Eating out when you can’t eat gluten can feel like a contact sport. Few restaurants get it. And you’re often viewed as a social pariah when you ask for a gluten-free meal.
If you have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s body attacks the healthy tissue surrounding the small intestine after they eat gluten, you cannot eat gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats, and it makes the millions of people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance very sick, including me. (I have celiac disease.)
The truth is that the gluten-free diet is a medically-necessary diet, not a fad diet or choice, and those with the gluten disorder would love nothing more than to enjoy eating out with their friends and family without feeling like a burden.
However, people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance have to be extra careful when they eat out.
They have to ask lots of questions just to feel somewhat confident that the staff will know how to prepare and serve them a safe meal.
Because celiac disease and gluten sensitivities are on the rise, and more people are trialing the gluten-free diet to see if it improves their health, gluten-free diners are something restaurants can – and should – no longer ignore.
Knowing that so many gluten-free diners need a little extra care and effort put into the preparation of their meals at a restaurant, I wanted to share five tips to help restaurants better serve members of the gluten-free community who strictly adhere to the gluten-free diet and way of life.
1. Be Mindful of Cross Contamination
One way restaurants can better serve the gluten-free community is to make an effort to keep gluten-free cooking utensils/spatulas, pots, pans and prep stations separate from gluten-y stuff.
I know this can be difficult to do when space is an issue and your kitchen staff is pressed for time. That said, a little preparation and training will go a long way into making your gluten-free customers feel confident eating at your establishment.
Color code your gluten-free utensils and pots, or set a designated spot on your grill for gluten-free foods only.
If you told me that you had a separate space for preparing gluten-free meals and used a separate spatula too, I would have 100 percent confidence in your restaurant and become a loyal and repeat diner!
While you’re at it, I highly encourage you to keep your gluten-free baked goods separate too.
This weekend my family went to Milk N Cake in Denver, Colorado at my request after I saw a big gluten-free sign on the restaurant’s door. What I found was so disappointing.
The gluten-free cupcakes were sitting on the shelf below the gluten-ful cupcakes.
The crumbs from the gluten-y cupcakes were easily dripping onto the gluten-free cupcakes. Cross contamination is just stewing on those shelves and I wouldn’t eat those cupcakes if you paid me!
I recommend keeping your gluten-free cupcakes in a completely separate area, and especially not on a shelf where gluten crumbs can easily fall on them.
You can simply put up a sign that says “gluten-free cupcakes available by request”, and then explain that you keep the gluten-free cupcakes separate from the regular cupcakes..
2. Bring Gluten-Free Food Out Separately
If your kitchen staff took the time to prepare a gluten-free meal for your gluten-free customer, don’t let your server accidentally mess it up when it’s on its way to the table.
I have found that servers often bring out my gluten-free meal along with all the gluten-y dish. Sometimes the dishes are overlapping and touching one another. I’ve even watched sauce from my friend’s dish leak on to my gluten-free dish. I of course had to send it back!
All you have to do to avoid this gaffe is to bring the gluten-free dish out separately. It’s an easy way to make your gluten-free patrons feel at ease.
3. Mark Gluten-Free Food
I love when restaurants mark my meal as gluten free, either with a toothpick label or separate colored dish.
This offers me a clear way of knowing there have been no miscommunications between the cooks and the servers and it gives me confidence that the gluten-free meal prepared in the back is the one that made it to my table safe and sound.
Did you know that there’s a company that sells gluten-free labels for restaurants?
These labels offer an easy and cheap way to show you value the gluten-free community, and in return, the gluten-free community will reward you handsomely for catering caring about its needs.
4. Train Your Staff to Answer Gluten-Free Questions
There is nothing worse than sitting down with a group of friends to eat out than to have a waiter who is skeptical of my so-called “allergy.”
Don’t treat gluten-free eaters like an inconvenience; rather make them feel at ease and welcome the opportunity to prepare a meal for someone with special dietary needs. Isn’t the goal of every restaurateur and chef to make their customers happy?
Also, if someone calls ahead to inquire about your gluten-free accommodations, make sure the person answering the phone can confidently answer questions about how food allergies are handled by your staff, or have them hand the phone to the manager right away.
My confidence with your restaurant starts with that first conversation. If someone can assure me they can take care of my gluten-free needs, and they make me feel confident eating there, I will do so. If not, I’ll eat somewhere else and so will the rest of the people in my party.
5. Know that the Person with the Allergy Makes the Restaurant Choice
I tell restaurant managers time and time again that the person with special dietary needs makes the decision on where an entire group or party eats.
In my situation, I often go out with four, eight, or even 10 friends. Guess who decides on where we eat? Yep, it’s me.
If you can make an effort to accommodate the gluten-free eater in the party, then you will get his or her friend’s business that night too!
Eating Out Shouldn’t Be So Hard
With a little effort, restaurant managers can accommodate gluten-free diners and make their establishments a little more friendly for the gluten-free community.
There are so many great restaurant owners that truly care about the food sensitivity and allergy community – but we still have a long way to go to better accommodate gluten-free eaters.