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12½ Tips for Eating Out Gluten Free in Restaurants

12 Tips for Eating Out Gluten-Free in Restaurants

Hi, it’s Pat!

Today, I’d like to share with you 12½ things that you can do when you are eating out gluten free … It will help you avoid eating or drinking things that have gluten in them.

But,  first, let’s talk about who this article is for.

Who this Article Should Help

There are two groups of people that eat gluten-free:

  • Those who do so by choice because they believe they obtain a benefit such as feeling better, improved athletic performance or perhaps overall better health.  And,
  • Those who must avoid gluten due to a medical condition such as celiac disease or what is called gluten sensitivity, and those who have a gluten/wheat allergy.

Please be aware that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are auto-immune issues and are not usually immediately life threatening.

Gluten, wheat and similar substance allergies are able to produce anaphylactic shock (Anaphylaxis, which causes anaphylactic shock, is a serious, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) which is why people with severe allergies carry epi sticks.  Allergies can be immediately life threatening. 

This article is written for individuals who are gluten intolerant, gluten sensitive or have voluntarily chosen to be gluten free!

This article is NOT written for people who have wheat, gluten or related substance-type allergies. It can possibly help but I’m not writing to them. As always, follow your physician’s suggestions and advice.

If you are allergic to wheat, gluten or related substances, always do what your physician has told you to do and ignore anything I say in this article that does not agree which what your physician has told you to do.

What Do I Know About Eating Out Gluten Free?

Just so you’ll know, I’ve been gluten-free since I was diagnosed with celiac disease in January of the year 2000. And, since then I’ve probably made just about every gluten-free “eating out” mistake in the books.

Personally, most of my celiac-related gluten intolerance symptoms revolve around bloating, cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, exhaustion, brain fogs, and joint pain.…

… In other words, mostly but not exclusively, digestive symptoms. And, it takes about 20 to 30 minutes for me to discover that I have, in fact, been “glutened” … which is what I call it when I have a reaction because I ate or drank something containing gluten.

I’ve “lost my lunch” by the side of the road or over a waste basket or toilet more times than I care to remember after eating at a restaurant before I figured out how to live gluten-free successfully.

With that history, it’s easy to see that I’ve learned how to deal with my gluten-related issues in the “School of Hard Knocks!”

What Made It so Hard?

At the time of my diagnosis, there was very little information available to the general public about how to deal with gluten-related issues… And, that of course, included information about eating out in restaurants.

At that time, there were some restaurants who were beginning to train their food preparation and wait staffs to deal properly with customers who had gluten-related issues…

… But, the restaurants that would do that were few and far between and the training was usually restricted to one or two individuals…

… In fact, most restaurant personnel, including managers, weren’t even aware there was a thing called gluten.

Plus, there were no gluten-free menus that I ever saw.

In addition, there was not the major gluten-free website internet presence like there is today at the end of 2015… Way back then… I remember 3 fairly young sites, a few blog sites on the subject and that was about it.

And, because of that I’ve developed some methods that I personally use to prevent accidentally eating or drinking something containing gluten…

My techniques work especially well when I’m eating away from home in a restaurant.

In fact, I will frequently go more than a year or two without the need to deal with a gluten-related reaction episode. However…

There Are Things You Can’t Control

First, remember when you eat out that there are things you cannot control. Any time your success depends on the actions of others, there will be times when things don’t go the way you hope they will…

… So, because of that reality, you will occasionally have a gluten contamination problem. And, gluten contamination means gluten reactions for anyone who is gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive.

When you get a gluten reaction from eating out somewhere, just think about what you did and how you missed the signs or misunderstood what was said and learn from your mistake. Also, I generally don’t eat at that restaurant again.

You and only you are responsible for making sure that the food you eat meets your needs and does not contain gluten.

12½ Tips for Having a Positive, Gluten-Free Restaurant Experience

Let’s look at what you can do to have a completely enjoyable eating out experience!!

Tip #1 –

Find restaurants that offer gluten-free menus.

Not only is it refreshing to find things on the menu that I can trust to be gluten-free, but it helps me believe that they may have trained staff to do it properly and safely.

The internet is a great place to start when you do that!

So, I thought I’d give you a list of three reputable organizations that may be able to help you find restaurants in your area that you may want to visit. They are:

This organization offers two lists on the linked page. They are:

2015 Certified Restaurants

2015 Certified University, Hospital, Senior Living, and Camp Locations

These links worked at the time of this writing in November, 2015.

This organization deals primarily with training of food service organization personnel.

It’s a very short list but I am hopeful you will find it useful.

