7 Tips for Safe Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining
Have you been invited out to dinner and you’re wondering if you can safely eat out in a restaurant? You’re not alone. This is the one situation (maybe second to a dinner invitation at someone’s home) that causes anxiety for people with celiac disease.
If you follow these tips for gluten-free dining you’ll be great in any social situation.
There is a ton of info here, so you can read through or skip to the section that interests you most.
No matter what you do in life, there is always a risk. It’s up to you to know the facts and decide for yourself if the risk is worth the reward.
When it comes to gluten-free dining, no establishment (unless it’s a 100% gluten-free restaurant) will guarantee that your food will not come in contact with gluten. That would simply be impossible.
Should You Avoid Dining Out?
Some people with celiac simply never eat outside their own home.
If you will be so worried about your food being contaminated that you won’t enjoy your meal or the people you came to share the meal with, if you’ll just be made sick from the anxiety, then avoiding the situation may be the best solution for you.
But...if you’re like me, then your approach to dealing with celiac is that it will limit your life as little as possible.
I still travel, I still enjoy social time with friends and family. Is it a risk? For sure, but getting in car is a risk, getting on a plane is a risk, eating in a restaurant is a risk even if you don’t have celiac disease. Heck, eating in your own kitchen carries some risk. Have you ever accidently glutened yourself at home? I’m guessing you probably have. So have I.
Remember my Food Philosophy? This is where the balance part comes in.
Natural is best.
Balance is essential,
Simplicity is the thread that ties it all together.
So the answer is yes, with little knowledge and a little advanced planning, you can eat safely out at a restaurant.
What we really want is confidence. They say it's gluten free but how do we really know? Fortunately both the US FDA and Health Canada have published guidelines around the requirements for making a gluten free claim.
We still need to take responsibility for our gluten-free dining safety and ask questions of the people preparing our meals. In some cases you may even want to direct them to one of these pages. I was at a restaurant recently that indicated their sweet potato fries were gluten free, right on their menu. When I asked, they were cooked in the same fryer as onion rings. They got an email with the Health Canada Link ;)
Because the term "gluten-free" comes with some legally binding requirements, many establishments will offer selections that are "made without gluten ingredients" or "gluten-friendly". They may have a disclaimer stating that they cannot guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination in the kitchen.
For some people with a lower risk tolerance, this is a non starter. For me, I don't write these places off until I've asked a few questions. Many provide a safe gluten-free dining experience and have good allergy protocols in place.
Unless you’re eating in a 100% gluten-free establishment, there will always be a risk that your food could come in contact with gluten. But, choosing the right restaurant will help to reduce the risk.
Many restaurants, especially the big chains, have their menus and their allergy guides online. You can take a look in advance to see if they have gluten-free or “gluten friendly” choices.
Also look for an allergy statement. Something like “if you have any food allergies or intolerances please notify your server”. You can often gage the level of knowledge and care by what you’ll find online.
If you don’t feel like your online research has given you enough information, give the restaurant a call, preferably outside of their busy time. You can get a few of the basic questions out of the way.
There are several apps and websites that can help you with your search to find a good gluten-free dining experience.
Most are crowd sourced and will include comments from previous gluten-free patrons as to the menu, the quality of the food and the overall experience. These can be especially helpful if you are travelling and not familiar with the city.
Here are a few examples:
I write reviews of the restaurants I visit and I invite you to share your gluten-free dining experiences. You can see those here.
It may also help to understand the type of establishment you’re considering and how they are run. Some places are just more inherently risky and others are more likely to have knowledge and flexibility to make you a great gluten-free meal.
These are the 8 types of restaurants. Click on the one you'd like to see or scroll through for all the info.
Fast Food, Fine Dining, Pizza Places, Diners, Chains, 100% Gluten-Free, Farm to Table, International
Fast food establishments are (obviously) not the best when it comes to healthy eating but sometimes options are limited, or you just have a craving. Setting aside the issues with fatty, fried food and focusing on just gluten, there are some pros and cons.
Chef Owned / Fine Dining Establishments
This is my choice when looking for gluten-free dining options. This is where you’re likely to get the best tasting food made with care. These do tend to be on the pricier side, but I would rather eat out less often and choose better quality.
These make me a little nervous even if they have a gluten-free crust. If they make their regular pizza dough on site and there is lots of flour flying around, I’ll likely take a pass. If the crust is pre-made and they will use fresh toppings (not contaminated) and cook your pizza on a clean pan, then you may decide to take the risk.
Mom & Pop Diners
This can go either way. Often these places are about simple home cooking (good) but the cooks may or may not be professionally trained. They may or may not understand what gluten is and may or may not be willing and able to prevent cross contact.
Although these places make me the most nervous, I’ve had some very good gluten -free dining experiences too. If the server and the cook are willing to work with you, and you are willing to accept their limitations then you can have a good safe meal.
Check out my review of Madoc Dairy.
Franchise and Chain Restaurants
With gluten intolerance and celiac disease becoming more common, many of the larger chains are including gluten free items on their menus and have special little icons to direct you easily to your safe choices. If I’m in a strange city looking for a meal with not a lot of time to research, I’ll often choose a Montana’s or a Boston Pizza because I know their menu and know that they know how to meet my needs.
