Dining Out: Gluten-Free Menu Matters
Make sure your next trip to a restaurant goes smooth as silk by keeping the following tips—summarized in two handy checklists—in mind.
[Updated Oct. 16, 2015]
Dining out at restaurants can be a challenge for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. If armed with the right questions and aware of the potential for gluten contamination, you can make the experience trouble-free.
Finding Safe Options
Many restaurants now offer gluten-free menus and gluten-free options. However, it’s extremely important to be very careful and very clear when you order gluten-free food at a restaurant. While it is possible to have great gluten-free meals without incident, you must be careful and very specific to avoid any mishaps in food preparation or cross-contamination.
Some tips to remember:
- Look for restaurants certified by the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), operated by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG). About 1,600 independently owned restaurants in the United States, Canada, and Germany have been GFRAP-certified as safe for gluten-free guests.
- Restaurants are listed on the GFRAP website, glutenfreerestaurants.org, by location and style of food. NFCA’s Gluten-Free Resource Education and Awareness Training (GREAT) Kitchens (celiaccentral.org/kitchens) equips chefs, restaurants, and cafeterias with the knowledge and tools to safely provide customers with gluten-free meal options.
- Look also at websites posted by individual restaurants and restaurant chains to see whether they post gluten-free menus. Some establishments, especially chains, list specific ingredients and allergen information online.
- When ordering from a gluten-free menu, inform the restaurant staff about the severity of your celiac disease and the need to prepare food without any cross-contamination.
- Select a few favorite restaurants and develop a relationship over time. Chefs at small, local places know the menu and can help you select items that are safe. If you eat at a chain restaurant, choose one that offers a gluten-free menu. Be aware that chain restaurants often use prepackaged dishes, which might mean that the kitchen staff has little control or knowledge of specific ingredients.
- Use real menus to role-play with your celiac child to practice restaurant skills at home. Teach proper questioning and instruct about safe ingredients and problematic dishes. Make it comfortable and fun. As kids grow older, let them take over the responsibility of questioning and ordering.
- Many smart phone or iPad applications—such as iEatOut, Is that Gluten Free?, Gluten Free Registry, Find Me Gluten Free, and Celiac Feed—help diners with dietary needs. You can also download allergy cards on your smart phone to use at restaurants.
In short, examine your options and ask lots of questions before sitting down to eat a meal. The more you know in advance, the safer and easier the experience will be. The following - two checklists are worth printing and keeping at hand.
CHECKLIST #1: Preparing in Advance
Call the restaurant during non-peak hours to inform them of your special dietary needs. Ask to speak with a chef or manager. If a manager isn’t available, ask for the manager’s name and the best time to call back.
Use a clear, confident, assertive style of communication. Ask questions until you’re satisfied. Here are a few suggestions:
√ Can you accommodate a gluten-free diet? If the staff says yes, provide them with more information about what foods you cannot eat. Make sure they are aware of this and that they understand the severity of your reaction to gluten.
√ Do you have a food allergy policy? If so, this is good news. Ask what company provided the training. The Gluten Intolerance Group, for example, offers restaurant training and certification through its GFRAP program.
√ Do you have a designated area to prepare foods for special diets? Verify cooking procedures to check for cross-contamination. Ask about separate cutting boards and utensils. If restaurant staff don’t understand why they should keep food segregated during the preparation and cooking process, they don’t understand gluten-free cooking.
√ Do you have specialty gluten-free products? When a restaurant carries prepared pancake mixes, gluten-free rolls or desserts from reputable manufacturers, it is taking gluten-free customers seriously.
√ May I look at ingredient labels? If the restaurant is willing to show you ingredient labels, it’s a good sign they will accommodate your gluten-free diet.
CHECKLIST #2: At the Restaurant
The best time to dine at any restaurant is during the first hour of a service period. The staff is more alert and attentive and the kitchen is much cleaner. At off-peak hours, the kitchen is not as rushed.
The most important strategy when dining out is good communication. Be clear about your needs, as well as the possible consequences. Assertive communication is the key to interacting with servers, managers and chefs. Explain your gluten-free request and the possible consequences, as well as the risks of cross-contamination. A calm, clear and confident approach is the most effective way to ensure your needs are met.
As you prepare to place your order, keep this checklist in mind:
√ If you’re part of a group, consider ordering last. Ordering last means you get the server’s full attention, you won’t feel pressured and you won’t disrupt the table conversation. The person taking your order should write it down.
√ Select simple dishes with fewer ingredients; this goes for desserts, too. Avoid casseroles, sauces, gravies, soups and marinades. A sautéed or baked item will minimize the use of common cooking equipment and shared utensils. Go through the list of ingredients, including garnishes, to make sure there is no hidden gluten.
√ Your plate should be delivered separately. Many restaurants teach a technique called plate stacking, where the plates are balanced on a server’s arm and delivered to the table. You don’t want your plate next to another guest’s plate that might contain gluten.
√ Confirm your order with your server and take a look at the plate. Are there any garnishes on the plate? Is the sauce on the side? Is the item cooked correctly? If anything is wrong and you feel uncomfortable, send the food back and have them make it again. Better safe than sorry. Remember, you are the expert on a gluten-free diet, not the restaurant personnel.
If you have leftovers after your meal, ask for a box so you can pack them yourself. You don’t want a staff member without knowledge of your gluten-free diet to accidentally cross-contaminate your leftovers.
Finally, be appreciative to wait staff, the chef and the manager. Gratitude goes a long way in ensuring a good experience on your next visit. Let the manager or owner know how pleased you are with the service and that you will recommend the place to your friends.