Tips for Eating Out With Celiac Disease (or Any Food Intolerances)
As someone with Celiac Disease who has to avoid all gluten (even the smallest, almost microscopic crumb) or else my body will start to mount an attack on my small intestinal lining, eating out is nothing short of a dangerous task.
Whenever I eat out, I am trusting my health and wellbeing to some chef, line cook, and/or waitress, who may or may not be working their second shift of the day and really just ready to go home and lay down.
And while there are several great restaurants that I trust and can be fairly confident that I wouldn’t get sick from eating at, the majority of restaurants are like walking into a gluten filled minefield for anyone with Celiac (or any other Autoimmune Disease or food intolerance).
This goes for anyone avoiding any food that makes them feel not their best (not just Celiacs avoiding gluten). If you’re on a low-FODMAP diet where eating a small amount of onion and garlic can leave you feeling pretty crummy, or if you’re on the Autoimmune Protocol and need to avoid nightshades and eggs - eating out can be a scary, daunting task.
However, this doesn’t mean that people who have to strictly avoid certain foods should just never eat out. I do eat out, and I use it as a time to enjoy being with my friends and family, just not as an every week occasion. But, I do use extreme caution when eating anywhere other than from my own kitchen, because I know what even the smallest amount of gluten can do to my body.
Over the seven years that I’ve had Celiac Disease and have been avoiding gluten, I’ve picked up some great tips to keep me safe while eating out. This definitely doesn’t mean that I never get sick from accidental gluten exposure, but I’ve got my restaurant experiences down to a pretty exact science - which helps me feel comfortable and enables me to actually enjoy eating out instead of worrying whether or not I’m going to be feeling the effects of my dinner weeks later.
So, here are my top 5 tips for eating out with Celiac Disease - or really eating out to avoid any food that causes you symptoms that you’d rather not experience!
I’ve trialed and errored my way through my fare share of bad restaurant experiences, so I’m here to share all of my tips for being as confident as you can be the next time you eat out!
With the holidays coming up, some of these tips can also be applied to eating at family gatherings where you haven’t prepared the food. Most of the time, our relatives have good intentions, but they just don’t know everything that needs to be avoided or considered when preparing food for Celiacs or those with severe intolerances - so these tips would be great to pass along to them as well!
Eating Out Tip #1: Be Aware of Cross Contamination
This is tip number one for a reason - because it’s probably the most important, yet the most often overlooked and difficult to avoid factor that can make or break a successful restaurant experience with Celiac Disease.
Cross contamination occurs when your gluten free (or other food intolerance free) food comes in contact with gluten (or that food you’re trying to avoid) - rendering it no longer gluten (allergen) free.
The biggest cross contamination offenders that I’ve come learned to recognize are:
Preparing food on surfaces that also prepare non-gluten free food
Frying food in oil that also fries non-gluten free food (this one is HUGE, and a lot of restaurants don’t understand this concept and will advertise fried food as being gluten free even if it is fried in shared oil)
Cooks not changing gloves when they prepare gluten free food after non-gluten free food
Gluten free pasta being boiled in water that previously boiled non-gluten free pasta
Gluten free pizza baked on the same stone as non-gluten free pizza
And really, the list could go on.
The important thing to know is that you should be aware of the major forms of cross contamination so that you can ask the right questions to the restaurant management and waitstaff.
For example, you’re thinking about ordering some nachos with housemade chip (that are labeled as gluten free on the menu). I would ask the waiter if the chips are fried, and if they’re fried in oil that also fries other things (like breaded chicken or onion rings for example - both which are not gluten free). If the chips are fried in shared oil, then they’re no longer gluten free, and you shouldn’t eat them.
Even if the waiter is sure that the chips are fried in separate oil that doesn’t come in contact with gluten containing foods, you still have to use your best judgement.
Just because that’s typically the restaurant’s practices, doesn’t mean that the cooks didn’t get lazy the day you decide to eat there, and accidentally contaminated the “gluten free” fryer with gluten containing food. Again, it’s a judgement call that you’ll have to make.
For me personally, I don’t eat fried food unless I know there are no fried items that contain gluten in the entire restaurant.
