Eating out when you eat gluten free is hard to do, and the Olive Garden, unfortunately, doesn’t make it any easier. In this post, I’ll talk about what’s gluten free at the Olive Garden and take you on a tour of the Olive Garden’s so called “gluten-free menu.” This post was originally sponsored by Nima Sensor, which may have gone out of business, and contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please read my disclosures.
While I’m not personally a fan of the Olive Garden, I have eaten there from time to time in my lifetime.
Of course, before my life as a gluten-free eater, I loved the Olive Garden through and through. I’d always order a big bowl of pasta or chicken parmesan … and I always indulged in way too many soft and doughy breadsticks and bottomless salads (with croutons, of course).
Alas, my breadstick and gluten-y pasta days are behind me as someone diagnosed with celiac disease, but it doesn’t mean I can’t eat at the Olive Garden anymore. I just have to make good choices, communicate my dietary needs clearly with my server, and test my food each and every time.
I decided to go into the Olive Garden to test it for hidden gluten using my Nima Sensor. The Nima Sensor is a portable device that enables me to test a small bit of my food for gluten before I eat it.
Please note that the Nima Sensor is no longer available and the company went out of business.
While the Nima Sensor cannot tell me if my entire plate of food is free from gluten, it does give me a good idea if the meal is safe or not. Of course, the Nima Sensor is not a replacement for lazy ordering (you must disclose your “allergy”) or ordering something risky or that you’re feeling uncertain about (always trust your gut!).
Keep reading to find out if the dishes I tested at the Olive Garden passed the Nima Sensor test. Let’s just say it was an up and down experience – some good, some bad, and some ugly.
With the results of my test, I realize that you cannot eat haphazardly at the Olive Garden. There are many risks to eating there. More on that to come…
As always, keep in mind that your experience may be different than mine and will vary from location to location, cook to cook, person to person. Cross contamination is always a risk when you eat out at restaurants.
That said, if you follow my detailed advice for eating out gluten free, you will have the best chance at getting a safe, gluten-free meal when you eat out.
(PS: I love eating out and think you should NOT have to give up that part of your life because you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity!)
Really? Gluten Free at the Olive Garden?
The Olive Garden has a “Gluten Sensitive” menu, however, there is a lot of gluten to be had inside this restaurant.
Specifically, the Olive Garden says on its website that its “gluten sensitive” items are “made without gluten-containing ingredients” but they do not “claim these items are gluten-free” because they have not analyzed them to confirm if they meet the FDAs definition of “gluten-free” (20 parts per million of gluten).
The Olive Garden goes on to say that while it has “processes and procedures in place to minimize cross-contact with other gluten-containing foods,” these items still may not be suitable for those highly sensitive to gluten.
In other words, it is risky to eat at the Olive Garden. If you cannot eat gluten, you must go into this knowing the risks and ready to test your food before you eat.
About that Gluten-Free Pasta
The Olive Garden says on its website that its gluten-free pasta is made primarily from brown rice flour (changed from an old recipe). I personally enjoy brown rice pastas as they have better texture than corn-based pastas. (I can say with confidence that the new gluten-free rotini pasta is way better than the old pasta.)
There was a rumor going around my Gluten-Free Diet Support Group on Facebook that said the pasta at the Olive Garden was cooked in the same water as the regular pasta (and perhaps the cooks used the same collader and tools for both pastas).
I contacted the PR department for the Olive Garden to ask them about the pasta water. They told me that separate water is used for cooking its gluten-free pasta.
Additionally, the Olive Garden states on its website that it takes precaution when cooking pasta for its gluten sensitive guests:
“We have special handling procedures for our gluten-free pasta. The gluten-free pasta is cooked in a sanitized kettle, rather than the pasta cookers that we use to cook our other pasta. This pasta is then held separately until ordered. At that time it is added directly to the sauté pan to avoid cross contact with other pasta or pasta water.”
Additionally, the Olive Garden adds that its gluten-free pasta meets the
“FDA’s formal definition of gluten free,” which is that it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten.
As you’ll see below, the pasta tested a-okay in the Nima Sensor so, at least in the location I visited, I know the pasta was cooked and handled safely.
What’s on the Olive Garden’s Gluten-Free Menu?
There are a few items to choose from that are gluten free at the Olive Garden. I’m not going to sugar coat it, it’s a limited gluten sensitive menu, and a few of the items have come into question per my Nima Sensor test today.
Obviously you cannot eat the breadsticks, but you can start your meal off with a salad. You must mention that you eat gluten free to your server so he or she leaves off the croutons.
I tested the salad dressing with the Nima Sensor. Everything came up smiles.
The Olive Garden’s salad dressing does not contain gluten ingredients, however, the restaurant discloses on its website that gluten is present in the facility where the dressing is made.
Furthermore, you cannot eat anything cooked in the fryer as the Olive Garden does not have a dedicated gluten-free fryer. There are bits of wheat floating around in the oil used to cook your food and everyone else’s food regardless if it contains gluten or not.
Here are items you can order free from gluten at the Olive Garden:
- Famous House Salad (without croutons)
- Zuppa Toscana
- Sirloin Steak
- Grilled Chicken Parmesan
- Rotini with Marinara
- Rotini with Meat Sauce
- Herb Grilled Salmon
The Olive Garden also has a few items for gluten sensitive kids, including:
- Grilled Chicken
- Rotini with Marinara Sauce
- Rotini with Meat Sauce
I also ordered the grilled chicken parmesan. The gluten-free version of this classic dish comes grilled vs. breaded and fried.
I tested a piece of the chicken with sauce and cheese (twice) and got the same response from my Nima Sensor. Uh oh:
After Nima found gluten, I asked to speak with the manager. I explained what happened and she was not apologetic at all.
She lectured me on how they are just a “gluten sensitive” restaurant and could not guarantee the item is free from gluten. She also explained to me how gluten sensitive people could eat a tad bit of gluten (wrong!). She offered to make me something new, but I just asked for her take it off my check. I didn’t trust the process, nor did I feel like the Olive Garden cared about me.
I’ve been to restaurants before where gluten was found in my dish. Usually the managers are apologetic and want to make me happy. They may say they can’t guarantee anything is gluten-free but they would like the opportunity to do better. In fact, many restaurant managers have told me they’re going to use fresh ingredients and make my dish themselves to make sure it is done right. This manager, however, made me feel like a burden.
I guess I thought when you ate at the Olive Garden, you would be treated like family. Isn’t the restaurant’s slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family?” I guess you’re only “family” if you eat a certain way. If you eat gluten-free, you’re an outsider.
Thank You Nima Sensor
Can we all just thank the Nima Sensor, once again, for helping give us peace of mind at mealtime? Seriously, thank you Nima Sensor! You saved me from eating gluten today at the Olive Garden and many times over.
To see the Nima Sensor in action, please watch my Facebook Live at the Olive Garden video:
How Other Restaurants Fared
Learn how to safely eat gluten free at the following restaurants too (all Nima Sensor tested):