Organizations taking the training and adhering to their pledge have been trained through NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens program and received GREAT accreditation.

  • Celiac Sprue Association – This is a list of company logos, names and links of restaurants and food companies which have received CSA recognition.

Tip #2 –

When you have found a restaurant that looks good to you, give them a call to make sure the information you found on the internet about the establishment is still correct.

The restaurant industry is fairly “dynamic” … marketing objectives change, personnel decide to try different menu item mixes and restaurants may be sold to owners with very different ideas, etc. And, those changes may not find their way into the website or into the information that online “aggregators” include in their descriptions of what a given restaurant offers.

Tip #3 –

Find restaurants that have trained restaurant personnel in how to serve gluten-free customers properly.

Recently, restaurants have discovered that serving gluten-free customers properly is big business. Gluten-free customers frequently bring their friends and family with them and tend to come back to establishments that they can trust not to contaminate their food.

This means that for every gluten-free meal a gluten-free customer buys they are likely to get two to four or more meals plus tips.

And because of that, savvy managers have begun training their wait and kitchen staffs in the proper way to deal with gluten-free customers and their orders.

Many of the better restaurants not only have trained their personnel but they also have segregated, uncontaminated food preparation areas, cutlery and utensils, and serving ware dedicated to the exclusive service of gluten-free individuals.

Tip #4a –

Observe the cleanliness of the establishment. If you see obvious dirt, crumbs and smear marks on the bused tables, counters and floors, it is probably a safe bet that the place is not somewhere that you should be eating if you are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive.

 Tip #4b –

Find out if the plates and bowls and food preparation items/utensils are washed in a common washbasin/tub/sink. If they are washed that way by hand, there is probably no way that those items have not been contaminated by gluten.

If, on the other hand, they had been washed by commercial dish-washing equipment, they are probably gluten-free… but not always.  I live in a mixed gluten/gluten-free home and we wash everything together in our dishwasher with no problems.  However, I’ve seen books and reports that indicate that commercial dishwashers can be a problem.

Tip #5 –

If you are in a restaurant which has a formal greeter/receptionist, ask the receptionist whether they have a server who is trained to serve gluten-free individuals. And, if so, ask to be seated at that server’s tables.

If you do that you may have to wait a bit longer until a table becomes available in that server’s area. But, I believe that your dining experience will be much more enjoyable… And safer!

Tip #6 –

Talk to your server.

If you followed my advice about calling the restaurant before you visited, you probably talked to the receptionist or a member of the wait staff. Sometimes they may say they are the manager or an assistant manager when they are not.

Because of what I just said, it would be a good idea to verify what you believe you know about the restaurant’s policies and activities in the gluten related areas.

Ask your server the following specific questions. I try to do this sort of thing conversationally. I definitely do not want the server to feel like they are being interrogated or badgered.

Your server is a valuable member of your team in that restaurant and it is very important to make sure that they feel like you are treating them as such.

The questions I like to ask are:

  • have you been trained in dealing with the needs of gluten-free individuals?
  • Is there a segregated food preparation area that is used to prepare gluten-free foods?
  • is there anything gluten-free on the menu?
  • is there anything from the menu that your server can recommend?
  • does the chef have anything that he/she recommends?
  • ask/discuss whether the kitchen staff is able to prepare a gluten-free meal.

This is important in local/regular restaurants that have small kitchen staffs which have probably not been trained in gluten-free food preparation.

Often, the server may need to go to the kitchen to ask the question as to whether the chef can prepare your food only with pots, pans, skillets and implements/surfaces which are totally clean and have not touched anything which contains gluten.

I’d like to almost always go with the recommendations of the server and/or the chef.

Try to always remember that the wait staff will be trying to please you in order to obtain the best possible tip. Consequently, your server will be highly motivated to make your dining experience as excellent as possible.

Tip #7 –

If you are ordering a salad or a dessert, remind your server that you need to remain gluten-free.

This is very important because many establishments leave it to the servers to prepare salads and desserts.

Be sure to point out that the salad must not have any croutons or other bread products or have commercially available condiments/dressings added to it which are not totally gluten-free.

Things like bacon bits, crushed/chopped eggs, peppers, onions, etc. may be cross contaminated from utensils used to serve the item to other patrons. If any of the items are commercially prepared there is a high probability that they are contaminated with gluten.

Also point out, tactfully of course, that the utensils, bowls, scoops, cutting boards and all other objects used in the preparation of your order must not have been used in the preparation of a gluten-y order. And ask the server to wear fresh gloves or wash their hands well before they prepare or handle your foods.

