We all have a natural desire to be with friends and socialize, and many of those occasions we do so with our friends over dinner.
Eating out is the way us gluten-free folk feel normal.
While I eat 95 percent of my meals at home, and I am a huge proponent of meal planning (and I even have a gluten-free meal planning service), I still go out to eat when I’m invited to join friends and clients. It’s just what we do.
But eating out while on a strict gluten-free diet makes me anxious. It’s always a crap shoot.
Will I get glutened? Maybe.
Do I still go out to eat anyway? Yes.
I’m not sure why I do it and take the risk time and time again, but I do.
I went out to eat twice this week. Once with a friend for an early birthday dinner. Once with a client.
I have been to both of these restaurants in the past and have had great experiences at both. But after both experiences, I most definitely got glutened – all in a two-day span. I came home feeling sick. (Read: 7 Ways to Recover from an Accidental Gluten Exposure)
If you go to a restaurant, you can take all the precautions you want, but note that you just might get glutened. Gluten happens.
The truth is no restaurant can guarantee you won’t get sick unless it’s a dedicated or certified gluten-free restaurant.
10 Ways to Avoid Getting Glutened When Eating Out
If you do choose to eat out, here are a few suggestions to prevent another accidental gluten exposure.
(1) Choose Your Restaurant Wisely
Choose restaurants with dedicated gluten-free menus and ones you have heard good things about.
Remember though, while one person got glutened somewhere, doesn’t mean you will too. Staff changes daily. Restaurants evolve. If you call the restaurant and ask them about their gluten-free options and they are positive and knowledgeable, I’m all in.
However, if you call a restaurant to inquire about gluten-free options, and the staff is detached and rude about it, you can rest assured that I will never step foot in that establishment.
(2) Use a Gluten-Free Safe Dining Card
I created a printable gluten-free safe dining out card that you can carry with you and show restaurant staff. It is particularly helpful when there is a language barrier, or when you’re having difficulty communicating your needs.
I simply keep the card in my wallet at all times, and when I’m in new restaurants or in situations where I’m not certain the staff understands what I’m talking about, I hand them this card that explains what I can and can’t eat, and I ask the waiter to share it with the chef.
(3) Ask to Speak with Manager/Chef
Maggiano’s doesn’t even let you order (if you flag an allergy) without first speaking with the chef (kudos Maggiano’s, although I have found gluten in your food).
If you’re worried you might get glutened, ask to speak with the manager and/or chef about your concerns. If they care about their customers, they will do their best to make sure you have a great experience.
(4) Use Assertive (but not aggressive) Language
Tell the waiter you have a serious reaction or horrible pain when you eat gluten, and it’s important he communicates that you take your gluten-free diet seriously (or even say it’s a serious allergy if you need to and this is not a trendy diet for you).
Remember, while you can’t technically be allergic to gluten or have a gluten allergy, restaurants understand the word “allergy” and take it more seriously.
(5) Ask For a Stand Alone Delivery
Waiters often pile everyone’s dish on one platter. I watched this happen at PF Chang’s. My gluten-free dish was below another dish, and the sauce from the top dish was dripping into my gluten-free dish. Doh!
Ask your waiter to deliver your dish completely separate to avoid gluten-y bits from spilling over onto your plate during the delivery process.
(6) Use a Straw
As clean as we wish our glasses were at restaurants, just use a straw. Trust me on this one.
(7) Beware of the Bar
The bartender isn’t really up on the latest gluten-free trends, so instead of asking for a mixed drink that will most definitely go through a mixing and cross contamination process with non-gluten-free liquors, just stick with a glass of wine. Save the fun drinks for home parties. (Read my Gluten-Free Alcohol Guide.) If a restaurant has gluten-free beer or cider, by all means enjoy that too.
(8) Ask the Right Questions
Don’t just take their word for it. Ask the right questions and be smarter than the staff. It is your job, not their job, to know and understand what you can and can’t eat.
For example, if you want to eat French fries, you need to ask if they cook their fries in a dedicated gluten-free fryer or if it’s a shared fryer with foods that contain gluten. Most restaurants have one fryer and they fry breaded chicken and your precious fries in the same oil.
You’ll also want to ask if there is a separate prep area for things like your pizza. A gluten-free pizza is no longer gluten free if it’s touching the same surfaces as wheat pizza and if it’s cut with the same pizza cutters. These questions will give you insight into whether this restaurant know gluten free, or just full of gluten.
(9) Test Your Food
If you own a Nima Sensor, test your food for gluten before you take a bite.
The Nima Sensor is a portable gluten detecting device that empowers you to test your food for gluten right at the table. I carry my Nima with me wherever I go.
(10) Be Nice
Above all else, be nice to your servers, even if they mess something up. The only thing you can control at a restaurant is your approach. If your approach is rude or demanding, the servers won’t go out of your way to give you (and future gluten-free diners) a safe experience.
And, for goodness sake, leave a good tip if you’re happy with the service and even mention to the manager that your waiter took extra care of you and your special dietary needs. A little kindness will ensure that waiter is positively rewarded for being kind to you … and he or she just might be more kind to the next person who comes along and requests a gluten-free meal.
I hope your next dining out experience is a success… but if you need more help, I highly recommend you read The Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten Free. It also includes a report on how 21 restaurants fared against the Nima Sensor (aka, did I find hidden gluten in their gluten-free dishes?).