What you need to know to eat gluten free at restaurants | Rachel Begun, MS, RD

I recently saw a newly diagnosed celiac who was just bewildered by the idea of eating safely in a restaurant. It made me realize that I haven’t shared restaurant eating tips via my blog. So here it goes…

I recommend that the newly diagnosed avoid eating out at restaurants until they’ve become comfortable with eating gluten free in the home. Once they’ve mastered the home, they can focus on restaurant eating. However, some celiacs are on the road for work and others live a lifestyle warranting regular restaurant eating. So, I bring to you a long list of tips and advice to consider when eating out at a restaurant. It may seem overwhelming at first, but as with all things in life, it gets easier with practice.


Prior to Going to a Restaurant

  • If possible, try to pick restaurants that have been accredited through the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program. These restaurants have received training on how to prevent cross contamination and their menus have been reviewed by a registered dietitian
  • If a restaurant hasn’t been accredited by GFRAP or another smaller accreditation organization, remind yourself that just because a restaurant has a gluten free menu doesn’t mean the staff is educated about cross contamination.
  • With all restaurants, you have to be vigilant about asking all the right questions. Attentive service is the key to avoiding gluten in restaurants, not necessarily a gluten free menu.
  • When possible, call the restaurant ahead of time to let them know you have Celiac Disease and need to completely avoid gluten. Call at a slow time, not during the lunch and dinner hours when it is busy and you don’t have their undivided attention. 
  • If possible, review the restaurant’s menu online and narrow down your choices so when you speak to the waiter, chef or manager you can focus your questions on the items you are interested in and have a more productive conversation

While at the Restaurant

  • Be friendly in your dialogue and interactions. Communicate clearly and graciously, without apology or embarrassment. Do not trivialize your condition or need to eat gluten free.
  • If the waiter is not knowledgeable about Celiac Disease and gluten, provide clear and factual information about the severe health consequences of coming into contact with gluten and the foods/ingredients you cannot have. Be sure to discuss how dishes are prepared, not just what ingredients they contain. For example, is the omelet you are going to order at a diner prepared on the same griddle as the pancakes?

Upon Leaving the Restaurant

  • If you have been given good service, be courteous and gracious. Let the staff and manager know and tip well. You will be doing a service for the entire gluten free community.
  • Spread the word. The gluten free community wants to know which restaurants provide a safe eating environment and the restaurant you had a good experience at should be recognized for their attentive service. Post your experiences and reviews at sites like The Gluten Free Travel Site.

Triumph Dining’s Gluten Free Restaurant Guide is also an excellent and accurate resource for identifying restaurants by state that offer gluten free options.  It’s great to get know the restaurants in your area that cater to the gluten free and it is a must-have when traveling throughout the country.  

Identifying Hidden Sources of Gluten: Questions to Ask and Recommendations

While certainly not an exhaustive list of questions to consider, this is a pretty comprehensive list to get you started.

Soups

  • Is a gluten-based roux used to thicken the soups?
  • Is the soup prepared with a packaged (non homemade) base that contains gluten?
  • Even if the soup doesn’t contain gluten, was it prepared in a kettle that was sterilized prior to preparation?

Salads

  • Are croutons, pita chips, Chinese noodles or other crunchy, gluten-containing toppings used? If so, order without these toppings and make sure that your salad was prepared from scratch and the toppings weren’t taken off a pre-made salad and then served to you.
  • Are the dressings bottled? If so, it is probably best to ask for oil and vinegar as it may be difficult for the waiter to confirm the ingredients. If homemade, ask the chef to confirm the ingredients used.

Appetizers

  • Avoid all fried items, as they are likely to be breaded. Even if they aren’t breaded, they are likely to be fried in a fryer where breaded items have been fried.
  • Dumplings are often made with wheat-based wrappers.
  • Buffalo or hot wings are fried, and so can be contaminated.
  • Ask about the ingredients used in all dips and sauces, as they are a common source of hidden gluten.

