This article appeared in the Winter 2005 edition of Celiac.coms Scott-Free Newsletter, and is an edited excerpt from Wheat-Free, Worry-Free: The Art of Happy, Healthy, Gluten-Free Living.
In reality, when you eat at restaurants, some chefs will "get it" and work to ensure a safe meal for you, and others wont. Going to restaurants isnt really about eating as much as it is the ambience, the company, and, well, okay—the convenience. Focus on those primary reasons for going to a restaurant, and make the food secondary, even if theres very little you can eat. If youve heard me speak or read my books, then youve followed my advice and stuffed yourself before you left the house, so youre not hungry anyway.
Its been said that the best offense is a good defense, which probably applies to restaurant excursions as well as it does to the football field. Im not encouraging you to be offensive; in fact, quite the opposite. Its not, after all, the waiters or chefs responsibility to accommodate your diet. If they do, be prepared to leave a big tip, because their job descriptions definitely do not include understanding the intricacies of this diet. Nor should you fill them in on all the minutiae surrounding the diet.
A brief education is all they should need, because you should already have narrowed down the choices on the menu that look as though they might be safe, or at least may be prepared in a way that would make them safe. Its okay to ask that your food be prepared in a special manner—people do that all the time even when they are not on a special diet.
Most important, you need to be aware of specific foods and ingredients to avoid when eating out. Some things are more likely to be okay than others, and you should make it easier on yourself by choosing items that are more likely to be wheat-free/gluten-free.
Your days of eating at Italian restaurants with ease are probably behind you (although many Italian dishes are made with polenta, which is gluten-free). Pizza joints: also not likely. Chinese: possibly. Dont set yourself up for disappointment by selecting restaurants that will fill you with frustration by the very nature of their menu selection. Instead, choose restaurants with a large selection, or choose a restaurant based on its ethnicity or culture because its likely to offer more wheat-free/gluten-free foods. Thai foods, for instance, are often gluten-free, since they use fish sauce instead of soy sauce for a lot of their marinades and seasonings (although some fish sauces can also contain wheat). Study your ethnic foods so you know the ingredients they contain and can make good choices when it comes to restaurant selections.
Knowing what to order is just as important as knowing where to go. Consider, for instance, an American-style restaurant like Dennys or Sizzler. For breakfast, youre better off contemplating the eggs (beware: many restaurant eggs are from a mix that contains gluten), hash browns (be sure to check), and bacon (check again) than you are the Waffle-Mania, even if it is only $3.95. For lunch or dinner, you can almost always find a restaurant that will offer you a burger (no bun), fries, and a salad (no croutons).
Be aware of things that are likely to be problematic. For instance, most sushi is okay, but some of the products, such as imitation crabmeat, usually contain wheat, while other sushi items can contain soy sauce, which usually also has wheat. Cajun cooking often uses beer to cook shrimp and other shellfish, and of course beer is off-limits on a gluten-free diet.
Make it easier on yourself by choosing foods that are more likely to be safe for you. What you end up with may not be your first choice, and you may find yourself longing for the days when you could order from a menu with your eyes closed. Dont whine about what you cant have, and focus on the things you can. Remember, eating out isnt about the food. Its about the atmosphere, the company, and the fact that youre not cleaning up.
Talk to the Waiter and Ask the Right Questions
Sometimes talking to the waiter is an exercise in futility. If you realize this is the case, either order what you deem to be safest, order nothing at all, or leave.
A cooperative waiter or waitress, on the other hand, is your first line of defense in keeping bad food away. Make friends. Be kind. Tip well. After youve picked what you think could be a safe menu selection or could be made into one, ask questions. Dont be shy; its not rude or uncommon for people to ask questions, even when theyre not accommodating a restrictive diet. Ask if the hamburger patty is 100 percent beef or if it has fillers; ask if the eggs are all-egg, or if they have fillers; check to make sure the fries arent coated with breading, seasonings, or anything else that would make them off-limits. Check sauces and marinades; even if you mention that you cant eat wheat or gluten, people rarely realize, for instance, that soy sauce usually contains wheat.
