9 Tips for Eating out with Gluten or other Food Sensitivities
If you have recently discovered that you have gluten or other food sensitivities, you may be feeling overwhelmed by the thought of eating out. You may think you will never be able to eat in a restaurant or at a friend’s house again, but with some forethought you can be successful.
Planning ahead should become a way of life. In 2008 when I first discovered my gluten sensitivity, there were not nearly as many restaurants with gluten-free options as there are today. As a working mom with a child at home I was used to getting fast food on a regular basis. I scanned the restaurants in our local area and chose in advance to only eat at the few that had some gluten-free food options.
Choose the restaurant where you eat ahead of time. When you are eating alone or with family, this will normally be possible. One helpful resource is the Find Me Gluten Free app. I have installed this on my phone and can easily search for restaurants that have gluten-free menu items. There are any number of search features including city, location, distance and reviews. This app is especially useful when you are out of town. Earlier this year my husband and I were at a conference in Marietta, GA. There were a lot of restaurants in the area and by using the app, I was quickly able to narrow the search to those with good reviews and multiple gluten free options.
- Review the menu ahead of time
When you know where you are going to eat, review the menu prior to getting to the restaurant. A majority of restaurants now have a website with their menu on it. Many of them also have allergens listed for menu items, either on the menu itself or in a separate section that lists menu items and the allergens in each item. When you review this ahead of time, you will have a good idea of what menu choices are available for you.
- Filter the menu by what you CAN eat
Since I am sensitive to both gluten and dairy, I never even look at the dessert or sandwich sections of restaurant menus. I usually look first at the entrée salad section of the menu. Then I choose one of those items for first consideration. Many restaurants are now marking items on their menus with special symbols for gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan. When the menu has this, I focus my attention only on those items marked gluten-free. I don’t waste time, mental or emotional energy considering other entrée choices. Be clear in your mind what ingredients you MUST avoid (such as gluten) and then filter out choices with those ingredients.
The server is there to help you. If you have questions about the menu, just ask! Questions such as what the seasonings are used in the dish or if there is hidden flour in an item are essential. Good servers will always check with the chef if they are unsure. Ask to speak with the chef or restaurant manager if you are not sure the information from your server is correct. Most restaurants can prepare your entrée or side items plain without seasonings or give you a plain oil and vinegar dressing for your salad.
- Use your “sixth sense” when your order is delivered
Sometimes you place your order correctly but something happens between the time you order and the food is put on your table. We were eating in Carrabba’s last month. They have gluten-free pasta, so I ordered a pasta entree. When the meal came, it looked like plain spaghetti and not the gluten-free pasta. I asked before eating and it WAS regular spaghetti noodles! The manager came to our table and apologized profusely. They got me the correct order and then gave us our dinner free of charge.
A second incident happened a couple of weeks ago after ordering takeout gluten-free pizza. When we got the order and were getting ready to pay, the ticket didn’t say gluten free, nor did the pizza look like their normal gluten-free pie. We checked with the chef and it wasn’t gluten-free. They quickly made us a new gluten-free pizza and reduced the price of our bill. If something about your food does not look right, then question carefully before eating it. You can save yourself many negative symptoms by taking this extra step.
Even the best restaurants can have cross-contamination of ingredients. To help minimize symptoms from this, find a good digestive enzyme and take it every time you eat out. I use one that is especially formulated to help break down gluten and dairy proteins. This does not give me a license to eat bread, but does help mitigate minor exposures.
- Call the event coordinator ahead of time
If you are going to eat at a private event at a friend’s house or other venue, call ahead of time to inquire about the menu. We were invited to a banquet last month which was to be a buffet held at a hotel. I called the coordinator after receiving the invitation and she was able to arrange a special gluten-free entrée for me. Hotels and banquet facilities are quite accustomed to having special menus, so don’t hesitate to ask. If you are going to a friend’s house offer to bring a dish to share that is safe for you to eat.
- If in doubt, don’t eat it!
When you have a food allergy or sensitivity, consuming a problem food can cause you symptoms for a long time. It can be better to skip a meal entirely than to face the damage caused by your allergenic foods. I was at a Christmas party last December and saw some macaroons that looked delicious. I knew that macaroons are often gluten-free, but some versions are made with wheat. Because I was not thinking mindfully I ate one, then several. After I got home the headaches, brain fog and intestinal pain started. The next day I felt exhausted. I had been glutened! Now I check myself and if I have a doubt, then I don’t eat it. The negative symptoms are not worth it.