Tips for Dining Out Gluten-Free

I wanted this to be a simple “Top 5 Questions We Ask Restaurants” but realized it’s a bit more complicated than that… so here are my best tips for how we screen a restaurant and dine out.

My son loves to try out new restaurants, and being almost 13 now, he’s starting to go out on his own with friends.  But needing to eat a gluten-free diet, free of cross-contamination, it’s not the carefree experience so many of us associate with dining out.  Each and every time he eats out, he needs to determine if the restaurant can accommodate his needs. 

Over the 8 years since his celiac diagnosis, we’ve been fortunate to dine at some amazing restaurants around the country and abroad.  There are a surprising number of 100% gluten-free restaurants which we love to frequent and which are always a treat. It is the only time we feel truly relaxed and carefree dining out. But the reality is that most restaurants are not 100% gluten-free and my son doesn’t want to miss out, so we are constantly determining if he can eat safely at a particular restaurant.  Over the years we have developed a “script” of certain questions that can help us make a determination.

Caveat

None of our questions are fool-proof. Our questions also depend in part on the type of food my son likes to eat.  Over time, we’ve developed a comfort level with certain answers. We’ve learned to read responses and body language such that my son and I will look at each other and nod “yay or nay.”  And even with these questions, I’m sure my son’s been contaminated from time to time. After doing your due diligence, there is a certain level of trust you have to have with a kitchen so you are able to enjoy your dining experience.

1. Screening

The answers to these simple questions often give a first clue as to whether or not we should proceed. Obviously, if it’s just our family, it’s easier to walk away than if we’re with a group or my son is with friends — but that’s a topic for a separate post.

  • Do they have a gluten-free menu, or are items marked gluten-free on the regular menu?
  • If not, are there naturally gluten-free items such as steak, chicken or salad that can be prepared safely?
  • And most importantly, are those items safe enough for someone with a gluten allergy or celiac disease?

Not everyone agrees with this, but we often use the word “allergy” when dining out because it is a word that triggers wait staff, managers and most importantly the kitchen to know that food must be prepared free of cross-contamination.  We are all for educating about Celiac Disease, however in our opinion, there is a time and place for it. We make the decision depending on how crowded a restaurant is and who we’re dining with.

2. Being seated

  • When being seated, we tell the host that we need a gluten-free menu (if there is one).
  • We inform our server that one of us will be eating gluten-free when they first come over to say hello.

3. Asking about the menu

We ask specific questions relative to the menu and food we might be ordering. It helps to know hidden sources of gluten and what might result in cross-contamination in a specific dish.  We’re concerned about whether food is prepared using clean utensils, preparation areas, pots, pans and colanders. For instance:

  • Is pasta cooked in separate water, with a separate colander, etc?
  • Are fries cooked in a separate fryer?
  • Do you use gluten-free soy sauce?
  • Are tortilla chips made in a separate fryer?
  • Is soup thickened with any flour?
  • Are there croutons or crispy noodles on salads?

Don’t assume anything is gluten-free. Gluten is hidden in the most unexpected places and restaurants often put flour in all sorts of dishes to make them crispy or or fluffier. I think it was Celiac and the Beast who informed me that there is sometimes bread in the bottom of bacon pans in buffets to absorb oil!

4. Ordering

When we order, we say the word “gluten-free” 10 times. Ok, maybe not 10x but a lot.  Depending on the restaurant and what we think will trigger the safest response, we inform the waiter that we are “seriously gluten-free”, that we have celiac disease or a gluten allergy. We tell them that we are gluten-free for medical reasons, not for fun, that my son will get sick if he eats gluten. We ask them to write “Allergy” on the order.  If, by this time, we’ve haven’t scared them into saying they can’t cook for us, we’re feeling pretty good, lol.

5. Being served

Even if you’re feeling good about the restaurant and kitchen, always take a good look at your plate when it’s served. Is it what was ordered? Are there croutons? Is something unexpectedly “breaded”? Mistakes happen and it’s better to catch them and ask questions before you eat, just to be safe! For example, we eat out often at one particular restaurant, and my son orders the same pasta, each and every time.  The other night when it was served, the pasta was a different shape than usual. My son immediately asked if his dish was gluten-free because the pasta looked unusual. It was gluten-free — it turned out that they had run out of their usual pasta and substituted a different gluten-free brand. But better to be safe than sorry!

6. Quick Note about Dining with groups and Traveling

When dining with a group or traveling, we check out the restaurant ahead of time and call to discuss the menu and do our initial screening over the phone.

  • Try to call restaurants during non-busy hours to ask questions.
  • Most restaurants want to accommodate, especially if they are aware of your needs and have enough time to be ready for you.
  • When going to an event, call the restaurant or caterer ahead of time as well and ask similar questions to determine if there will be anything safe to eat.
  • When in doubt while traveling, look for chain restaurants — some of the larger chains have great protocols.
  • Again, educate about cross-contamination when appropriate.

Pro tip

One thing we’ve found really useful is to find local restaurants that seem to understand and want to work with us, then we invest the time in educating them, and we become loyal repeat customers. Even with that, whenever we order, we remind them “celiac or allergy,” whatever will trigger the kitchen to make sure there is no cross-contamination in food preparation.

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