Entrees, Side Dishes and Other Items

  • French fries – many restaurants buy frozen, packaged French fries that contain a wheat-based coating to help crisp them up in the fryer. Fresh, hand-cut fries are off limits too, as they are most likely fried in a fryer that was shared with breaded items. A fried item is only safe when prepared in a dedicated fryer. This is rare, but restaurants catering specifically to the gluten-free often have dedicated fryers.
  • Rice/Risotto/Pilafs – always ask if grain-based dishes are prepared with broth instead of water. Packaged broths often contain gluten. Homemade broths are usually okay, but be sure to verify the ingredients with the chef.
  • Are the mashed potatoes packaged? If so, ask what ingredients the mix contains.
  • Sushi and Sushi Rice – sushi  rice is often made with a gluten-containing broth or a non-distilled white rice. Always asked how it is prepared. In addition, there are many gluten-containing rolls (tempura, fried, special sauces); avoid these rolls and always ask for your rolls to be prepared separately on sterilized surfaces, as cross contamination is highly likely.
  • Stir fries and other Asian dishes – stir fries and many Asian dishes are made with soy sauce, which contains gluten, and the residue sticks to the wok or other cooking surface. Only order Asian items when the chef can confirm that your dish is being prepared in a wok that has been sterilized.
  • Panko – aka Japanese bread crumbs, which contain gluten.

Desserts

  • In addition to the obvious gluten-containing desserts, ask about ingredients in sorbet, ice cream, gelato, custards and puddings, as they can be packaged varieties and/or prepared with gluten-containing add-ins and ingredients.

Beverages

  • Avoid flavored coffees and teas, as they can contain gluten and may be hard for wait staff to identify ingredients.
  • When ordering alcoholic beverages, ask if the mixers are pre-prepared. If they are, and the mixologist/bartender can’t identify the ingredients, err on the side of caution and do not order.

General

  • Be wary of the words crispy, crunchy, breaded, wrapped, thick, as these words indicate the use of gluten.
  • Do not use any sauce or dressing made with soy sauce or teriyaki sauce, as they are made with wheat. Tamari (natural soy sauce) is okay. Ask about ingredients in all Asian dishes.
  • Are packaged shredded cheeses used on items? Sometimes the anti-caking agent may contain gluten. If the chef can’t identify the ingredients, stay away.
  • Be wary of items prepared on the grill, as grills are often used to prepare a multitude of items without being cleaned in between. Egg dishes at diners are often prepared on the same grill as pancakes. Grilled chicken can be prepared on the same grill as breaded cutlets. Ask for your items to be prepared in a dedicated pan.

Have I not covered a common item? Please let me know, so I can add it to the list.

 

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4 Responses to What you need to know to eat gluten free at restaurants

  1. GREAT article, Rachel…very thorough indeed! And thanks for the mention of GlutenFreeTravelSite. We’ll be choosing 2011′s “Most Celiac-Friendly Destination” at the end of the year — based on the number of reviews we get for each geographic location on our site (state, country, etc.). So it’s an especially great time for people to share their GF dining and travel reviews with us! Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: What you need to know to eat gluten free at restaurants | CookingPlanet

  3. Pingback: Gluten-Free for the Holidays and Everyday | Sensory Nutrition

  4. Cara says:

    I’m a 24 year old guy with celiac. I sihctwed about a year ago. I write a blog, hear TONS of other people’s stories, and do lots of research. Everyone is different! but, here is what I can generally say: It comes in waves:2 weeks: Most people notice a change in their everyday type symptoms after about a week or two.2 months: This is where you start to feel better overall and your longer term symptoms decrease, like rashes, energy level, amount of sleep, etc.6 to 12 months: Depending on how bad your intestines were, it will take at least 6 months to heal. This will be when your body starts to absorb all the nutrients again. Overall, you will start feeling great and back to life as you knew it. You will be cured of the disease, until you cheat on it again. Stick with it! Once you are a couple months in, the benefits will keep you highly motivated. I don’t care for normal people foods anymore, although I had a miserable time resisting during the first few months. Your whole life will change for the better!

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