at the University of Ottawa, nearly half the celiac respondents said they sometimes avoided eating in restaurants.

For newly diagnosed celiacs, restaurants can be particularly difficult, especially for those who are shy about asking questions. Over time, though, dining out can become much easier. Go with companions who are patient and supportive. Find restaurants where the waiters are helpful and the chefs are talented. Learn all you can about food preparation and terminology, so you'll be better equipped to recognize dangerous menu items. You'll have some restaurant meals that are good, some you'd rather forget, and some that are absolutely fantastic.

Finally, whether you are newly diagnosed or have lots of experience, follow the tips below. Be careful, and bon appetit!

1. Don't start out hungry.
This is good advice for anyone going out to eat, but it's particularly important for celiacs. The hungrier you are, the more likely you are to make a mistake. If you must go to a restaurant hungry, bring some crackers to munch on while everyone else is filling up on the rolls.

2. Be familiar with the gluten-free diet.
This means not only knowing which grains to avoid but also where they're likely to be hidden and the need to protect yourself against cross-contamination.

3. Select the right restaurant.
Try looking at one or more of the celiac-friendly restaurant directories. If you're not choosing a restaurant from a directory, check in advance to make sure there are menu items you can eat. Look for the menu online, or have it faxed to you. If you're still not sure whether anything safe will be available for you, call ahead, preferably when the restaurant isn't busy, and speak with the chef or the manager.

Note: If you'll be dining at an Italian restaurant, call to ask whether they'd mind if you brought your own pasta. Many restaurants will happily prepare your gluten-free pasta and top it with their own fresh sauce.

4. Tell your server you're on a special diet.
Don't try to explain your needs to a server who's standing on the other side of your table. Ask him or her to come closer so you don't have to shout. Tell your server you have food allergies and you need to know how the food is prepared. If your server appears not to understand, ask to speak with the restaurant manager or the chef. (Celiac disease is not an allergy, but if you want the restaurant staff to understand your problem, it will be easier if you tell them you have allergies.)

Consider bringing along a dining card to explain what you can and cannot eat. Cards are available in a wide variety of languages.

5. Pick a few dishes on the menu that look as if they might be safe, and ask questions.
Look for simple dishes without coatings or sauces, or with sauces that can be left off. Start by saying something like: "I'm very allergic to wheat. I can't have anything made with flour, or bread crumbs, or soy sauce. Could you please ask your chef whether the _______ would be safe for me?"

Always ask your server to tell the chef that you can't have wheat, and always ask questions. Don't assume that anything is gluten-free. Even if a menu item looks safe, you might not realize that the chef's secret recipe includes gluten. Egg omelets can contain pancake batter. Baked potatoes can be coated with flour to make the skins crispier. Green tea can have barley in it. Here are some additional questions to ask:

  • Are there croutons on the salad? Can you please leave them off?
  • Do you make the salad dressing from scratch? What's in it?
  • Do you make the soup from scratch, or does it come from a can? Can I see the label?
  • Has the food been marinated in any sauce?
  • Do you make the sauce yourself, or is it canned?
  • Has the food been dusted with flour before being sauted or fried?
  • Is the oil used for the French fries also used to make the other breaded products?
  • Are artificial bacon bits or other meat substitutes used on potato skins and salads?
  • Are your mashed potatoes from a mix, or from real potatoes?
  • Do you use imitation crabmeat or seafood?
  • Will the ice cream have a cookie stuck into it?

You might find it easier to be the last person in the group to place your order. That way you'll know the server is going directly back to the kitchen and is less likely to forget what you've told him. Alternatively, if your server recites a list of "specials" and gives the diners another few minutes to consider the menu, this can be a good time to call the server over to you and ask her to check with the chef about the items you're interested in.

6. Caution the restaurant staff about cross-contamination.
Remind the server and the chef that your food must be prepared on a clean cooking surface, with clean utensils. Many restaurant staffers will not realize the risks of cross-contamination unless these are pointed out to them.

7. Be prepared to eat something that isn't your first choice. Sometimes nothing on the menu will be safe. Ask if the cook can saute some plain meat or fish in olive oil or butter and steam some vegetables for you. It won't be the tastiest meal you ever had, but your goal should be to get some very plain food that won't make you sick.

Sources:

Cureton P. Gluten-free dining out: is it safe? Practical Gastroenterology 2006, pages 61-68.

Lowell JP. Against the Grain. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995.

Lee A, Newman JM. Celiac diet: its impact on quality of life. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Nov;103(11):1533-5.

Zarkadas M, Cranney A, Case S, et al. The impact of a gluten-free diet on adults with coeliac disease: results of a national survey. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 2006 Feb;19(1):41-9.

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