How to Eat Safely & Gluten Free Anywhere (Even Without a Gluten Free Menu)

This past week I had to travel for work.  This is something I do not have to do very often, just a few times a year.  I was gone Tuesday through Friday, so 4 days of being unable to prepare my own food.

The thought of that can be a little scary for us celiacs sometimes.  I can be a bit of a control freak under the best of situations, but when you take away the power for me to prepare my own food and put my health and well being into a strangers hands, it makes me a little squirrely.

But just a little.

Here’s why:

I have learned over the years (I think it’s 7 years or so, I lose track on a regular basis) that I have been gluten free I have eaten many, many times in restaurants without a dedicated gluten free menu.  Of course it is always nice when a gluten free menu is available.  It gives a sense of security.  To me though, I think it is important for us to not get complacent just because a restaurant has a gluten free menu.  There may be a gluten free menu, but that does not necessarily mean that YOUR server/chef/etc. is familiar with what serving a celiac entails.

And so it is up to us to always educate, in a very kind, compassionate, understanding, yet firm, manner.

This trip took me to Annapolis, Maryland.  There are quite a few gluten free friendly establishments in Annapolis, as I discovered when doing my pre-trip research.  But-I was on a business trip, without a car, and my dining options were limited to what was close as well as acceptable to my companions.  There were also meals in which the locations were pre chosen for our whole group.

Not to worry, I come armed with a boatload of patience and education.

Here are a tips to make sure you can always get a safe, gluten free meal:
  • If possible, call ahead.  If that is not possible, make your needs known as quickly as possible upon arriving at the restaurant.
    • Example: dinner one night was at a Japanese steakhouse called Sakura.  The meal was to be done around a hibachi table, where the chef is also the entertainment.  Good times, but a celiacs nightmare.  I did get the number for the restaurant to call ahead but didn’t have time during the day.  When we arrived, I spoke to the gentleman at the front desk and explained the situation, specifically mentioning that soy sauce was unsafe to come into contact with my food.   After exclaiming “soy sauce is in everything!” which made me a bit nervous, he said he would speak with the chefs.  We discussed the possibility of my food being prepared separately in the back on a dedicated clean flat top with clean utensils.  He explained to me that one cream sauce would be safe, but the ginger sauce/salad dressing was not.  Obviously fried rice was out of the question since it is prepared with soy sauce, but since I am mostly grain free I skipped rice entirely.  (Steamed rice would be perfectly safe.)  Once seated, I explained again to the server the situation, and also mentioned to her that I had discussed it with the other gentleman.  I saw them confer before she went into the back with my order.  When she returned, she assured me that my food was being prepared in the back in a dedicated area, and that it would be prepared without any soy sauce or other sauces potentially containing soy sauce.  I was able to enjoy the hibachi show with my colleagues, and enjoyed a perfectly safe meal.
  • Choose naturally gluten free items as much as possible.
    • Look for meat, poultry, fish or vegetable dishes that appear to be gluten free on the menu. Salads with a grilled protein source, or a steak are my go to options.  Even if it appears to be naturally gluten free, alert your server of your needs and ask questions.  If a salad, always ask exactly what is on the salad as not to be surprised with fried (in a shared fryer) onion strings on top of your salad.  Soups are often thickened with flour or may have a wheat containing base, and require questioning the chef.  While in Annapolis we went to the Ram’s Head Tavern for dinner.  It was absolutely freezing there, and hot soup sounded wonderful.  I asked the server about 2 soups that sounded possibly gluten free, and she was able to ask the chef.  One was not safe, but the black bean soup was, and I was able to warm up a bit.  (The naturally gluten free glass of wine helped as well.)  I had a Greek salad with grilled chicken added for a flavorful and safe main course.  I also made sure there was nothing added to the chicken prior to grilling, so keep that in mind.  A piece of nicely prepared and seasoned protein, some potatoes, and veggies can make a spectacular, safe, healthy, and naturally gluten free meal.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions
    • Restaurants want you to have a safe meal.  They don’t want anyone to be sick and give a bad report of them, regardless of the reason.  Do not be shy.  Make your needs known, but of course in a kind and understanding manner.  Don’t show up at their busiest time and insist on custom made meals that are completely off the menu.  Be reasonable, and they will be reasonable back and keep you safe.
  • Don’t be afraid to use a script or a dining card
    • Especially if you are new to this whole gluten free thing, don’t be afraid to make yourself a little cheat sheet or hand over a dining card, like the ones made by Triumph Dining.  Those can be especially helpful if you have a potential language barrier, as they are printed with the language of whatever ethnic cuisine is in question.  You don’t want to forget to address cross contamination issues because you only focused on the ingredients.  If you think you may miss something, write it down.
  • Be friendly, courteous, and clear in your directions and needs
    • People will always want to help you more if you are nice.  The old adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is an old adage for a reason.  It’s true.  People can help you more easily if you are clear about your needs.  Answer any question they have clearly, completely, and nicely.  Humor never hurts either.  Most servers will remember someone who is kind and funny.
  • After being fed well and safely, express your appreciation
    • This will help not just you, but the others who come after you.  Tip well.  If it is a local spot, frequent it to express your appreciation.  It’s a win-win, as you now have set the standard for a safe meal and are giving the restaurant more business.  Submit a review on Yelp, Tripadvisor, or your restaurant search engine of choice.  These are keys to restaurant business these days.

