Is it my imagination, or is it getting harder to eat out safely when you’re gluten-free? Since gluten-free dining has gone mainstream, more and more restaurants are trying to meet the increased demand. It seems like there’s a trend toward oversimplifying what gluten-free food involves. If you want to eat out with more confidence, there are things you can do to help make sure that your food choice is gluten-safe.
Gluten-free menu options are popping up everywhere. Along with this movement, I’ve been inadvertently glutened more often than a few years ago. Lately, "gluten-free" salads have showed up at the table with croutons, or a sprinkle of panko crumbs tops a piece of grilled chicken. Why is this happening more often?
Gluten-safe is a more accurate description to describe the risk of dining out. It’s not possible to completely eliminate cross-contamination in a restaurant where gluten is in the kitchen. It’s much more complicated than serving rice pasta instead of wheat pasta, or using gluten-free pizza crusts while using the same toppings that come into contact with regular pizzas.
In the rush to meet the increased demand for gluten-free food, the knowledge for safe preparation has not kept up. People are well-intentioned, and it's possible to find the foods like pizza crusts and rolls that don't taste like cardboard anymore. But cooking and preparing in a commercial kitchen without special precautions presents chances for cross-contamination that can make people sick.
The complexities of gluten-safe meal preparation means that everyone - owners, managers, prep staff, chef, dishwashers, servers and hosts - needs to understand safe food handling, and separation of workspaces and all ingredients used. With multiple shifts, turnover, many names for gluten, etc., it’s really a tough challenge to be sure that everyone knows and understands exactly what ends up on your plate.
That’s why it’s important for us gluten-free people to make sure that we can be reasonably accommodated when we go out to eat. Many chefs are proud to create safe and delicious dishes. I like going to restaurants where the chef enjoys meeting special dietary needs, and relishes the challenge of creating delicious and safe dishes. Unfortunately, there are some who not wish to modify their recipes. It’s up to you to find out what the restaurant’s vibe is. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t stay.
I’m really careful about where and what I eat, and get a handle on the restaurant’s awareness of gluten-free food awareness before ordering. While I believe that most places have the best of intentions, there have been more frequent mistakes lately.
Recently I ordered a Caesar salad without croutons, after confirming with the server that it would be gluten-free. I had already scoped out the restaurant earlier in the week. I spoke to the manager and felt confident that she understood. She confirmed that the salad dressing was gluten free. Then, it arrived...with croutons on top. Mistakes happen. They quickly put it aside and brought out a fresh replacement.
However, sometimes cross-contamination isn’t this obvious, and there may be no way to know until I wake up feeling hungover and have brain fog for days.
Being friendly while clearly communicating your needs is important when dining out. If it’s not safe, don’t eat it. The staff will understand. It’s in their best interest to make sure that clients don’t get sick eating at their establishment. Otherwise, an unsuspecting diner who gets glutened may go home and mistakenly think they have food poisoning - and that’s a reputation that nobody wants. They will want to make things right.
However, there are so many tricks and traps that can create confusion and mistakes. Unless a restaurant is entirely gluten-free with a well-trained staff, there is still a chance for cross-contamination in the kitchen. For some people, this risk is too big.
Gluten-free has come a long way. About 15 years ago, my daughter went gluten-free, while her doctors considered whether she might have celiac disease (she didn’t). At the time, I had a student with celiac disease. Her mom took me under her wing and taught me about gluten-free protocols. It was really hard back then! We telephoned our bread and pizza crust orders to Kinnickkinnick in Canada so that it could be scheduled and baked in Canada, then shipped frozen to our door. Unless things were naturally gluten-free, the options in the local stores tasted like cardboard.
Fast forward to today, when there’s so much more awareness. It’s easy to go to any grocery stor and pick up gluten-free breads (not that I love them, but that’s another story). However, there is still a lot of knowledge and expertise required to make a safe GF meal. When you eat out, it’s important to advocate for yourself and trust your gut (literally!).
These tips will help you to eat out with more confidence if you’re gluten free:
Call ahead and ask about gluten-free options, even if the online menu states there are.
Just because the menu says “gluten free” doesn’t mean it is. The ingredients might be, but if they come into contact with any gluten, there will be cross-contamination.
Arrive early, and speak privately to the manager about your needs. I find it much more comfortable when I’m out with friends to do this discreetly so that it’s not a big deal for anyone.
Tell the hostess and server that you’re gluten-free, and ask if they can accommodate you. Listen to their answer, and trust your gut. You’ll have to decide whether their knowledge is enough to keep you safe.
The server at a new local restaurant assured me that “everything on the menu can be made gluten-free, no problem.” Cool, I thought.
