Are you put off from eating out because you need to eat gluten-free?
It can be so hard to separate the places that understand your needs from the ones that don’t.
How I see it, you need to learn to date the places you want to eat in to see who is for real and who is just giving you a bit of lip service. We don’t want to cut out social life – or eating out – from our lives for fear of getting ill from gluten.
To help you out, I want to share my strategy on how to find the gems and how to build the relationship with your favourite places so that you feel safe and relaxed when having a meal out. There’s also a checklist involved!
Preparation is key
When you are gluten-free, going out to town and seeing what’s available is not the best way forward. Similar to dating, you can run into a good one by chance, but research is still needed to figure out where your perfect match might hang out.
It is best to have some type of an idea of where to eat by scouting your options beforehand, and have a plan about where you eat out. It’s also a good idea to have snacks in your bag in case you get in a pinch. I will not add a reference to dating here, you can do that in your head if you so wish 😀
Check if your favourite places of the past are able to cater for you. You might be pleasantly surprised. Some fish and chip shops have gluten-free nights (they need to fry GF things in a separate fryer with clean, uncirculated oil for it to be safe) or a pizzeria might have the possibility to safely make pizzas on a gluten-free base. Ensure that the places understand cross-contamination and that gluten-free means 100% – there need to be measures in place to minimise cross-contamination, which some places might not be aware of.
As with dating, researching restaurants is best started online. You can do a search for places near you or find gluten-free Facebook groups and ask if there are any recommendations in your area. It is good to remember that like some people still like to date people that aren’t that nice, one has to always check themselves if the recommended places do seem to take their gluten-safety seriously.
Things you can search for:
- Gluten-free restaurants near me.
- 100% GF places emerging.
- Search engines usually list places that do GF in some form.
- Some restaurant booking websites and Tripadvisor have the availability to search for gluten-free.
- Accredited gluten-free restaurants.
- In the UK, Coeliac UK has an accreditation scheme for restaurants to do gluten-free properly and being safe for people that have coeliac disease. [Have a look if you have something similar where you are at, if not in the UK.]
- Places that have an allergen menu, a gluten-free menu, or non-gluten menu (check suitability for someone with coeliac disease if this is you).
- Indian, Nepalese, Mexican can be quite straightforward with gluten-free as wheat is less prominent in these cuisines. Sometimes Japanese and some African cuisines seem to be good, too.
To ease your search and have a printable list of things to check when scouting for your perfect restaurant match, I have created a cheat sheet for eating out gluten-free which you can get here.
There can be places that don’t tell on their website that they can adapt to gluten-free and are brilliant still! I have found a couple of Indian restaurants near me that are absolutely wonderful and all they have on their website is ‘if you have dietary restrictions or allergies, please contact the restaurant’. I have done just that and have been very pleasantly surprised!
Call the place in advance
Even if the website looks promising, it is best to ring the place up to ask them how they manage cross-contamination. You can email but many places are quite slow to answer them. I use email when checking in advance for holidays but if you are on a tighter schedule, it’s best to give them a ring.
Try to call outside busier hours and check if they have time to discuss your special dietary needs. If they don’t seem interested in your needs, that might be a signal to take your business elsewhere. When you have their attention, explain that you have coeliac disease (or another reason to strictly avoid gluten) and that you have to be 100% gluten-free. If they say that they can cater for your needs ask them how they plan to do that. Don’t settle for “yes we do gluten-free” as that is a trap I have fallen into a couple of times because I haven’t wanted to make a fuss or seem too overbearing and then have paid the price.
Here is some helpful things to ask:
- Which items on their menu are suitable for 100% gluten-free
- How they manage cross-contamination (processes in place to avoid flour, crumbs etc. migrating into your food).
- For fried items like chips (French fries), do they use a separate dedicated gluten-free fryer with fresh oil (no recirculating oil after filtration)
I find having a friendly manner and apologising for any inconvenience when asking for their help in understanding if they can cater for my needs works better than making demands for them to meet my needs. Of course it’s not wrong to demand help, I just find making them my allies works better in the long run and often makes them go the extra mile to check things and to be as accommodating as possible. I have added a more detailed list of questions to ask in advance in the cheat sheet PDF.
Confirm everything when you arrive
Even if you have made all the preparations in advance and are happy with the place, do repeat the steps when you get there. Mention that you have called in advance, if you can, tell the person’s name and ask if they really are ok to cater for you as discussed. Check who can take your order, many places like to leave this to the manager. When going on a blind date this might be the equivalent of having an exit plan, meeting in public etc…
We often get quite self-aware and don’t want to come across like we are fussy or dramatic. However it is really worth checking that the food is what you ordered and gluten-free as promised. Mistakes are so easily made, so it is better to check than to be sorry later the same evening.
I had a salad with rye bread crutons on top to be brought to me by mistake once – I was lucky enough to know instantly that the bread is rye and got a new salad made for me with apologies. I do like a little allergen flag on mine and I will still always ask if the bread looks suspiciously good or there is a crumb on your dish, especially if it wasn’t mentioned when ordering.
Table condiments are also worth checking if they haven’t already been discussed as mustard often has wheat and some table mayonnaises can have wheat or a may contain statement. I only use malt vinegar when it is labelled gluten-free as there is no way of knowing if it is suitable otherwise. Regular soy sauce is off-limits, and you need to get a gluten-free tamari soy sauce instead.
Minimising risks, not eliminating them
Unless eating in a place that does not handle gluten at all, the risk of a sad mistake being made does exist. I have eaten in places where I have taken a naturally gluten-free option, been sworn that everything is gluten-free, cross-contamination is managed and I still have gotten ill not knowing to this day why.
With coeliac disease we collect as much information we can and make the decision based on minimising the risks. We don’t want to play fast and loose but at least I still want to have meals out, as they can be done safely and with experience mistakes happen less and less. Like with dating, as careful as you might be, you might sometimes get your feelings hurt (probably more often than getting glutened, actually…)
By choosing places where there is a smaller likelihood of having run-ins with gluten, you give yourself the best possibility to enjoy your meal and the time eating out. There is a point where you just need to trust that everyone is doing their best to keep you safe. When it goes well, you will likely want to turn up again if you like the food . Yes, we don’t need to just eat what we can find…
If despite all your preparation something happens and you end up “glutened”, discuss the matter with the restaurant and based on their response decide if they are worth giving another go with both sides being wiser from the experience. Sometimes that is how you build a successful restaurant-patron relationship.
Hope my tips have helped to build your confidence with eating out and you feel more equipped to give it a go. As with everything new, start with places that make it as easy for you as possible and build your confidence. The good thing about eating out is that you can keep going to several places regularly, with dating this is likely frowned upon.
I’d love to hear if this post has helped you getting back into eating out, please leave a comment! Any other tips on how to find gluten-free gems are appreciated, too!
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And lastly, don’t forget to get your downloadable cheat sheet!