Tips for Eating Gluten Free at Restaurants

Tips for Eating Gluten Free at Restaurants

This used to be my favorite take-out food, a vegan mushroom falafel wrap. It was from a dedicated gluten-free restaurant that also catered to food allergies. This restaurant closed last year. I wish there were more dedicated gluten-free restaurants in my area.

Do you have a gluten-free menu? The answer to this simple restaurant query tells me a lot about the level of training and awareness the server and establishment have about gluten sensitivity and celiac disease.

Depending on the answer I receive, I’ll follow-up with a few more questions and make my meal decisions. Here are three common answers, and how I approach the situation.

Navigating Restaurants When You Have Gluten Sensitivity or Celiac Disease

1. Yes, we do. Here’s our gluten-free menu.

Amazing. This is the answer I like the most because it shows some forward thinking for the restaurant’s guests. It also implies that the kitchen staff and servers have probably been trained to handle orders from the gluten-free menu differently than standard orders. If I’m given a dedicated menu, the following questions might follow:

  1. I see french fries/onion rings/homemade chips listed on this menu. Are they cooked in a dedicated fryer? If they say ‘no’ or aren’t sure what you’re talking about, don’t order them. Breading from gluten-containing foods may linger in the cooking oil.
  2. Do you prepare the gluten-free meals on a separate countertop to avoid cross-contamination? Listen to the depth of information the server shares, and make an educated decision for yourself.

When I ate at Olive Garden for a friend’s birthday, I was told my salad would be prepared in its own bowl since they re-use the salad prep bowls over and over to mix the dressing (and croutons) into the salads that accompany each order.

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Over the weekend I ate at Pita Pit. They offered to assemble my salad from fresh ingredients stored in the back room because they handle pita bread near the toppings in the prep area and there could be crumbs of cross-contamination in the salad ingredients.

In both instances, I felt safe eating the meals because extra precautions had been taken to ensure my food would be free of any cross-contamination.

2. No, but we do have gluten-free options labeled on our menu.

Great! This can be super helpful and shows that there is some awareness. I also like when menus use little symbols to indicate peanut-free, vegetarian, vegan or other similar dietary restrictions. Although I don’t need all of that information, it makes me feel more confident when dining there.

I’ll still likely ask the two questions I mentioned previously, but then I’ll go a little more in depth. For example, if I’m eyeing a salad or sandwich that’s labeled gluten-free, I’ll ask what brand of bread they use or if they offer gluten-free salad dressing to go with the salads. The level of detail that follows helps me make my decision. If they say they aren’t sure, and they don’t offer to check with the kitchen, ask for them to find out, or choose another meal.

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Sometimes the best option is to go with simple meals free of sauces, breading, marinades and other hidden ingredients. Ask for your vegetables to be steamed and not seasoned. Choose plain grilled meats, not battered or fried. Pick baked potatoes (sans sour cream), not mashed. Choose whole eggs, not scrambled. I learned the hard way that our local IHOP restaurant puts pancake batter in their scrambled eggs to make them fluffier. Gluten can hide in the craziest of places!

3. A glu…what menu? We just have this one.

Ok, at this type of restaurant you are on your own. Scan the offerings and pick what looks simple and safe, or skip the meal and get something elsewhere.

In this case, I lean on things that are naturally gluten-free and usually don’t need any toppings or ingredients removed to be safe. My go-tos are baked potatoes, fresh fruit cups, Mexican food made with corn tortillas, Asian foods made with rice noodles (and no soy sauce!), salads, plain vegetables and simple meals like I mentioned above.

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I still ask questions about the ingredients and preparation, but try to keep them simple to avoid confusing the order any more than it needs to be.

  • Can you leave the croutons off the salad, please?
  • Are your tortilla chips made from corn or flour?
  • Is the chicken battered or grilled?
  • Can you do a lettuce wrap instead of a bun for the burgers?

Above all: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I know it can be intimidating because you don’t want to feel like you’re being picky or taking up extra time when the server is busy.

Your health is important. You deserve to feel confident in the food that you enjoy. Ask as many questions as you need to feel safe and if you have a gut feeling that your meal will be questionable, eat somewhere else.

Do you have tips for dining out with a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

Until next time,
Choose healthy!

PS: Wonder what I’m up to today? Visit me on Facebook at Cupcakes and Yoga Pants!

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