Eating out tips for a safe dining experience

With any food allergy the prospect of eating out is always going to raise concerns, unless eating in a completely gluten free establishment. It is possible to manage eating out without too much drama, it just requires a little pre-planning and flexibility.

Choosing a restaurant

  • Many restaurants have websites now, usually with a sample menu. Check the menu, see if they have any items listed as "gluten free", or if they mention that they are allergy aware and able to cater to dietary needs, like celiac disease. Some restaurants will even have separate food preparation areas for allergy aware meals. If they don't have a website, then ring ahead and ask, it will save a possibly wasted trip.
  • It tends to be the non-fast food restaurants that can offer allergy aware foods, especially if they prepare the meals from scratch.
  • Many pizzerias are now offering gluten free pizza bases, however, use caution. Gluten free bases that are prepared in the same kitchen as wheat containing bases will be contaminated, wheat flour stays in the air for up to 3 days. Also care needs to be taken with the toppings used, as they are most likely the same containers of toppings or sauce that are used for the wheat pizzas, so the same hands, possible wheat contaminated are dipping into them, and the ladle that spreads the tomato base on the dough... is it the same ladle that's been rubbing itself around wheat dough bases?
  • Don't choose peak times to eat if you require your meal preparing specially, kitchens get frantic and mistakes can more easily happen in a frenetic atmosphere.
  • Always check ahead with the restaurant, if they sound knowledgeable and helpful then it may be a good choice to eat there, if they sound uninterested or ignorant of allergies, then probably best to avoid, unless you just want a drink while others eat.
  • To sum up, there is not really any point in choosing restaurants that only have menus listing gluten containing items and don't mention allergy awareness, because the likelihood of you being able to eat anything is slim.

Eating out in a restaurant

  • The most important thing is... always be polite and explain your food allergy requirements carefully and calmly.
  • Question the server on the menu items that appear gluten free, to see if they really are. Many Chefs will actually come out and talk to you about specific items on their menu, and how they can ensure they are safe for you to eat.
  • Servers normally specifically mark an allergy meal on your order, so that the kitchen can clearly see which meal needs extra caution during preparation and cooking.
  • Try to avoid ordering the same item as someone else in your party, especially if they have no allergy issues. This is simply because if there are two identical meals going to the same table, but one has been prepared allergy aware, then the server, or the kitchen, may get them muddled up when they are delivered.
  • If your salad appears with wheat bread croutons on it, return it with a firm instruction that you need a fresh salad created, not just the croutons being picked off, which from experience has happened more than once.
  • Avoid sauces, unless they do not contain any form of thickener or were made in house so the ingredients are known, wheat flour may have been used to thicken them, it's cheaper than arrowroot or cornstarch.
  • Again, don't choose peak times to eat if you require your meal preparing specially, kitchens get frantic and mistakes can more easily happen in a frenetic atmosphere.
  • On one occasion I was attending a staff Christmas party, the restaurant was warned in advance by my boss, and they offered to make something special as it was a set menu. However they also offered the option of allowing me to bring something of my own that they would plate up, if it would make me feel more comfortable in a mass dining environment. Not the norm for most restaurants, but for large events possibly not a problem if you ask.

Eating at a friends

  • Nobody wants to offend a host/hostess who has graciously invited them into their home for a meal, and no host/hostess wants to poison their guests. A little pre-planning can avoid any issues.
  • Let your host know about your food allergy, if they are not already aware, for example, explain what celiac disease or wheat allergy is, and what foods are forbidden. The host may also appreciate a list of things in advance that contain wheat or gluten, e.g. soy sauce should be substituted with Tamari (the wheat free version). I also offer safe ingredients for them to use, to avoid the cost of them specifically buying wheat or gluten free items. Then I drop them off in advance, if they live within a reasonable distance.
  • In my experience the host has also always told other guests in advance about serious food allergies, e.g. don't bring anything containing nuts, etc. This normally works, however one guest, who believed that wheat allergies were "attention seeking" and "all in the mind", always brought the wheatiest, messiest items to pot lucks. In that scenario you just have to cope as best you can, even if it means surreptitiously not eating to avoid hurting anyone's feelings, while protecting your health.
  • Pot lucks are problematical, you can't control what people bring, so often the best scenario is to bring your own items in a cooler. Then simply dish them out when everyone else starts to eat. Several of my friends are positively relieved if I offer to do this, it saves them worrying.