You have to be 100% responsible for your health, even when other people are preparing your food. And since we can’t control the actions and decisions of other people - who are most likely not looking out for the health of the one or two patrons with allergies, but are just trying to get prepared food out of the kitchen as quickly as possible - we need to have extremely high standards when it comes to the safety of our food.
Eating Out Tip #2: Know How to Communicate Your Food Intolerance
Knowing how to communicate your dietary needs to restaurant staff is another very important piece to being able to eat out safely.
I’ve found that when I say “I have Celiac Disease,” I usually get puzzled looks and I only have to explain myself further.
Most people who work in the food service industry have been through food allergy training - so I use that knowledge to my benefit. Instead of mentioning my autoimmune disease, I say “I have a severe gluten allergy.”
And yes, it does make me slightly cringe on the inside, knowing that what I have is definitely not a gluten allergy. But, in order to get what you need (safely prepared food) you have to be able to speak the food industry’s language - which is that allergies are serious and extra precaution needs to be taken.
Plus, it makes me feel extra safe when the waiter comes back and says “Oh, you have Celiac Disease.” It’s a very rare occurrence, but it has happened - and those restaurants usually have my business for life.
So, once I’ve communicated that I have a “gluten allergy” I ask the waiter to make a note of this on my ticket so that the kitchen is aware.
This is something that I have no control over once the waiter takes my order and leaves the table. But, by making them aware of how serious my “allergy” needs to be taken, that hopefully motivates them to actually inform the kitchen.
There are occasions where a dish may be labeled gluten free on the menu, but there are substitutions that need to be made in the kitchen for it to actually be gluten free. Which is why it’s super important to stress that the “allergy” information be relayed to the kitchen staff.
Unfortunately, since gluten free diets have become sort of a mainstream health trend lately, people in the restaurant industry are just jumping on this bandwagon to make money, not to keep people safe.
So, I’ve found that just asking for a gluten free menu and stating that you eat gluten free is not enough. You need to evoke the seriousness of your intolerance to gluten so that your waiter knows you’re not just eating this way to be trendy.
And again, I know that calling Celiac Disease a “gluten allergy” is 100% not scientifically accurate, but it gets the point across without needing much further explanation.
Eating Out Tip #3: Check the Menu Before You Get There
I never go to a restaurant without first looking at the menu and picking out a few dishes that I’d feel comfortable ordering.
This definitely takes the spontaneity out of dining out, but I’d rather have to walk an extra block to a restaurant that has a gluten free menu than get seated in one that has no idea that gluten even exists.
And I’ve found that restaurants that designate gluten free items on their menus are usually at least somewhat knowledgeable and trained around gluten and how to make your food safe.
This 100% doesn’t mean that you should order blindly off a gluten free menu and don’t need to communicate the necessity of your food actually being gluten free.
But, your chances of success are much greater at a restaurant that already has gluten free items on their menu, than if you were to go to another restaurant and try to work with the staff on the fly to create a safe gluten free meal for yourself.
There’s a great app that I use to help me find restaurants that have a track record of being able to accommodate gluten free diners. It’s called Find Me Gluten Free, and can be accessed on your phone or computer.
It’s like Yelp, but for us gluten free folks. There are hundreds of restaurants listed, and many of them have so many useful reviews left by other gluten avoiding people! This app is my go-to for figuring out where I can eat when I’m out with friends, or if I’m traveling to a different city.
It has saved me time and time again from eating somewhere with a less than stellar reputation for actually serving safe gluten free food.
But, I don’t just go to a restaurant if it’s listed on the app (they can add themselves to the list). I make sure to read the reviews from other people who’ve eaten there, and check out the menu for myself before I reserve a table.
Like with the previous tips, I am fully responsible for my health and what food I put in my body - so I need to be extra diligent and thoroughly evaluate all aspects of a restaurant before I decide that it’s safe for me to eat at or not.
Eating Out Tip #4: Avoid Look-Alike Foods
It can be so tempting to be able to order a cheeseburger (complete with gluten free bun), gluten free pizza, or gluten free pasta - especially if you haven’t had those foods in awhile. Trust me, I’ve been there!