Don’t be afraid to travel.  Go, eat well, and eat safely.

If you need some help planning an overall healthy gluten free diet, read my post on the easiest Gluten Free diet.

And if you want more, Gluten Free and Fit 101 has a lot more reading on living healthy and gluten free.

If you STILL don’t have enough, get my free nutrition guide.

And that should give you enough reading for a while.

If you STILL want more, or you step by step guidance and a simple, checklist  approach to cleaning up your diet, check out 7 Quick Start Tips to Living a Healthy Gluten Free Fit Life.

What are your best tips for dining out safely?  Please share them in the comments!

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Heaven Mills, Gluten Free Fitness. Gluten Free Fitness said: Tips-How to eat safely at a restaurant and #glutenfree #celiac #gfree http://t.co/kgvloXL [...]

  2. Kim says:

    Great tips, Erin! So glad you were able to eat safely. :)

  3. Erin says:

    Hey Kim!
    So was I, believe me! I warned my colleague with whom I was sharing a hotel room about my specific symptoms of “glutening.” She was happy that I ate safely also ;)

  4. Renee says:

    Well said, Erin! It is possible to eat safely, even without a gf menu. I know, I’ve been doing it for 15 years now, pre-menus! Luckily I only have to watch gluten.
    That’s funny that you told your roommate to beware!

  5. Hey this sounds vary familiar having to live like my self…So did buy stock in wipes like I had to? lol

    I think what you are doing is wonderful and vary helpful for people like us.

    ~Chef Treasure

  6. You follow exactly the same approach that I do when eating out, Erin. Excellent post! I do think that folks get a false sense of security from gluten-free menus and really should follow all the same procedures that they would if a restaurant did not have a gf menu. Then a meal wouldn’t come to the table with breadsticks on the side–ooops. That’s happened to me more than once. Outback sort of teaches its gf patrons how to help their servers by saying things like, “order without bread.” I’m quite wiling to do that, of course. Love your advice on using honey vs vinegar, too! I think that’s a big problem with many gf patrons. They go on the offensive immediatley. Proactive yes, but not the offensive, vinegary approach, please. ;-) Anyway, glad you had a good experience in Annapolis. We love going to the sailboat show there every few years. ;-)

    Hugs,
    Shirley

  7. Erin says:

    Hi Shirley!
    I thought of you when I was writing this post, as I know you have done extensive traveling and eaten and many places who didn’t have a GF menu.
    I have semi annual meetings in Annapolis in June and December, so I am very much looking forward to going back in June when I can explore a bit more!

  8. Erin says:

    Welcome Chef Treasure! (I keep wipes always handy ;)
    Thank you very much for the kind words, and for stopping by!

  9. Erin says:

    Hi Renee, thanks for coming by!
    Totally agree, even for me being gluten free for about 6 years now, there’s a huge difference in restaurant awareness and the availability of gluten free menus. I think it was a great learning experience though, to NOT have the GF menus and prepared foods and learning to eat naturally GF foods, both at home and out. It brought an appreciation for “real food” as well as a comfort level with teaching and explaining what gluten free and celiac means to a restaurant chef, owner, or server.

  10. AmandaonMaui says:

    I’ll admit that I am still not perfect at doing this. It takes time to get used to saying what you need without fear. Having gone to culinary school and having worked in restaurants I see where cross contamination occurs all of the time, so even if you are ordering quite safely from the menu there is still that strong chance that one of your lettuce leaves (or more than one) has been coated in bread crumbs from gloved hands that once held a bit of pita bread or french bread. And, then there’s the never perfectly clean flattop, tongs, and spoons. *sigh* And, sometimes even dining cards wont work because the kitchen staff doesn’t know what is in the food they are making. Even my culinary school instructor (who had been a chef for eons) didn’t know there was wheat in the soup base.

    By eating out, even when doing our best, we are making a bet that we won’t get sick. That we won’t have to scare our roommates. That our family members will have a bathroom to use. Or that we won’t end up in the hospital.

    I really would love to dine out with someone else who is more comfortable in explaining the gluten free issue so I could see first hand how to go about it. Sometimes waitstaff is nice about it, and sometimes they are the complete opposite. Only two restaurants on the entire island have gluten free menus (Outback and The Melting Pot), while one of the pizza places offers a gluten free crust (somehow I keep ending up sick even when they take every precaution they can to make it safe).

  11. Erin says:

    Of course you are absolutely right. Each time we east outside of our own home it’s a gamble. By educating and communicating, we can only hope to stack the deck in our favor. I think the keys lie in asking lots of questions, being educated yourself about possible issues (although a server at a restaurant recently didn’t know that the goat cheese medallion had been coated in flour, I knew to ask her to ask the chef, and in fact it was coated in flour and not included in my meal) and being super friendly and non threatening. A little niceness and education can go a long way.

  12. [...] How to Eat Safely and Gluten Free Anywhere (Even Without a Gluten Free Menu) [...]

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