For someone with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, dining out can be a daunting experience. Fears of cross – contaminated dishes and after – meal illnesses are always on the forefront of a celiac’s mind, leading them to say “no thanks” to restaurant invites and “yes, please” to another night in their own kitchen.
Thankfully, restaurants now more than ever understand special dietary restrictions and are happy to accommodate – with some clear guidance from customers. If you or a friend suffers from gluten intolerance, follow our guide below to master a few techniques that will help ensure your food is prepared safely the next time you're out to eat. So keep the cupboards closed and utensils in their drawers, and say hello to a new, confident way of gluten free dining.
Seek out celiac – friendly restaurants.
Thanks to growing awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, more and more restaurants are catering to customers who must avoid gluten — and getting easier to find. Websites such as glutenfreerestaurants.org, operated by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG), and glutenfreeregistry.com, provide searchable listings for restaurants all across the country that offer gluten-free options. GIG's Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program2 also provides resources and training for restaurants on gluten-free cooking and serving techniques, helping to put even more restaurants on the gluten-free map. Local organizations and support groups for people with celiac disease are another terrific resource for restaurant recommendations.
Browse the menu ahead of time.
Many restaurants post their menus online, so you know what to expect even before making a reservation – check them out! If you have a mobile digital device such as an iPhone or iPad, it's even easier: You can download gluten-free menu applications that allow you to browse gluten-free offerings from hundreds of restaurant and fast-food chain menus and, in some cases, even order your meal in advance. Visit glutenfreepassport.com for more information.
Call the restaurant at an off-peak hour (usually between 3 and 5 p.m.) and ask to speak to the chef, to make sure he or she is familiar with gluten-free cooking and is able to accommodate your needs. If the chef isn't available, speak with the kitchen manager instead. Make sure you speak with those personnel who will be on duty the day you visit. They'll likely be pleased to work with you—remember, restaurants are in the business of satisfying their customers! Be polite but firm in your requests, and if you don't feel satisfied with the answers, choose another restaurant.
Avoid coming during rush hours.
Try to schedule your visit when the restaurant isn't overly busy. Your server will have more time to answer questions and the kitchen will be calmer and better able to handle a special request. Leave plenty of time for your visit, too, expecting that it will take the kitchen a little longer to prepare your meal. Once you arrive at the restaurant, check in with the chef or kitchen manager again to reconfirm that you'll be having a gluten-free meal. Check with your waiter to make sure he or she understands that your meal must not come in contact with other people's dishes.
Bring a card - and a script.
Bring a few key pieces of information about what you can and cannot eat, to inform the kitchen and wait staff. Several organizations produce helpful wallet – size cards for this purpose; some are available in different languages to use when traveling abroad. Good examples can be found at Triumph Dining or the Celiac Traveler. It's also a good idea to have a quick speech at the ready that explains your needs in a few sentences—for example, that you're on a special diet because you will become very sick if you eat anything made with flour, bread, or soy sauce, or if your food touches anything that has been in contact with those items. Prepare to give it more than once.
Be clear - and flexible - when you order.
Ask your waitperson to stand next to you while you order, so you can have your questions easily heard and answered. If anything's unclear about a food's preparation, don't hesitate to find out. Questions such as "Does the salad have croutons?" "Is the marinade made with soy sauce?" or "Are the potatoes fried in the same oil as other, breaded foods?" can spell the difference between a delicious dinner or a disaster! See "Best Bets," [below], for tips on what to order. In general, the simplest (unsauced, unstuffed, uncoated) preparations are usually the safest. Keep in mind that you might not be able to order your first choice, so have a back – up order just in case. When in doubt, go without! Chances are you'll find at least a few satisfying options on any menu, but if you don't, leave and try another restaurant.
Become a regular.
Once you've found a restaurant you like, visit regularly so that you're well acquainted with the menu and have some safe meals you can always order. Become familiar with the host so you are recognized when you visit and your needs can be accommodated more readily. Likewise, if you have a good experience with a waitperson who safely handled your gluten-free meal, request that person on your next visit.
Vote with your fork.
The best way to ensure that more restaurants offer gluten-free choices is to give your business to the ones that do. If a restaurant has gone out of its way to be accommodating to people with special dietary needs, be sure to let them know you appreciate it. Take the time to thank (and tip) your server and host and make a point of telling your friends and family about your great experience. Lastly, don't forget make a date to visit again!