100% Gluten-Free Restaurants
This is the ideal situation of course. They only cook and serve gluten-free food, so the risk of cross contact is close to zero. These establishments are rare, but if you find one it will be like a breath of fresh air. Check online to see what 100% gluten-free dining choices are in your area.
Organic, Farm-to-Table and Vegan Restaurants
None of the terms above equal gluten-free, however, I bring this category to your attention because the folks who own and operate these types of establishments take food very seriously. They are more likely to understand about special diets and food sensitivities and are likely to have good protocols in place.
Also, it’s common for folks with celiac to have other sensitivities, or to just be a bit more picky about where our food comes from. If you are concerned about pesticides, then organic choices may be for you. If you have other food intolerances like dairy or eggs, a vegan restaurant is a good choice. If you care about supporting local farmers, then a farm-to-table establishment will suit your need.
It’s not uncommon as well to find two or more of these specialties combined and maybe even with gluten-free.
International or Ethnic Cuisines
If you love Indian or Mexican or Asian cuisines, you’ll be pleased to know that there are many naturally gluten-free dining choices. This is because, unlike European cuisines, many others are not wheat based. Mexican cuisine is corn based and Asian cuisines are more rice based.
There may be wheat involved, flour tortillas and naan bread for example, but generally it’s easy to avoid wheat when you begin to explore international (non-European) cuisines.
Do be careful though if there is a language barrier, you may have difficulty expressing your needs. Also be aware that many cuisines become “westernized” as the cooks adapt to local ingredients. Watch for soy sauce in some Asian dishes for example.
You know what it’s like when you get really busy. Even if you are a detail oriented, no corner cutting person, it’s just more difficult to keep track of everything and mistakes are more likely.
This is especially true in a commercial kitchen. Their processes are very tight and well timed. That’s how they get the food out to their customers while it’s hot and delicious. A “special order” causes the whole thing to have to slow down. They need to change gloves, get a fresh pan, use fresh toppings.
The chances that something will get missed during the dinner time rush is much greater than if you were to come in earlier or later. Then the kitchen crew is not so stressed, and they can take the time to make your meal with the care both you and they know it deserves.
If you want to know the busiest time for the restaurant you’re planning to visit, just check out their listing on Google. You don’t need to go completely off of meal time, just try to avoid the rush.
Even if there is a gluten-free menu or items marked gluten-free you still need to inform your server that you have celiac or a gluten-intolerance and ask them to inform the kitchen.
Talk with your server about the menu choices (see below), the ingredients and what substitutions can be made. Be patient if he or she doesn't know for sure and needs to check.
Printable Dining Card: Download this printable dining card and take it to the restaurant with you. It will help to explain your gluten-free dining needs and ensure there are no misunderstandings.
Sauces: Always ask about sauces. Teriyaki sauce usually contains soya sauce which may not be gluten-free. Many sauces are thickened with flour although some are thickened just before serving with corn starch or tapioca starch. Many 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 often have gluten. Just ask to have the offending ingredient left out and either substitute for a gluten free dressing or just ask for a nice balsamic and olive oil. Obviously croutons are a no-no.
Soups: I usually avoid soups in restaurants. Thick soups are often thickened with flour. Clear soups may be okay, but be sure to ask. Often the stocks that form the base of the soup are not gluten-free.
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, steamed lobster or crab may be okay. Check to be sure.
Rice and Potatoes – Rice is gluten-free but is often cooked in chicken stock or some other liquid that may not be. Fried rice usually has soy sauce added. Wild rice is not really rice, it’s a grass and is gluten free, but again there could be an issue with the liquid it is cooked in. Potatoes are gluten free, but ask to be sure they don’t have flour or non-gluten-free chicken stock 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's why they have their own article.
Always tip generously when you're well looked after! I know gluten free food is more expensive to begin with but keep in mind, having to take special precautions with your food and mine means that the efficient, well oiled machine of a restaurant kitchen has had to slow down, change the routine and pay special attention. They may have had to alter a recipe, take time to clean a work surface and change gloves. This is worth something and for me, I am truly grateful for the special attention I've received on many occasions when when dining out. Express your gratitude and leave a generous tip.
And always be polite. My grandmother used to say “ you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”.
I've read tons of forum posts from people reporting poor or dismissive treatment in restaurants. I can honestly say I can count the number of times this has happened to me on one hand, with fingers left over.
I wonder if some of those folks reporting poor treatment have gone into the situation with an attitude of entitlement? If we go in with the understanding that we are asking for special treatment that is difficult to provide and a lot to expect; if we’re polite with servers, understanding and willing to explain, I really think we’ll find that most will be willing to work with us.
I have a whole page on travelling gluten-free, but here are some quick tips:
I haven't included this as a tip, but it might be the most important. Remember what it's all about. You're going out to enjoy time with friends and family. Even if the menu selection isn't great for you, you're with your people. Enjoy them, make the food secondary.
Gluten-Free Restaurant Reviews: Read about my gluten-free dining experiences and share your own so we can all learn from each other.
Gluten-Free International Dining: You may be pleasantly surprised if you're in search of a gluten free restaurant meal and you like Asian, Middle Eastern, African or even Mexican cuisine.