By Jillian Rodriguez
If you think the title of this article is an oxymoron, you’re not alone. I used to think that safely eating out on a strict gluten-free diet was impossible. On my bad days, I still think that. When your meal options are constrained by doctor’s orders, it sucks some of the fun out of dining out. But as with any challenge, the only thing you truly have control over is your perspective. If your gluten-free diet has got you down, consider this your pep talk to get back out there and keep trying. You might be frustrated right now, but I promise it gets better.
How do I know? Because I’m more than a decade into my own gluten-free diet. At seventeen years old, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease long before it reached public consciousness, which gave me and my family a significant learning curve. In fact, my first noteworthy ‘dining out while gluten-free’ experience took place at my high school prom, in which I tried to explain the nuances of cross-contamination to a bunch of frustrated twenty-year-old servers while my classmates looked on in confusion. Not exactly the idyllic prom night I had always imagined.
It’s not easy bringing your medical condition to the table when you dine out with family and friends, but your gluten-free diet should not stand between you and normalcy, nor you and your happiness. Whether it’s prom or just a Wednesday night at your favorite Thai spot, eating out while maintaining a strict gluten-free diet is possible (cue the hallelujahs!). After years of trial and error and occasionally (okay, more than occasionally) being ‘glutened,’ I’ve fine-tuned my approach to eating out while gluten-free. It’s an art and a science.
Here’s what you need to know:
Do your research. I know, part of the fun of being a foodie is spontaneity. But you know what’s even more fun? Not getting violently ill after going out to eat. It’s easy to find at least a few gluten-free options on most menus, but if cross contamination is an issue for you (and if you’re Celiac, it is!), it gets a lot more complicated.
When your friends suggest going out, research the restaurant beforehand and look for signs that the restaurant and its staff are allergy-friendly. If the menu lists allergen information or there’s a separate gluten-free menu, consider yourself among friends. Check out Yelp reviews and see if the restaurant is listed on the Find Me Gluten Free app. Before heading out, call ahead and let the staff know when you’re coming in and that you’ll need a gluten-free meal. Often, giving the kitchen advance notice is your best bet for ensuring they can prepare a safe, gluten-free dish. Plus, you won’t catch your server off guard and send the kitchen into a frenzy.
Be clear and concise. Learn your gluten-free spiel like it’s the Pledge of Allegiance. You should know your facts inside and out — it’s not fair to expect your server to know more about your gluten-free diet than you do. When you’re first seated, pull your server aside and politely let them know that you’re on a strict gluten-free diet and you’ll need their help selecting a safe meal. If you’re sensitive to cross-contamination, now’s the time to let them know.
If the restaurant doesn’t have a separate gluten-free menu, pick one or two dishes that you think are gluten-free (and that you would enjoy!) and ask them to check with the kitchen to see if it can be made gluten-free. If you’re uncomfortable doing the same ol’ GF song and dance every time you dine out, print a restaurant card that explains what foods you can and can’t eat (they even come in different languages!).
One final plea: if you’re not on a strict gluten-free diet (AKA you often eat gluten, but enjoy eating some gluten-free meals), please do not make your server jump through hoops to bring you a gluten-free meal. When you demand a gluten-free sandwich and then order an IPA to wash it down, you make servers everywhere doubt the rest of us.
Double-check everything. Here’s where being extremely, extraordinary polite comes in. Restaurants are busy, and it’s worth it to double check that the meal you’re served actually is gluten-free. Is double-checking excessive? Yes. Can it come off as overbearing? Sure. Have I been burned way too many times to care? Yep. When your meal is delivered, take the extra few seconds to repeat your order back to your server and ask, in no uncertain terms, that it is gluten-free. When in doubt, just don’t eat it — but if you did your due diligence, you’re about to dig into some delicious gluten-free cuisine, prepared beyond the safety of your own GF kitchen. Imagine that!
How do you maintain your gluten-free diet while eating out? Share your tips and stories in the comments below!