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Take Charge of Your Meal When Eating Out

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2002 edition of's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity.

The results of my latest 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. 

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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! welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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15 Responses:

Dolores Eilers
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said this on
11 Apr 2010 2:14:09 PM PST
Very good advice. It is hard to get through to some waiters when you try to explain our problems. Thank you for such good information.

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said this on
11 Apr 2010 8:10:41 PM PST
Of course you can recognize breading and croutons! But how do you know if the chefs used YOUR soy sauce, or if there is cross-contamination in the kitchen despite your best efforts. There are a myriad of ways to be glutenous in a restaurant that this article does not address. It's not this simple and formulaic.

Scott Adams
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said this on
12 Apr 2010 3:15:56 PM PST
If you have no trust in your fellow human being this approach will not work for you--this article does require some level of trust in other people's competence levels, combined with some skill on your part in being able to communicate well and understand how to order things. If you don't have the trust or the understanding you'd better stay home...

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said this on
11 Apr 2010 11:31:14 PM PST
Be careful with Chinese food. It's often thickened with 'wheaten' cornflour, which is cheaper for the least in Australia.

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said this on
12 Apr 2010 9:47:49 AM PST
This may be the best article I have read since I joined the site in the last six months.

Thank you.

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said this on
12 Apr 2010 10:12:40 AM PST
Sorry but I don't agree with this article. For those extremely sensitive celiacs, this doesn't work. Cross contamination is a major problem and you haven't addressed it.

Scott Adams
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said this on
12 Apr 2010 3:28:04 PM PST
You either choose to eat out or you choose not to--I can't make that choice for you (but it sounds like you don't eat out). I do, and this is how I've been doing it successfully for 15+ years with very few issues, so I thought I'd share it to be helpful. How is criticizing my successful approach helpful to anyone--why not share with us some tips that are helpful, like how you eat out successfully (oh, I forgot, you probably don't eat out)?

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said this on
12 Apr 2010 12:13:09 PM PST
Good article. I recently went to a chain restaurant and asked if they had a gluten free menu. The waitress wasn't sure so I asked for the manager. he manager came to our table and assured me that they have gluten free food. I asked what they have and he said "chicken wings". I love chicken wings so I asked him if the wings are cooked separately or in the same fryer as everything else. He looked at me with glazed eyes and said, "with everything else". I wound up having a glass of water and eating my gluten free energy bar. Ask, ask, and then ask again. It sure beats getting sick.

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said this on
12 Apr 2010 4:11:14 PM PST
I have been going out to eat since my diagnosis a few years ago, and I have not had many problems. I do always stay away from chain restaurants (unless they have a gluten free menu). When I do go out I always say I'm highly allergic to wheat which includes Flour, Sauce, Stock, and Breading's. This usually works. I did go back to a restaurant recently to get their steak I had about a year ago that I loved. Thank god the waitress had a friend that was gluten free, because she told me it was marinated in soy sauce. I had it while I was following my gluten free diet. So always ask about Marinades as well.

Deborah Booth
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said this on
12 Apr 2010 4:05:46 PM PST
Well written and practical article. Thanks. We love to go out to eat and it has been more of a challenge since our youngest daughter (5 yrs. old) was diagnosed with celiac. But one we have tackled by applying the same principles that helped us at home and at friends' houses to go gluten free by using common sense, educating ourselves on options, trying new things, and politely communicating our needs to others. I like your suggestions and your attitude. People are much more likely to accommodate you when you have a good attitude.

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said this on
12 Apr 2010 4:43:20 PM PST
Thanks for the article! I have recently been diagnosed and probably have a more mild case. Luckily, most of my favorite restaurants have gluten free menus. The only problem is that I am also a vegetarian and most gluten free menus are meat based. I have learned that I can go into many places and describe a dish to make and they are happy to make me an 'off the menu' meal as long as it is simple. I usually ask for them to take a little of every vegetable they have, grill it and throw on some feta cheese. It is a wonderful, satisfying dish and I can enjoy an evening out.

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said this on
13 Apr 2010 8:13:58 PM PST
Thanks, Scott, for another thought provoking article. We are on a trip right now & had just eaten at a Caberra's in Florida where they have a limited gluten free menu. My husband thinks I do a good job at explaining, but it still upsets me when no one knows what's in the garlic mashed potatoes. It always ends up that you can eat a broiled chicken breast, baked potato, steamed broccoli---but that's too boring and I can make those better at home. So I try something less ordinary on the gluten free menu, no matter how limited the choices. Usually balsamic vinaigrette is gluten free and tonight I had sun-dried tomato/basil inaigrette. I get really tired of vinegar and oil, which I used to love. If it's a decent salad to begin with vinegar will bring out the flavor. In a Cuban restaurant earlier this week, they were confident they had safe food for me. Then the waiter accidentally threw a slice of bread on my salad---he had checked out the dressing, but brought me a new salad apologetically.

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said this on
31 Aug 2010 11:37:53 AM PST
Unfortunately this article doesn't address (as several people have pointed out) the serious issues with cross contamination. I've worked at several restaurants and it is virtually impossible to ensure that gluten (such as from flour, sauces, or even a bread crumb) does not contaminate the meal requested by a celiac. How do you know that the pans, utensils, grill, etc have been thoroughly cleaned and not shared between other meals with gluten? (Answer: you probably don't). So unfortunately when a celiac eats out, they ARE taking a risk. Perhaps they are comfortable with that risk (as the author seems to be), or they are not (as many sensitive celiacs are). But the risk is always there, and celiacs need to be aware of that. It isn't as simple as "taking charge" of your meal as the author writes.

( Author)
said this on
31 Aug 2010 2:10:25 PM PST
Apparently you skipped over actually reading the article. Of course there is still a risk--the article is designed to teach people how to minimize any risk. As mentioned in the article--go in when the restaurant is slow, and speak to the staff politely to get a meal that is safe. Yes, I agree with you--there are no guarantee's in life!

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said this on
30 Mar 2011 5:05:44 AM PST
Thanks for the positive article! I too am always concerned with cross contamination, but in going out I have to understand there is an element of risk. You said it best by saying this disease and knowledge of it is ultimately our responsibility. I am always extremely kind and straightforward and (knock on wood) this has worked for me until now. It's a relief to know other people go through this routine. My only problems have been at restaurants where there is a language barrier. Again, ultimately my responsibility. I have learned "wheat" in several languages! Taking charge and being kind are always a good combination. Thanks again for sharing your tips and tricks.

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