When asked if I eat out at restaurants now that I have celiac disease, I always reply with a resounding “YES!” I routinely encourage my consulting clients to go out to eat and enjoy restaurants again, as well. Now, I always follow that up with lots of advice on how to do so intelligently and safely, so I will do the same here.
Before you were diagnosed with celiac disease, running out to grab a quick bite to eat where someone else had to do the cooking and cleaning up was a luxury you may not have fully appreciated. Now that you have some idea of the hazards of eating gluten, you may feel too frightened to leave the confines of your own (now) gluten-free kitchen. A recent study of Canadians living with celiac disease reported that more than half of the families with celiac members reported that they avoided restaurants all or most of the time, despite the fact that four out of five people generally report that going out to eat at a restaurant is a better way to use their leisure time than cooking and cleaning up!
Living gluten free is not about living in a bubble though, so I urge you to put your fears on the shelf of your gluten-free flour cupboard and close the door! Since 49% of celiacs apparently believe that their quality of life would be improved if there were more gluten-free choices at restaurants, it is imperative that you learn how to successfully navigate the restaurant world as a celiac wanting to live a better life. There is a way to safely go back out again and socialize, entertain, “do business lunches”, go on dinner dates, and grab a meal at a local joint. You just have to know how to do it!
Before you run back out to McDonald’s, though, a few important pointers are useful:
1. Try to eat early or late so that you are avoiding the rush hours when the managers and chefs have the least time to pay special attention to your meal. Also, wherever possible, dine at restaurants that make their food from scratch. I know it’s not always easy to do, and I know that those restaurants are likely to be more expensive, but they will have a much better grip on what their ingredients are. Besides, aren’t you worth it? Your health certainly is!
2. Understand the limitations of larger restaurants and fast-food chains. They work with pre-made sauces and ingredients, have line cooks preparing different parts of the same meal, usually have unseasoned staff (pun intended) and cross-contamination is often hard to avoid. No matter what the size of the restaurant, be sure to patronize restaurants doing a good job whenever possible to encourage them to continue gluten-free offerings and to relieve your own mind about your meal.
3. When possible, call ahead during less busy times and ask questions about the menu and alert the chef of your needs. When you arrive at the restaurant, use “cook cards” to minimize misunderstandings between you and the kitchen. Waiters love these cards because they don’t have to write all of your ingredient restrictions down and they are absolved of responsibility when they can hand the cards to the kitchen. The kitchen staff appreciates the cards because they are not left in the dark as to the parameters of your food restrictions. And you’ll love the cards because they make your life a lot easier and safer. As long as there is good communication between you and the kitchen, you should feel more comfortable with your entire dining experience. Also be sure to tip your server well – it never hurts to reward and incentivize servers for your next visit!
4. Establish a relationship with the manager or owner of a few restaurants you particularly enjoy. Maybe it’s the neighborhood Italian restaurant or a take-out Chinese place you have always loved, or even a chain restaurant that is close to work and your colleagues love to frequent. Introduce yourself sometime and educate the proprietor about your food restrictions in the kindest possible way. Offer to go over the menu items with him or her (during off-peak hours!) and to identify what is already gluten-free so that they can let other patrons know about safe choices. Ask if you could make arrangements to bring your own gluten-free pasta and have the chef boil it for you in a separate pot, but serve his recommended (gluten-free) sauces. Volunteer to let the local celiac support group know of this restaurant’s cooperation and drum up support for the establishment. Get creative and by all means, be nice! You may even be surprised at how eager they are to please you when you become a regular and are greeted at the door like Norm in “Cheers.”
5. Double check about the fryer. It is easy to believe that the fries you are ordering are gluten-free because potatoes are on your safe list. However, restaurants often have only one fryer, and once your French fries have been deep fried in the oil they also used to fry the chicken nuggets, your fries are no longer gluten-free. Furthermore, even if their fryer is not cross-contaminated from other food items, the French fries may themselves not be gluten-free! McDonald’s famous French fries are a perfect example. Their website has from time to time indicated that their fries are free from wheat and gluten; however, numerous lawsuits have alleged that the food allergy listing on the site is incorrect and misleading. Due to these lawsuits, the website now indicates that the vegetable oil in which the fries are cooked actually contains beef flavor derived from wheat and milk! Thus, seemingly gluten-free items (potatoes + vegetable oil) may still contain gluten—it never hurts to check.
6. While you’re at it, ask that your food be prepared on aluminum foil. Whether you order a grilled steak or a sautéed fish, ask that the chef place foil under your food. This request does three things in addition to actually protecting against cross-contamination. First, it brings attention to the fact that gluten-containing food may have been on that grill first. Second, it causes the cook to actually stop to consider whether he or she is using a clean pan to flash fry your fillet. Third, it ensures that the kitchen will take your food restriction much more seriously.
7. Avoid cafeterias. Not that I harbor any childhood resentment from being forced to eat lime Jello, succotash, corn pudding, fried catfish and a yeast roll (all on the same plate), but you get my point. It doesn’t matter here if the kitchen can somehow avoid cross-contamination, the line probably can’t. The same serving spoon that was in that corn pudding will likely find its way into your steamed vegetables at some point. It’s a sad truth, but no less truthful.
8. Thank all those at the restaurant who were helpful and attentive, and be sure to leave a generous tip. This gratitude will come back in spades, at this and other restaurants, for you and for other diners with food restrictions.
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You don’t have to give up on dining out— you can work with restaurant personnel before and during meals, and you may even enjoy safe fast food experiences when you know what to look for and consciously avoid cross-contamination.