I have been wanting to write a guide on how to avoid gluten in restaurants for a very long time. And I feel like this has been on your wishlist too as some of the questions I get asked the most are: “What can I eat at a restaurant that is gluten free?“, “Can celiacs eat in restaurants?” and then “Ambra, can you write an eating out gluten free guide to help us navigate restaurant menus while staying away from gluten?‘
I get it. For the gluten free diner, eating out and letting a stranger be in charge of their meals can become a dreadful (and sickening) experience. After 6 years spent traveling the world on a gluten free diet, I put together the 10 best strategies to avoid gluten in restaurants that will empower you to feel comfortable and confident when you place your next (gluten free) order!
👉At the end of this post you’ll find a handy memo that recaps the most effective tricks to avoid gluten in restaurants. Make sure you save this image on your phone so you can always pull it up when you need it!
One last thing before we start: if you are looking for more specific resources to avoid gluten in restaurants in a specific city, make sure to check out my gluten free city guides!!
HOW TO AVOID GLUTEN IN RESTAURANTS. THE ULTIMATE GUIDE
Do your research first
The best way to locate trustworthy gluten free restaurants around you is to look up blog posts written by people with gluten issues who have already tested them. Gluten free blogs are the most reliable sources of information, as they are compiled by folks who go through your same struggles and are really scrupulous with their recommendations.
Another good option is to download specific gluten free apps (like Find Me Gluten Free) on your phone and sort results with filters like: “dedicated gluten free” or “most celiac friendly”.
On the other hand, looking up “gluten free restaurants” on Yelp, Trip Advisor or Google Map WON’T give you very accurate results, as these apps pick up the words “gluten free” even from random comments left by their users. Somebody typing out: “…there was no gluten free food in this place” is enough to make a restaurant pop up in your search and give you the wrong information.
Once you have selected gluten free friendly restaurants you can rely on, save them on the map application on your phone so they are easily accessible, and remember to always keep this list updated with any new restaurants you try. This will allow you to create a personalized collection of gluten free restaurants around you that’s reliable and practical.
Whether you are browsing through your gluten free map, or you are walking around a new area of town, make sure to be selective when it’s time to choose where you are going to eat.
Before you decide to pull the trigger and walk into a new restaurant, check out their website and see if their menu clearly lists the allergens contained in each dish.
If you can’t find this information online, call the restaurant during non-peak hours (or walk in if you are strolling by) and ask them if they can accommodate your dietary needs and what type of dishes they can offer you.
It will definitely be easier to avoid gluten in restaurants that brand themselves as “gluten free friendly”, as the staff should be accustomed to preparing gluten-free food and have experience in preventing cross-contamination, so these types of eateries should always be your first choice.
But sometimes you can receive excellent (gluten free) service even in a regular restaurant. Just talk to them before, see if they sound knowledgeable, and if for whatever reason you don’t feel confident, thank them and choose another place!
Always be the last to order
You know it: gluten free orders are just a tiny bit more complicated (and frustrating) than those of your fellow diners, and it’s never fun to be that customer who needs to ask for a million changes.
Always let them go the other people first and be the last one to speak to the waiter. This will allow you to have extra time to discuss the menu and avoid that awkward moment when everybody looks at you weird as you rattle off the list of ingredients you need to stay away from.
In fact, when people are done with their order, they move on to a new conversation and stop paying attention to the waiter. This will allow you to be as inconspicuous as possible and make sure your waiter has a clear grasp of your dietary needs.
If the server doesn’t seem to be too knowledgeable, nicely ask him if you can speak to the manager or the chef. Do not feel embarrassed about requesting better assistance or asking multiple questions. It is your right to know how a dish is prepared and if it’s safe for you to eat!
Phrase your dietary needs like this
For people who don’t deal with food restrictions themselves it’s sometimes hard to understand all the various permutations of the health issues gluten can cause.
Most likely, they are not informed about the differences between celiac disease, wheat allergy, gluten intolerance and autoimmune disease exacerbated by gluten, and if you don’t sound convincing when explaining your needs, they’ll assume you’re just trying to be trendy and not treat your order as seriously as they should.
The most effective way to communicate your needs and avoid gluten in restaurants is to use the words “gluten allergy” and describe it as “severe”. Even when if it’s not your case and it’s not technically correct, phrasing your needs like this will instantly make your server be more careful when dealing with your order and it will most likely get you a safe, gluten-less meal.
In order to better communicate your needs to a kitchen staff member, you need to educate yourself and be aware of non-so-obvious sources of gluten and sneaky contamination issues so that you can ask the right questions.
Of course, we all know bread, pasta, and baked goods aren’t allowed on a gluten free diet, but you need to be informed about all other potential gluten carriers commonly used in a restaurant kitchen, like imitation crab, seitan, soy sauce, flavorings, thickeners and other condiments.
Instead of asking YES or NO questions, invite the staff to elaborate on the preparation of the dish you are interested in, and on how they handle hidden sources of gluten or contamination.