But, I believe that one of the reasons why I’ve been so successful in avoiding gluten while eating out is because I avoid ordering those “look-alike” foods - the gluten free foods that mimic their gluten containing counterparts (like hamburger buns, sandwich bread, pizza crust, pasta, croutons, and even soy sauce).
I make a conscious effort to avoid these foods because when they’re on my plate it’s extremely difficult to tell if they’re really the gluten free versions or not.
Instead of these foods, I’ll go for things like salads, or entrees where I can choose my sides. That way I can clearly see every ingredient that is on my plate. And if I see something that looks like gluten, I don’t have to take someone else’s word that it really is gluten free.
And yes, it may not be the dining experience that you were hoping for, but know that spending weeks feeling like you got hit by a truck because your gluten free bun wasn’t actually gluten free is not something you want to experience either!
Eating Out Tip #5: Be Prepared to Leave the Restaurant Without Eating
This one is no fun, not at all. And if you’re anything like me, and hate making other people feel uncomfortable, this can be extremely difficult.
But, it’s something I’ve had to do only once, and as hard as it was, I’m glad I did it - because in the long run, my health is way more important that what other people think of me for being “difficult” about the safety of the food they’re serving.
As someone with a “food allergy” the restaurant you choose to eat at and give your hard earned money to, should be able to make you feel confident in the safety of the food they’re serving you.
However, if you sense any sort of hesitation from your waiter in answering any of the questions you’ve asked, know that you don’t have to eat there - no matter how awkward and strange it would feel to leave.
The one restaurant where I had to walk away and leave my untouched food at the table was a pizza place in a different city.
I had done my research and looked it up on Find Me Gluten Free, where it had several glowing reviews. I checked out the menu and saw that they did have gluten free pizza crust listed, but there was nothing explaining their kitchen practices to make it safe for Celiacs.
I really wanted pizza, but I knew I was breaking Tip #4, so I told myself that if I didn’t feel completely confident in their kitchen practices that I wouldn’t eat it.
When the waiter came to our table I asked my usual questions, one being needing to know if they cook the gluten free crust in the same oven as the regular pizza. The response was: yes, the gluten free pizza was cooked in the same oven as the other pizzas but that it was safe because it was cooked on the semolina and didn’t actually touch the oven.
This raised two giant red flags for me. First, I would only consider eating a gluten free pizza if it were cooked on a pan, and never just bare on the same stone as a regular pizza. And second, semolina is NOT gluten free - no matter how many times the waiter tried to tell me it was.
And when the manager got involved, his defiant statements that “I would be fine” for some reason didn’t instill great confidence in the food they would be serving me. (Hint for any food service professionals reading this: we need facts and data in order to feel confident in your food, not just your promises.)
So, I let my husband finish his pizza, and then we left.
I’m sure that waiter felt really bad, and the manager probably didn’t leave with a good feeling that night either - but at the end of the day, my health is more important. And maybe this experience will help that particular restaurant improve their gluten literacy so they can serve other Celiacs better in the future.
The Bottom Line
Eating out is risky for Celiacs, anyone with Autoimmune Disease, and if you have some foods that cause bad reactions for your body.
And know that the restaurant staff, no matter how pure their intentions, will not be looking out for your well-being as strictly as you do when you’re preparing your own food. It’s just not their job.
So, that difficult task falls even more heavily on you. You’re responsible for your safety and health, even more so when someone else is cooking. You don’t need to apologize for, or feel bad about being uncompromising when it comes to where you eat and the questions you need to ask in order to feel safe.
If the people you’re eating with truly support you and your goal to stay healthy, they won’t care if they can’t eat at their favorite Mexican restaurant because there aren’t any gluten free options. And if they’re not okay with the decisions you have to make, it might be time to find new people.
These tips will give you a good baseline for being restaurant savvy while avoiding certain foods, and will help you have more successful dining out experiences, but nothing beats your gut instinct.
If something just doesn’t feel right, you don’t need any concrete reasons or explanations - just simply don’t eat anything you don’t feel 100% safe putting into your body. It’s your health and your body, and no one knows what’s best better than you!