If your server is preparing a dessert, remember that any of the things used to prepare the dessert may contain gluten. Unless your server is a gluten-free individual, you will probably need to remind them of that and emphasize that the things in the dessert must not contain gluten and must not have touched anything which contains gluten.

Tip #8 –

If after talking to your server you are not sure whether your gluten-free meal will be prepared properly, you only have two choices at that point.  Either you get up and leave (if you do that be sure to leave the server a reasonable tip) or you ask to talk to the manager.

If you ask to talk to the manager be sure to be extremely tactful. And when you do speak with the manager make sure you highly praise the server that you spoke with.

Basically you will need to ask all of the previous questions in one form or another of the manager.

If after speaking with the manager you are still unclear as to whether you can safely eat in the establishment, be sure to very politely thank the manager and the server for their help.

And, if you can do it honestly, let them know that you will mention their cooperation and trustworthiness to your friends and/or family.

If you think about it, they do deserve a good recommendation if you can give it.

After all, the server or the manager could have lied to you. And by the time you discovered that you had been “glutened,” they would have had your money.

Then, get up and politely leave and be sure to leave the server a tip.

Tip #9 –

Ethnic restaurants can be a “hotbed” for gluten-based reactions. Language difficulties as well as cultural-based customs can be a nightmare as far as a gluten-free dining experience goes.

I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world but in the United States many of the servers in ethnic restaurants may be illegal immigrants or even if they are in the country legally, do not speak English or if they do they may not speak it fluently.

Sometimes, in ethnic restaurant situations, the wait staff memorizes the menu or menu item designators such as numbers or letters. They will take your order by the numbers or other designator. And, sometimes, they even learn nonspecific, often generalized answers that they can parrot when you say something to them. My husband and I have run into this problem several times.

If you detect a lack of comprehension of what you’re talking about from your server you will probably need to ask to speak to the manager. In this case be extremely complimentary of your server and what a good job you think they are doing.

Ask your questions of the manager and hope for the best or get up and leave. As I mentioned in one of the other items be sure to leave a tip for the server if you feel the need to do that.

If you frequent ethnic restaurants, I suggest that you obtain an order of “Explanation Cards” from a company like Triumph Dining. The cards that they offer are available in 10 languages and explain the gluten-free requirements of your diet clearly.

Most ethnic managers and chefs will be able to easily understand your needs in less than a minute when you present them with a Triumph Dining card.

Tip #10 –

Taking along your child’s high-chair would be a great idea. High-chairs provided by restaurants will probably be extremely “glutenized.”  They have probably had gluten-y foods smeared on them by previous occupants and were wiped clean… not washed.

So, they are probably always contaminated with gluten and are dangerous for a gluten-free child.

Tip #11 –

Be sure to thoroughly wash all sinks, counters or changing tables in a restaurant bathroom before placing a gluten-free child on or in them. At a minimum, cover any changing table with a known, gluten-free towel or sheet before using it to change your child’s diaper or clothing. Once you have used a cover, consider it unsafe for your child until it has been washed.

Tip #12 –

Do not permit your child to put anything from the restaurant in their mouth that you do not know for sure is free of gluten. And, do not leave them unsupervised even “for a second.” Table legs, table edges or armrests or anything that smells “good or unusual” to the child may end up in the child’s mouth.

What to Do If You Must Eat There but You Don’t Trust Them to Provide a Gluten-Free Meal…

I’ve had more than one occasion where I was in a restaurant which could not assure me that my food would be gluten-free. You need to recognize that this will probably happen to you, too.

What I do when this happens is to order a salad and ask the server to make sure that all the implements have not been used to prepare other salads, if possible. And I asked the server not to put any dressing, condiments or commercially prepared processed foodstuffs on the salad.

If I have no confidence that I will get an uncontaminated salad, I will typically order a baked potato and ask the server not to open it. I will open the potato and add butter if I have commercially available packets that I can open myself.   Or, I’ll just have a cup of coffee or beverage and enjoy the company that I’m with.

I will add salt and pepper only if the cleanliness standards of the restaurant seemed to be high enough that the inside of the salt shaker and pepper shaker are probably clean. If they have packetized salt-and-pepper, that is ideal.

If the place where I am sitting looks contaminated, I like to ask for a clean glass of water and a clean napkin. I want to make sure that the napkin does not touch the table when the server gives it to me. I will then dip the clean napkin in the clean water and carefully rinse the tabletop with the wet napkin until I am comfortable that the table top is reasonably clean. If you find it necessary to do this, make sure that each surface of the napkin touches the tabletop only once.