Let's Eat Out: Tips for Safe Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining
Here's your menu when you're in the mood for trouble-free (and symptom-free) meals dining out.
[Updated July 14, 2015]
My adult son e-mailed me recently, asking for dining-out tips that he could share with his colleague who had just been diagnosed with celiac disease. I chuckled as I reflected back to 1993, when my son was diagnosed.
Along with helping him learn to spell and read, I also taught him the meat and potatoes of the gluten-free diet. I recall incrementally loosening the reins as he matured and his social events no longer included me. I coached him on the questions to ask in restaurants, how to order a burger without a bun, how to ask whether the fries were cooked in a dedicated fryer, and what to say to a host when he was invited to a party.
“Call ahead,” I suggested. “Select the simplest foods–plain broiled chicken, baked potatoes. Above all, be friendly but don’t assume people know about your diet.”
Fast forward to 2010 and I’m stunned at how much easier life has become. Don’t get me wrong. Dining out on a special diet still presents challenges. There are always the big wild cards—cross-contamination and lack of knowledge at any given establishment on a given day.
These concerns remain front and center for food-allergic customers and require vigilance on the part of the diner. But life is so much easier than it was even three years ago. The trend for restaurants to cater to special diets is strenghtening.
Not only is the number of gluten-free eateries expanding, so are the options within the menus. Restaurants are serving a broader selection, often including staples like gluten-free breads, pasta and pizza. And restaurant managers and personnel are showing a higher level of understanding of dietary needs.
More chain restaurants announced gluten-free options this year, among them Chili’s, which states its menu is updated monthly, and Bertucci’s, which joined the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) and now offers a printed menu for gluten-free diners. With locations in most states, these two restaurants present nice dining choices for food-sensitive travelers.
Add them to the growing list of chains—which includes Panera’s, 99 Restaurants, and fast-food giant Burger King—that have announced they now offer gluten-free menu selections.
Food Sensitivity: On the Rise
More than 12 million Americans—about 1 in 25 people—have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). Up to 3 million more have celiac disease, requiring a strict gluten-free diet, and several million more are following a gluten-free diet because it makes them feel better.
With the prevalence of food allergies, associated anaphylaxis, and food sensitivities on the rise, these numbers are difficult to ignore. It’s clear that restaurants, grab-and-go establishments, hotels, university dining halls, secondary school lunchrooms, and hospital cafeterias are paying attention.
Organizations like the National Restaurant Association and the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), a program run by Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), are working closely with dining establishments to ensure that we’re able to eat out safely. On its website, the National Restaurant Association calls food allergies an important issue for the nation's nearly 1 million restaurants. Many are training their staff to serve food-allergic guests and to encourage customers to openly discuss their sensitivity concerns and ingredient alternatives.
Gluten-Free Menus: Good Business
According to Cynthia Kupper, GIG’s executive director, the growth this year in the GFRAP program is nothing short of remarkable. “The restaurant industry as a whole is reporting the trend,” she says. “Everyone wants to offer gluten-free options these days.”
Kupper attributes some of this growth to the slow economy. Being allergy-friendly can bring in business.
“We can document that most restaurants will see a 14 percent increase in revenue from offering a gluten-free menu," Kupper says. There's also a downside, she notes, to so many jumping on the bandwagon: “Not everyone has a good understanding of the proper way to handle food allergies.”
Education of restaurant staff is key. Training must be applied in a way that is practical and can be understood by everyone, from dishwashers and servers to the chefs. GFRAP’s goal is to make safety procedures palatable and the results profitable for a participating restaurant. “We don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information or too many rules,” Kupper says. “Nevertheless, if restaurants can’t commit to a protocol that’s safe, they can’t call themselves gluten-free.”
She cites a tavern in North Carolina that listed fries as gluten-free but added the disclaimer that they were prepared in a shared fryer. “By printing this on their menu, they thought they were covered. I told them they’ll lose customers. If you can’t guarantee the safety of your gluten-free menu, why offer one?” she says.
When Kupper and GFRAP staff visit a restaurant that applies for gluten-free certification, they audit the establishment in a process similar to kosher certification, identifying ingredients, reviewing menus and examining policies and procedures. Cross-contamination is a great concern. “We ask what standard a facility can live with, and if it’s not high enough, we won’t work with them,” says Kupper.
The industry’s interest in gluten-free dining is spilling into the market for specialty products. As more restaurants offer gluten-free menus, they’re also buying up more gluten-free pastas, breads, pizza crusts, cookies, and desserts to support the new selections.
Topped with the restaurant's own fixings, gluten-free pizza shells made by French Meadow Bakery, Still Riding Pizza, and others are now served in eateries across the country. Dr. Lucy’s cookies are now sold at Starbuck’s and some establishments are carrying gluten-free hamburger rolls.
These products help restaurants broaden their menus without risking customers’ safety due to potential cross contamination in the kitchen.
There are other changes: More places now dust their pizzas with cornmeal, rather than wheat flour. And as demand for gluten-free prepared and par-baked products grows, Kupper believes manufacturers will offer case sizes that better fit restaurants’ needs.
