In 1994 I was diagnosed with celiac disease, which led me to create Celiac.com in 1995. I created this site for a single purpose: To help as many people as possible with celiac disease get diagnosed so they can begin to live happy, healthy gluten-free lives. Celiac.com was the first site on the Internet dedicated solely to celiac disease. In 1998 I founded The Gluten-Free Mall, Your Special Diet Superstore!, and I am the co-author of the book Cereal Killers, and founder and publisher of Journal of Gluten Sensitivity.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2002 edition of Celiac.com's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity.
The results of my latest Celiac.com survey indicate that 71 percent of 983 respondents dine out less often now than before they went on a gluten-free diet. Further, 74 percent of those who do eat out are now more nervous and uncomfortable during their dining experience, and 50 percent of them felt this way because it is either too much trouble to explain their diet, or because they felt that restaurant employees are in too big of a hurry to worry about their special needs. As a resident of San Francisco, a city that supposedly has enough table space in its restaurants to seat everyone in the city at once, these results disappoint me. Not because I eat out less due to my gluten-restricted diet, or am uncomfortable when I do so, but because I don’t believe that anyone with celiac disease who is armed with the proper knowledge needs to fear or avoid eating out.
In order to eat out safely the first thing that you must check before going into a restaurant is your attitude. If you are the type of person who is too embarrassed to send your meal back because they didn’t follow your instructions or if you are the opposite type and are so demanding that you often annoy the staff—you will need to find some middle ground. It took me a while to reach this point, but I can now go into a restaurant with confidence and look at getting a good gluten-free meal there as a personal challenge that begins when I walk through their door.
Upon entering a restaurant the first thing that you need to notice is how busy the place is, including how stressed out the workers seem to be—the more stressed out they are, the more tactful you will need to be to get what you want—a safe meal. One rule that has served me well in all situations is to keep it simple—both your order and how you place it. I never try to give a scientific discourse on celiac disease to restaurant workers, as I have found that it only serves to frustrate or confuse them. Tell them only what they need to know—that you have an allergy to wheat (using the term gluten will typically lead back into long explanations) and need to make sure that your dish is wheat-free. I wouldn’t tell them that you’ll get violently ill if ANY wheat ends up in your meal, as some people recommend, because they probably won’t want to serve you. I also wouldn’t go into detail about hidden ingredients that contain wheat—it will take too long to explain and you will again run the risk of scaring them into not serving you.
I usually don’t approach the chef unless it’s very slow because he is probably the busiest person in a restaurant. When it’s busy I always ask the waiter to give the chef special order instructions, both verbally and in writing on the order ticket. Rather than try to educate the staff and make them experts on gluten, it’s far more efficient if you are the one who becomes more educated with regard to the dishes you like to eat so that you can order them in a manner that will ensure your safety. I strongly believe that your diet is ultimately your responsibility and not a restaurant’s (with the exception of any mistakes that they might make).
The key to ordering a gluten-free meal is your beforehand knowledge of its ingredients and how it is prepared. Most people who have cooked have a basic understanding of how certain dishes are prepared, and how they could contain gluten. Even if you aren’t a cook you might have had the meal you want to order enough times to know something about its ingredients and preparation methods. You need only to know enough about the meal to ask the right questions so that you can alter any preparation methods that might cause it to contain gluten. For example, whenever I order a salad I always tell them no croutons, and to bring me olive oil and vinegar for dressing. If I order fried rice in a Chinese restaurant I order it without soy sauce, or I give them my own bottle to cook with. If you order something properly and it arrives incorrectly, send it back! I recently ordered Chinese food with my family and did everything right—I told them about my wheat allergy, gave them my bottle of soy sauce, and told the waitress that I wanted to make sure that there was no wheat flour in or on anything that I ordered (but that corn starch is fine—if you don’t clarify this point it might unnecessarily eliminate or alter many Chinese dishes). When our food arrived the chicken I ordered was breaded. After inquiring about it I found out that they used wheat flour so I sent it back, the waitress apologized, and it was no big deal.
I recommend that you purchase and read basic cookbooks for the types of foods that you like to eat so that you can place your order with confidence. For example, I own several cookbooks for my favorite cuisines, including ones that cover Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, Indian and American foods. I typically look over the relevant cookbook before I go to a particular restaurant so that I can get an idea of what I want to order and how to order it. The more up-front knowledge you have about how the dishes you like are prepared, the easier it will be for you to order them in a manner that ensures that they are safe. Having these books around is also great should you begin to cook more at home, which 65 percent of my survey respondents already do, and this is something that I also highly recommend.
Generally speaking I try to avoid large chain restaurants as much as possible because many of their items are highly processed and contain a huge number of ingredients. Their employees typically have no idea what’s in their foods. I think that many of the survey respondents are with me on this, as 70 percent of them also eat less processed and junk foods due to their gluten-free diets. I only eat at chain restaurants if I am able to check their Web sites in advance for safe items, and if I can’t do this I am extra careful about what I order. I try to eat at smaller, family-owned establishments because they usually know the ingredients and preparation methods for all of their dishes. Additionally, authentic ethnic foods such as Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean typically use little wheat, so I lean more towards these types of foods when I eat out.
The transition to a gluten-free diet isn’t easy—74 percent of survey respondents thought it was difficult or very difficult. Like many things in life, it took some up-front work on your part to be able to make the successful transition to a gluten-free diet, and the same is true for eating out. I like to think that what you put into it, you will get out of it—the more you learn about cuisine and its various methods of preparation, the more pleasant and care-free your dining experiences will be, and the more likely you will be to get a safe meal. Life’s too short to not enjoy the basic pleasure of eating out, so the next time you get the urge, do your homework first, then take charge of your meal at the restaurant!