Ask The Dietitian: Recipe For Successful Dining

thCBEIROFUQuestion: I have had celiac disease for 2 years and I’m comfortable cooking at home. When I eat out, however, sometimes I run into servers who don’t seem to take my dietary restriction seriously. How do I get them to understand that I have to be gluten-free and I’m not just on some fad diet that I read about in a magazine? -James W.

Answer: Your question is an excellent one. You are not alone! It has long been my opinion that restaurant eating is the most challenging aspect of being gluten-free. As a first step, please take a look at the detailed list of suggestions on our website. In addition to what you will read there, here are some other tips you may find helpful:

1. Having basic knowledge of how food is prepared provides a tremendous advantage and will help you to know which questions to ask depending on what you are planning to order.

2. It is important that your servers understand that you cannot have any items containing flour, wheat, or gluten. This may help them understand the scope of your restriction. Many people try to handle menu decisions on their own without involving the server, which increases their chances of receiving an unsafe meal.

3. Use of the word “allergy” vs. celiac disease: There seems to be a bit of a backlash against people with “gluten allergy” as evidenced by comments made on late-night talk shows and sitcoms, as well as memes shared on social networking. To clarify, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, not an allergy. However, many with CD use the term “allergy” with the goal of emphasizing the seriousness of their special diet. According to servers interviewed, some customers claim to have a “gluten allergy” and then proceed to order food with gluten. Understandably, this is confusing to wait staff! Since so many people use the phrase “gluten allergy” these days (including people who are trying a new fad diet, those who heard it was healthy, and those with true intolerance, wheat allergy, or celiac disease) this two-word phrase has become confusing and significantly less meaningful over the past several years. Perhaps you can say, “I have celiac disease so I need to be strictly gluten-free.”

4. To dine out safely, it is vital to understand the ins and outs of the diet. Know which ingredients you can and cannot have. When we solely rely on the wait and cook staff, who may have little or no knowledge of which ingredients contain gluten, it is risky. While they may be aware that bread and pasta contain gluten, they may not be trained to scrutinize ingredient lists for words such as malt, rye, oats, barley, or even wheat. If you would like to receive counseling to discuss the specifics of a GF diet, consider scheduling an appointment with a dietitian who thoroughly understands your disease and its sole treatment.

For more dining tips, check out
Dining Tips from NFCA
Celiac Disease Foundation Dining Out

Thank you for your question and I wish you happy and safe dining!

Trisha B. Lyons, RDN

7 thoughts on “Ask The Dietitian: Recipe For Successful Dining”

  1. So true, Diane. Thank you for sharing with our readers. Being one’s own advocate is great advice- in both restaurants and doctors offices alike! Thanks for writing!

  2. Gluten Free Menus
    When dining out I always ask for a gluten free menu. I am pleasantly surprised when given one or told that the gluten free options are identified on the main menu. It makes my dining experience much more pleasurable not having to interrogate the wait staff or wait for a response from the kitchen to see if my choice is or can be made gluten free. Having a gluten menu definitely helps my decision to return to a specific restaurant.
    On a side note, I also begin to wonder if the options given on such menus are truly gluten free. When a menu item such as edamame is not indicated as gluten free and it clearly is, I grow concerned with the reliability of the gluten free menu. Also, when an item is gluten free but the dipping sauce is not, and simply the sauce can be substituted or avoided, it would be nice to have those small accommodations given upfront.
    Having a gluten free menu significantly aids in my returning to a restaurant. Do you have a list of restaurants that provide a gluten free menu? Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Tammy! Please see the “Dining GF” tab on our site for a long list of restaurants in NE Ohio. So many restaurants now offer GF menus that it is hard to keep up with them all. But I agree, just because they have a GF menu does not mean customers no longer need to ask questions before and after the food comes out (especially if something “doesn’t seem right”). Also, I agree that menus are sometimes incomplete. Menus may list entrees but not necessarily include sides, sauces, condiments, or dressings which are frequently gluten-free. Thank you for your comments!

  3. Thank you for some great information and helpful tips! I have found it to be especially true that having a basic knowledge of how certain dishes are traditionally prepared can alert you to the troubling ingredients that could be present in them, or the contaminating methods that could be used to make them. Researching the basics of various cuisines has gone a long way toward making my dining experiences safer.

    When I began eating out many years ago, I felt a little more secure carrying gluten-free dining cards with me; these can be sent back to the kitchen with your order, and list common gluten-containing items and practices that need to be avoided with your dish (like these, for instance: http://www.glutenfreeeasy.com/facts/files/English_Dining_Out_Cards_new.pdf ).

    And I agree with Diane: always trust your gut! If you are feeling as if you cannot rely on an uninformed establishment, a server who is not paying attention, or a suspicious-looking dish… don’t! Your health is not worth the risk.

    Also… I do like to make a big deal about being served safely and well. Whether this is in the form of a tip, a positive review on a site like ours, Yelp, or Find Me Gluten Free, a social media post, or all of the above, being treated to an enjoyable meal out is an extra-special experience to those of us who are gluten-free, and I believe we should make an extra effort to applaud those who make such things possible.

    1. Great tips, Alexis. Thank you for including the dining card link for our readers. Agree wholeheartedly about showing appreciation for excellent service and the benefits of having basic kitchen/food prep knowledge. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Eating out, especially when traveling, is difficult. I like reading the reviews on this website and Find Me Gluten Free http://www.findmeglutenfree.com/ and Yelp http://www.yelp.com/ to locate restaurants that “get” the need for GF dining.
    When I enter a new restaurant, I always ask about the availability of GF food even before being seated. I have walked out of places that have made me feel uncomfortable. If there is any question I ask to speak with a manager. I always ask the server to communicate my need for a strictly GF meal directly with the kitchen.

    I think the most important thing I’ve come to realize is that I have to advocate for myself and be comfortable that not all places are going to be accomodating. I have fun seeking out the restaurants that want my business. When traveling it’s gotten me to great neighborhoods I would never have otherwise visited.

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