5 Ways to Make Dining Out Gluten-Free Less Scary
Dining out should be fun—a positive, relaxing experience.
But what if you're met with an eye roll when you mention to the server that you have celiac disease? That doesn't exactly instill a level of confidence, does it?
That's exactly what happened to me recently. It was a reality check about dining out gluten-free.
I'm not only sharing this experience for others with celiac disease, but also for anyone in the restaurant industry. I hear so many negative stories about "picky eaters wanting gluten-free" these days—and the fact is, some of us aren't being picky at all.
We simply want to feel the sense of normalcy that dining out, for whatever reason, brings. We want to pop in for a quick lunch, grab a takeaway dinner because we worked late and we're dog tired, and enjoy gathering with family and friends for drinks and a meal out. We're not asking for the moon here. We simply want to dine out with confidence and not be sick afterward. It's a health issue, not a picky eater issue.
Here are a few tips for what to look for and do before dining out GF.
Some things to look for in a restaurant when you must eat gluten-free:
- Staff that understands celiac disease and what even trace amounts of gluten can do to individuals with CD
- Kitchen sanitation, segregation, and preparation practices in place for preparing gluten-free meals
- Knowledge of which ingredients are/are not gluten-free (don't forget about seasoning blends, sauces, dressings, garnishes)
- Knowledge of gluten cross-contamination (from other foods, cook surfaces, utensils and hands)
- Dedicated prep areas, grills, flat cooktops, fryers, utensils, cookware
It is important to plan ahead and be prepared, too.
Before you go to the restaurant, if possible, do these things:
- Call ahead and ask if the restaurant will accommodate your needs for eating gluten-free
- Find out what your meal options are. Will you be restricted to only salads, or do they really understand how to prepare a real meal gluten-free?
- Find out if they've educated the entire staff about gluten, what it means when a customer says they have celiac disease, and how to safely prepare and serve a gluten-free meal
Unfortunately, even if you do your homework and plan ahead, your dining out experience may be less than ideal. Here's what happened to me, and what I learned from the experience.
Learning from our experiences and sharing what we learn is important!
1. I planned ahead (kind of), but my resource was out of date.
The truth is, I knew of a few spots in Asheville (like the 100% gluten-free Posana Cafe) that guaranteed good, gluten-free food, prepared safely in a dedicated space, so I wasn't really worried about dining out there.
But, on the night I had the not-so-pleasant experience, it was really late, significantly limiting my choices. On my smart phone, I pulled up a list of restaurants in the area offering gluten-free options. The list was from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) website, so I trusted it. Unfortunately, the first option that popped up was a list from 2011. (I realized later the page was out of date, which was not entirely obvious on my mobile device).
Now, don't misunderstand me on this. I think the NFCA is terrific and applaud all their efforts to support our celiac community. I do believe, though, it's important to point out that any resource you use—from the NFCA to little old me—is subject to flaw. There are humans behind these machines, after all.
After my experience, I contacted the NFCA to make them aware of the incident and the out-of-date page on their site. They gave me answers promptly. In response to the out-of-date information, they told me, "About the blog entries, we have about 12,000 pages of content on our website and about 9,000 are blog entries. So yes, it's not an easy task to go back and update past blogs."
Understood. I know how it is with a site the size of this one, so can't imagine dealing with all the NFCA has to keep up with.
But I also understand how important it is for you, my readers, to have the most current and accurate information when it comes to living with celiac disease, which is why I'm pointing this out to you. It is quite a task to manage a website and keep it current. Knowing this, always be your own advocate and double-check even your most trusted resources.
Get a current list of NFCA Great Kitchens-certified restaurants here. Click the logo above to learn more about the Great Kitchens program.
2. Feel free to take your time reading the menu, asking questions, making a decision and placing your order.
Don't ever allow a server to rush you through the menu. This is your health. My eye-rolling server was pushy and kept asking, "So, what'll you have?"
Finally, I decided to be honest with her and said, "I'm not feeling really confident about ordering and not being contaminated with gluten or a food allergen. Can you help me understand how the kitchen staff handle special orders like mine? I saw you're part of the Great Kitchens program with the NFCA."
She could not help me understand. Instead, I learned I need to…
3. Be prepared for anything.
Instead of answer my questions, our server leaned in and stretched her arms all the way across our table and screeched, "I've been serving the owner all evening," with tears welling up in her eyes.
I was speechless, for a second. Then, I knew I had to push forward (although, by this point, I must admit, I was beginning to think she might strike me!).
4. Don't stop until you get answers (but be prepared that those answers may be lies).
Since she said she'd been serving the owner all evening, I figured if he was there, why not chat with him?
Our server huffed off to get him, and I did speak to him. In the parking lot. It was so weird. We weren't causing a scene, but maybe he thought I was as unpredictable as our server. I was, oddly, still smiling through all of this (perhaps because it was so ridiculous that we couldn't get a straight and simple answer on how the kitchen handles special orders? After all, they did offer a separate GF menu.).
The owner was overly apologetic, and reassured me that his restaurant is more than capable of serving anyone with any food allergy any time, that his staff was fully trained on those procedures, and that they are an NFCA Great Kitchens-certified restaurant.
I listened, said I understand there are "those" moments and "those" employees, but I also took the time to tell him how serious gluten contamination is for someone with celiac disease or another gluten-related health issue, and that building a trust relationship with patrons was essential. And on and on.
He agreed wholeheartedly. And he was lying.
I later confirmed this by checking the current list of NFCA Great Kitchens restaurants in North Carolina. His restaurant had not participated in the program in three years.) We left.
5. Don't be afraid or ashamed to leave (or to eat a truffle in bed).
I wasn't rude, but I did make it clear I had zero confidence in him, his staff, or their ability to safely serve anyone a gluten-free meal. Then, I went back to my suite at the Inn (bless them, they are wonderful there, and they DO know how to take care of GF diners in the restaurants there if you ask). I went to bed with a bottle of San Pellegrino and a champagne truffle. Amen.
I hope this info on dining out gluten-free is useful to you.
This post originally appeared on GlutenFreeGigi.com.