11 Dec 2013

You’re gluten-free, not a shut in. Your dietary preferences should not keep you from going out and enjoying a meal in a restaurant with your family or friends.

Unfortunately, there can be a lot of stress around gluten free dining, especially in the beginning. Staying healthy and avoiding being glutened means making demands of the server and the restaurant that may feel uncomfortable or obnoxious at first. And just because you have alerted the staff to your dietary need, things can still go wrong. Ignorance around what causes celiac disease may lead to cross contamination or servers claiming that a dish is gluten free when it is not.

I remember going to Disneyworld with my family after finding out I had celiac disease. I had done my research and thought I was being so careful. I told the server I was gluten free, and he brought us “gluten free” bread rolls to munch on before our main course. With one bite I knew they contained gluten, despite the waiter had told us. I spent the rest of my vacation feeling sick to my stomach.

Rice with chicken and vegetables

How do you avoid an experience like this? You do it by being prepared and standing up for your dietary needs.

Gluten-Free Dining – Being Prepared

There are several ways you can prepare yourself for eating out to prevent being glutened, not having anything to eat, or just generally having a miserable time.

First, if you are in charge of choosing the restaurant, look for places with designated gluten-free menus and separate kitchens. There are several excellent resources for finding gluten-free friendly and exclusively gluten free restaurants, including Celiac Restaurant Guide, Gluten Free Registry, and Triumph Dining‘s apps and ebooks.

If you’re going out with friends, ask which restaurants they’re considering. Call the establishment ahead of time to see what options they have for gluten-free customers. Be sure you ask to speak to someone other the host or wait staff – only the kitchen staff and chef are sufficiently knowledgeable about the food they’re serving and whether it is gluten-free.

Finally, don’t go out to dinner starving. There is a chance that your food will take longer to prepare, or that the gluten-free option is conspicuously smaller than the other entrees. It helps to eat a gluten-free snack beforehand so that you don’t make a desperate mistake because you’re dying of hunger.

Standing Up For Your Dietary Needs

Now that you’ve had a snack and selected the best gluten-free friendly restaurant in town, you’re ready to order. If the restaurant does not have a designated gluten-free menu, you’ll want to ask the waiter to send a manager or a chef to your table. Have a couple of safe-looking menu options picked out and ready to discuss.

Politely explain to the manager or chef how important it is that you not be exposed to any gluten. This means only using clean cutting boards, utensils, water and oils for your food. If they are dismissive or rude, don’t be afraid to leave. If you receive food that looks suspect for any reason, don’t be afraid to send it back. You;’re not being difficult or obnoxious. You’re standing up for yourself and taking care of your health.

There are several excellent gluten-free dining cards available online that you can use to help you more easily explain your needs:

  • Gluten Free Mom – A detailed list of requests and instructions in English. Free.
  • Celiac Travel – Simple, to the point cards for download in more than 50 languages. $5 suggested donation.
  • Triumph Dining – Sets of cards in different languages for different cuisines. $14.93 on Amazon.
  • Find Me Gluten-Free – An app that allows you to find nearby gluten-free businesses.

Make sure you show your appreciation for restaurants that get it right by being exceptionally appreciative. Tell them that they did a good job, recommend them to your gluten-free community and give them a good review on Yelp or their Facebook page. Encouraging this kind of openness to gluten-free patrons will only compel the restaurant to give better service to the next gluten free customer they encounter.

Have any gluten-free dining horror stories? What about tips you’ve learned along the way? Share them with the community in a comment.

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