Once youve made your menu selection, the waiter isnt dismissed. At this point it gets a little awkward because youve probably already asked a lot of questions, but there are a few more to ask, because how the food is prepared is also important. You need to make sure that the hamburgers arent grilled on the same rack as the buns, and that the croutons arent just plucked out of your salad, but rather that they were never put in. You even need to ask about the oil the fries are cooked in, because if theyre cooked with breaded foods, you really shouldnt eat them.
At this point, even the most patient of waiters is likely to be giving you a stiff smile with that "Is there anything else youd like to know?" expression. Offer to talk to the chef, if it would make things easier. Chefs, although not often educated in the fine art of accommodating restricted diets, are usually interested in them nonetheless, and are usually quite fascinated when you talk to them about the wheat-free/gluten-free diet. Each time you talk to a chef, youre educating him or her and making it easier for the next wheat-free/gluten-free patron who comes along.
Do Your Homework
Many national chain restaurants have lists of their wheat-free/gluten-free products available by phone or on their Websites. Collect lists from your favorite restaurants and fast-food chains, and keep them in a folder for future reference. You may even want to consider putting them in a three-ring binder that you keep in the car.
Once youve done all the work to find restaurants that work for you, by all means dont worry about getting in a rut. Theres nothing wrong with "tried and true" when your only other option is "guessed and now Im sick." Dont get too complacent, though, because just like products at the grocery store, menu items at restaurants sometimes change ingredients. Check frequently, and remember that even if you think its safe, if something makes you sick, dont eat it!
BYOF (Bring Your Own Food)
It probably wouldnt be too cool for a group of eight to walk into a lovely Italian restaurant, with everyone carrying their entire meal in a brown paper bag, simply to enjoy the ambience. But if you go to a restaurant and bring a small amount of food with you—even if its the main course—its certainly not rude. Some (but not many) restaurants have regulations about preparing food, and are allowed to serve only foods that theyve prepared. Most, however, have no problem if you bring in your own pizza and ask them to heat it for you.
If you do bring your own food, make sure you its wrapped in aluminum foil to avoid contamination during the heating process. Pizza ovens, for instance, sometimes have convection fans that can blow the flour from other pizzas around the oven, contaminating yours. If you bring bread and ask them to toast it for you, theyre likely to put it in the slot of a toaster, contaminating it with "regular" crumbs and ruining your pristine bread. In that case, you might want to explain that it cant be put in a toaster, but if they have a toaster oven or broiler (that isnt blowing flour around), that would be wonderful. If youre asking them to microwave something, of course, theyll just remove the aluminum foil. The most important thing to remember if youre bringing your own food is to leave a big tip.
Sprechen Sie Gluten?
When eating at restaurants of different cultures and ethnicities, its a good idea to know the language, especially if the restaurant is staffed by people who speak a language other than your own. Learn the important words to best communicate your special needs. For instance, in Spanish the word for flour is harina, but that can refer to corn flour or wheat flour, so you need to know that the word for wheat is trigo, and corn is maize. Some restaurant cards come in a variety of languages. Additionally, some Websites offer translation capabilities.
Im aware of the redundancy in my continuous references to tipping and the importance of being extra generous at tip-time, but I believe it bears repeating. When it comes to asking people to accommodate the gluten-free diet, it seems imperative that we express our gratitude to those who generously oblige our requests. As awareness of this diet increases over the next few years, it will be more common for restaurateurs to understand these restrictions and accommodate them. Anything we can do as a community to enhance their understanding and acceptance will benefit us all in the long run.
Now that youre armed with some basic restaurant realities, remember rule #1: Have fun! Dont live your life in a bubble just because you have a dietary restriction. Bon appetite!