The big secret to enjoying gluten free restaurant meals has really been to change my perspective on dining out. Sharing a meal after all is about the people you’re sharing it with. It’s true that I could probably cook a meal that I’d enjoy more than one from a restaurant. It’s true that I’m somewhat limited in what I can choose from the menu, but I can always find something and if I turn my attention to the laughter and conversation around the table it can still be the enjoyable, communal experience that mealtime is meant to be.
A little bit of advance planning will go a long way to reducing the stress when it comes time to order your gluten free restaurant meal. One of the ways we celiacs benefit from the gluten-free diet fad and from the increase in food sensitivities is that restaurateurs are more informed and there is more information available especially on the web. Many restaurants have allergy guides and many of them are posted on the web. So take a minute and look it up before you leave, or on your smartphone or tablet on the way to the restaurant. You can get an idea of your choices beforehand and you won’t feel so pressured when the server shows up to take your order.
Gluten free restaurant dining has actually been a growth experience for me. I’m a bit of an introvert and that creates a problem for me in situations like this. I don’t like being the centre of attention; I don’t like being the one with special needs. I’ve always been the one to go with the flow. Not a particularly picky eater, not many dislikes, whatever is fine with me. So when the waiter turns to me and I have to start my discourse I feel very much on stage and very uncomfortable. That has been the growth experience. I’ve had to get over my discomfort with inconveniencing others and deal with everyone looking at me as I ask detailed questions about what is in the sauces and what substitutions can be made. The planning ahead part helps because you can go in aware of the menu and have your questions ready.
You can order or print off a gluten free restaurant card to carry with you. They are available in many languages and explain exactly what you need in a gluten free restaurant meal. These can greatly simplify the explanation part of your visit and you can get right to ordering and enjoying your food.
Yes, it say’s gluten free on the menu, yes there are rules restaurants and food producers have to follow when they represent something as gluten-free, but do you really want to trust your health to someone else’s understanding of the rules? It’s still wise to ask if the fries are cooked in a dedicated fryer, or if the gluten-free pizza is cooked separately from the regular pizza, or if the gluten free pasta is cooked in separate water. If you have celiac disease and you feel like the seriousness of your need for a gluten free restaurant meal is not understood, don't shy away from the word "allergy". True, it's not technically an allergy, but most people understand food allergies to be serious so let this work for you. It’s your health, don’t leave it to chance. Here are a few things to watch for:
Sauces: Teriyaki sauce usually contains soya sauce, probably best to
avoid it. Any item served with a sauce
is to be questioned as many are thickened with flour. Some sauces are thickened just before serving with corn starch or tapioca starch. This is fine. Many of chain restaurants receive their sauces pre-made, so they may not be able to make the sauce special for you, but you can leave it off and just ask for some light seasoning - gluten free of course.
Salads are a good choice but ask questions. Many dressings contain gluten. Also, items like candied pecans or walnuts usually have gluten. Chances are you can have the offending ingredient left out and often you can either substitute for a gluten free dressing or just ask for a nice balsamic and olive oil.
Soups can go either way. Thick soups are often thickened with flour. Clear soups may be okay, but be sure to ask.
Anything deep fried. If there are any deep fried breaded items on the menu it’s likely that non breaded items are cooked in the same oil and therefore contaminated.
Sandwiches of course are a no-no unless the restaurant offers gluten free bread, but if you find yourself in an establishment that doesn’t serve much else, you can always order a sandwich or wrap without the bread. Often the fillings are gluten free and quite tasty. Ask for it on a plate with a fork or wrapped in lettuce.
Eggs are gluten-free, but you need to know that they aren’t cooked on the same grill as the pancakes or French toast. Ask your server to have yours cooked in a clean pan, or order poached eggs. I often get a couple of poached eggs with a fruit cup for a nice light breakfast. Also beware of the potatoes, they could be done on the same grill as bread.
Meat, fish, seafood, these are all gluten free, but it depends on the seasonings or sauces. Sausage, burgers and meatloaf often contain breadcrumbs. Whole meats like steak, or fish filets or steamed lobster or crab may be okay. Check to be sure.
Rice and potatoes – I was surprised at the Keg recently to find that their rice is not gluten free. Fried rice usually has soy sauce added, also wild rice contains gluten because it’s not really rice, it’s a grass. Potatoes are gluten free, but ask to be sure they don’t have flour added. A baked potato is usually safe.
Steamed or sautéed vegetables are usually safe, just check if there are any sauces or seasonings.
Ethnic cuisine deserves it's own article. You may be pleasantly surprised if you like Asian, Middle Eastern or even Mexican cuisine. Reliance on wheat is largely a European and North American thing. These other cuisines tend to rely more on rice and corn. Still ask, some restaurants “Americanize” some of their dishes so you want to be sure. (click the words "ethnic cuisine" above to read more on this topic)
Beverages - Most items on the beverage list will be gluten free. Sodas, dairy products, sparkling water, tea, coffee; in fact I can't think of anything on the typical non-alcoholic beverage menu that would be a problem. Alcoholic beverages are a different story and a bit complicated. That why they have their own article.
This can go both ways.
I recently had a very positive experience where I was made to feel very
comfortable and very safe. My husband and I went to The Keg a few weeks ago for our anniversary. The server was brand new but she was aware of what a gluten free diet is. When I told her about my situation, she immediately got the manager who brought me a list of gluten free choices and talked through the menu with me to ensure that I had a gluten free restaurant meal that would be more than just adequate. The food was excellent, the company of course was the best and I felt safe and taken care of.
more restaurants are becoming aware of what gluten is and how important
avoidance is for those of us with celiac disease and are treating our condition
with the seriousness it deserves. Still,
I sometimes find myself surprised by the lack of attention too. A few years ago I was at a local establishment with a friend. I was new to my gluten free diet and to gluten free restaurant dining. I decided to order a salad with
chicken. I explained my condition and that I can’t have any bread or breading,
and yet my salad came with breaded chicken! Really! What can you do but smile and send
it back. The waitress of course apologized and all was well in the end. I haven't gone back there though.
After all the camaraderie is what it's all about isn't it? Relax on the fact that your food choices are limited then order another glass of wine and have some fun – so long as you’re not driving ;)