It was the first time I saw gluten-free meatballs on a menu. Before ordering, I confirmed with the server. She said “oh, no, not those.” There were a few more “oh, no, not that” responses. Gluten-free lasagne? Well...that was actually a bowl of GF spaghetti topped with sauce and cheese. Yeah, no. That’s not lasagne! The salad dressings weren’t safe, either. When all else fails, a salad with lemon and olive oil is sometimes the best backup plan. I didn’t really trust anything else by that point.
I cringe when I hear people recommending this place because of their gluten-free advertising. Take charge of your health and ask questions.
Find out if there’s a gluten-free menu, or which specific items can be prepared gluten-safe.
Make sure that the choice works for you by asking specifically about ingredients and preparation. If it doesn’t sound right, choose something safer.
If it’s possible to speak with the manager or chef to discuss your needs, keep it friendly and do so.
When you ask if something is gluten free, “I think so” is not the answer you’re looking for. Ask them to check with the chef.
By making the staff and management your ally, you will have a greater chance of success. Kindness helps a lot.
When your food arrives, confirm that it's the gluten-free dish if they don’t state this. Don't assume that because you ordered it, it didn't get mixed up accidentally in the kitchen.
Be aware of items that can contain hidden gluten. The chart below lists just a handful of hidden but common ingredients to watch out for. There are many more!
I was surprised to learn that some restaurants thicken vinaigrette with a little bit of flour. Salad dressings, soy sauce and tamari sauce (unless it’s marked GF), many flavorings and barbecue sauces do contain gluten. Simply prepared fish may have a sprinkling of breadcrumbs or panko. Sushi made with imitation crabmeat contains gluten. Beer is a trendy ingredient these days, so be sure to skip anything featuring this. French fries may be coated with gluten. Ask!
There’s a risk of cross contamination, unless you’re eating in a designated gluten-free establishment with highly trained staff.
Anything in a fryer that breaded food is cooked in will be cross-contaminated. Some restaurants have a separate gluten-free fryer.
I’ve been glutened by pizza that was supposed to be gluten-free. It was prepared with the same cheese and toppings that went on the regular pizza, and then baked directly on the wood-fired pizza oven. The crust was fine, but the process was not, and the pizza was cross-contaminated. Gluten-safe pizza should be prepared with separate ingredients, with clean hands, in a separate workspace and baked in an oven that doesn’t have flour floating around.
You may understand what it takes to prevent cross-contamination at home. Not all restaurants will have the same levels of awareness and process control. Without 100% continual buy-in from owners, management, chefs and servers, consistency can be a challenge. Limited space, turnover, training gaps, ingredient changes, and cross-contamination through preparation and cleaning can all be an issue.
Your health depends on clear communication with everyone from you to the server to the chef. If you feel that the server doesn’t understand, it’s okay to (politely) to speak to the manager for clarification.
Trust your gut!
What should you do if your meal is clearly not gluten-free when it arrives?
Let's assume that you made your food intolerance or allergy clear. Dinner arrives, and there's a mistake. Should you eat it anyway? No.
It’s perfectly fine to politely send it back with instructions so that it can be safely corrected. Be kind and clear about the problem so that the staff works with you. Creating a scene won’t be helpful. While it’s frustrating to be the person waiting for dinner while everyone else is served, it’s more frustrating and risky to get sick.
Findmeglutenfree.com - lists dining options by location. Check out chain restaurant menus, and read reviews by others. Cost: free.
Glutenfreetravelsite.com - lists bakeries and restaurants, hotels, colleges and cruises offering gluten-free dining around the world. Cost: free.
Gluten-free restaurant cards - use your phone to order your gluten-free meal in 54 different languages, and eliminate the language barrier which can make ordering difficult. Cost: free, donation welcome to CeliacTravel.com.
I wish I could end by promising that if you're careful, you’ll be served a meal without a speck of gluten. I’m tuned in to my body, and can tell when I’ve been glutened. I wake up feeling hung over with puffy eyes, a stomach ache and brain fog that won’t go away for a couple of days. My fingers might ache. When this happens, I drink lots of filtered water for the next couple of days, eat lightly and take a couple of charcoal pills to help.
Eating out should be a fun and enjoyable experience. There are so many wonderful foods that are safe to eat and absolutely delicious! Choose your restaurant and food with care, and you will hopefully have a delicious gluten-safe meal.
If you’re new to the gluten-free lifestyle and feel overwhelmed, call me today. I can help you feel less stressed and more confident about how to shop and cook delicious food without fuss. Come on over to Happy Healthy and Whole Living with Denise Fountain for more gluten-free and other healthy lifestyle information. Got a question? Ask it there, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denise Fountain is a Life Transitions Specialist and Certified Professional Coach. She works with women going through transitions to rediscover themselves and create lives that are happy, healthy and whole again. Together with her clients, she explores the connection between stress, health and happiness, and guides her clients to move forward to make lasting and sustainable changes. She is passionate about helping women live their best lives. Sign up for updates while you’re on this site! Contact her at email@example.com to learn more about how Denise can partner with you to create the life you dream of.