Here’s a few questions to ask in order to avoid gluten in restaurants.
- Are the mashed potatoes made from scratch or from a mix?
- Do they add pancake batter or breadcrumbs when making omelets?
- Do they add breadcrumbs in meat patties and burgers?
- Do they have a separate fryer for deep fried gluten free items?
- Do they boil gluten free pasta in a separate pot? Ans if so, do they use a separate colander and utensils for draining it?
- Do they use a separate cutting board to prepare your food so that breadcrumbs or other contaminants don’t end up in your plate?
- Do they grill meat and fish on the same grill they use for bread? If yes, ask them to cook your order in a separate pan.
Do NOT assume gluten free dishes are actually gluten free!
Often times, we assume a dish is gluten free just because there is nothing in the description that mentions gluten containing items.
And so we figure a rice dish is gluten free when often times it’s not, just like Cuban rice, saffron rice and paella that are cooked in a stock that has wheat in it. Or we wrongly assume that buckwheat noodles are gluten free because we ignore that buckwheat only comprises a very small percentage of the noddle, and that the rest are made with wheat!
Even at the cost of sounding redundant, always ask how each item is prepared. Gluten hides in marinades, dressings, gravies, stocks and thickeners that are added to foods that would normally be gluten free.
Keep your modifications simple!
When you can’t find anything that fits your needs on the menu, ask the kitchen to create a custom meal for you simply by throwing together a nice salad or by grilling or steaming fish or meat and/or vegetables.
Keeping your custom order simple will improve your chances to avoid gluten in restaurants. Avoid all items that involve sauces or marinades and choose dishes made with few ingredients. As per the dressing, ask for some olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper on the side so you can be extra sure of what goes into the seasoning.
If you keep it this simple, almost every kitchen will be able to accommodate a safe gluten free meal for you.
Lastly, remember to arm yourself with patience. Altering the preparation of certain dishes will slow down the service a bit. Be aware of that and allow the kitchen some extra time to provide you with an allergy free meal.
Always triple check!
Just because it seems like the ordering process went smooth, do not assume that when the food arrives you are ready to eat. I can’t even tell you how many times I was served food that WAS NOT gluten free, even after having entire conversations with more than one server about my order.
The best thing you can do is train your eye to distinguish gluten containing items from their gluten free equivalents, and to investigate your dish closely to inspect the possible presence of gluten.
Here are some examples:
- Learn to distinguish a regular pizza crust from a gluten free one. It’s not uncommon, when I order gluten free pizza, that I am brought a regular crust and I need to send it back to the kitchen.
- Look for bread crumbs sprinkled over your food. On more than one occasion I have ordered something I thought was grilled only to be delivered a breaded piece of fish.
- Closely inspect your salad and check if you can spot croutons in there.
In short, when the food arrives, before you start eating it, thoroughly examine your dish and, when in doubt, ask the server to confirm it’s free from the allergens you need to stay away from.
Stick to your plate
People love to split food and have a little taste of everything. BUT, when the group you are dining with orders appetizers for the table, 90% of the time it is something you can’t eat.
And, even in those cases where you could potentially join the feast (let’s say they ordered hummus), you won’t be able to enjoy it anyways because some of your table mates will kindly dive a piece of bread right into the bowl, scattering crumbs (and gluten) all over it.
In order to avoid gluten in restaurants, instead of asking for modifications on a dish the group wants to split, simply let them order what they want, keep calm, sip your wine… and hope your food comes quickly!
Then, when the main courses arrive, people will invite you to try their meal. Kindly refuse with a quick “I’m good, thanks”. By the time you call the server, wait for him to go check with the kitchen and come back with a verdict, the table will be done eating.
Lastly, stay away of shared desserts. If you can’t find anything that suits your food intolerances, opt for a bowl of fresh berries. And if you can’t conceive ending a meal without a proper treat, pack a gluten free snack or couple of home made cookies in your purse and enjoy it when it’s most appropriate.
Temper your expectations
Dinner is over. And while everybody agrees that the chef was amazing and the restaurant averages a 4.8 star rating on Yelp… you can’t help but thinking you would have eaten better at home and this meal was kind of a waste of calories.
Don’t get frustrated if at times your gluten free dining experiences don’t live up to your expectations. Especially in places that aren’t 100% gluten free, the staff is not always trained to deal with gluten free replacements.
I know, you might have just stuffed your face with a bunch of pretty bland sides because the rest of the menu was off limits, but at least you didn’t get ‘glutened’.
…And now you have the perfect excuse to go home and throw together a late night carbonara! Gluten free, of course 😉
What are YOUR Strategies to Avoid Gluten in Restaurants?
👉👉👉👉Now I would love to hear from you! What are the most effective strategies you have ever used to avoid gluten in restaurants? Let me know in a comment below and don’t forget to share this article on Facebook and pin it to your Pinterest boards so others can see it too and stay away from gluten when they eat out!
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