Signs of Safety
Ultimately, the responsibility for a safe dining-out experience falls in your lap. We all have more than one close call to recount—pancake batter added to omelets, pasta cooked in the regular pasta water, dishes switched in the kitchen, wait staff with inaccurate information.
The key to safety is to be vigilant and to ask questions. What procedures are in place at the restaurant to ensure a safe meal? How does the kitchen become aware of your dietary needs? Does the chef know all the ingredients in your dish? Does the restaurant offer a gluten-free or allergen-friendly menu that makes sense? (If soy sauce is served with the “gluten-free sashimi,” this might not be the place you want to eat.)
Don’t assume. Confirm that the waiter understands the diet. Double-check when your meal arrives to be sure you’ve received the correct dish. (The person who took your order may not be the same person who delivers your plate.)
People with food allergies are wise to seek out restaurants that have gluten-free menus. An establishment that is knowledgeable about one type of special diet is better able to accommodate another.
Chef Ming Tsai, owner of Blue Ginger, an allergy-friendly restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and father of a little boy who has multiple food allergies, offers these suggestions:
- Call ahead and make a reservation. Inform the staff of your allergies when you call. Be mindful you'll get more focused attention if you don't call during peak hours.
- Bring a typed card that lists your allergies. It is helpful for the chef and it communicates that the allergy is very serious.
- Ask until you feel comfortable. “If you have to ask a question five times to make yourself feel comfortable, ask it five times. It is no one’s life but your own. You have nothing to prove to anyone,” Tsai says.
- Always carry your epinephrine. Even with proper training and best intentions, a restaurant can make mistakes. Don’t put your life in someone else’s hands. It’s also a good idea to wear a medical alert bracelet.
Those of us who live in a large metropolitan area, particularly on the East or West coasts, may marvel at the growing crop of restaurants we can frequent. But what about those who live in rural America?
If your home is in the country or in a small town, chances are the local eatery has little idea of how to handle your special diet. My advice is to go back to basics:
♦ Avoid fried foods, sauces, stews, pot pies, and soups where allergens can hide.
♦ Remember that desserts may contain nuts or gluten.
♦ Watch out for buffets—utensils can be switched and ingredients inadvertently dropped and mixed into other dishes. When you order, keep it simple. For example, choose a salad (carry your own dressing or ask for oil and vinegar), unseasoned broiled or grilled meat, a baked potato, and fresh fruit for dessert.
Chances are that the closest natural food store is also miles away and your local grocery doesn't carry a selection of specialty products. My advice: Batch your special-diet shopping and stock up when you’re in a larger city. See if you can work with your local grocer to bring some products in.
Mail order is an option, particularly if you take advantage of shipping discounts. The Internet is particularly helpful for those in remote areas. Deal only with reputable companies that you know and trust.
Check the web for any restaurants located within reasonable driving distance that cater to special diets. Websites often list menus, maps, and reservation services. In addition, most support groups have websites where members share local dining experiences. These personal endorsements are helpful, as contributors often foster a relationship with the chef and staff before they post their recommendations.
Here are just a few of the many online resources offering helpful restaurant and travel tips.
• The Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) lists certified restaurants (chain and independent eateries) throughout the United States and a few in Canada. All have undergone rigorous audit. Searches can be done by city, state and zip code. Visit www.glutenfreerestaurants.org.
• Triumph Dining publishes The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide, a directory that contains more than 5,000 gluten-free establishments, including 80-plus chains. Triumph also sells a product guide and dining cards in many languages. Visit www.triumphdining.com.
• Gluten-Free, founded by celiac Kim Koeller, specializes in tools and tips for dining out and traveling. Passport’s strengths are its international focus and hi-tech iPhone and iPod applications. Website: www.glutenfreepassport.com.
• The website www.glutenfreetravelsite.com features information on restaurants (chains and independent eateries), grocery stores, resorts, cruises and more. Most information is contributed by readers. Karen Broussard launched the site after her 2-year-old son was diagnosed with celiac disease. Each year, readers vote for the most celiac-friendly destination. Two years ago, it was New York City. Last year’s winner was Disneyworld.
• See also www.clanthompson.com, a website published by a Maine family that has six members with celiac disease. Launched in 1997, it’s chock-full of information on dining, traveling, products, diet, cooking, and even medications.
When I e-mailed my son back about his colleague’s diagnosis, addressing his request for restaurant advice, I found myself shaking my head. Looking back 17 years when he was diagnosed—and then back 35 years when I was—what an amazing difference! Public awareness of celiac disease and food allergies has come a long way. The service and relative safety I now enjoy in the Northeast where I dine out are evidence of that.
My son and his colleague live and work in bustling New York City, where there are gluten-free restaurant options galore.
“Most places have gluten-free selections,” I wrote him back. “Tell her it’s no big deal.”
Beth Hillson is food editor of Gluten Free & More.
Katrina Avila Munichiello contributed to this article.