Visiting a restaurant gluten-free is a huge challenge for all of us! Here are five mistakes to avoid when dining out with celiac disease or a gluten-free diet.
This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure page for more information. Thanks!
Dining out in a restaurant is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of having celiac disease.
Between the lack of understanding from servers/staff, the fear of getting glutened, and the general anxiety of wondering if your food was prepared safely (especially when a menu is "gluten-friendly"), going out to dinner isn't a nice, relaxing experience if you have celiac disease. (Unless, of course, you are dining at a dedicated gluten-free restaurant, which is amazing.)
To better understand how restaurants are trained and to better assist my gluten-free coaching clients, I took Allergen Training online for Restaurant Servers with Massachusetts ServSafe, Fare Check Certified training with FARE (Food Allergy Research Education), and Allergen Awareness Training with Always Food Safe. Each training walked me through the process of how servers and restaurant staff are trained, to better understand what's going on in the kitchen.
In this post, I'm sharing the five mistakes I think are the most common for celiac diners and why avoiding them can help you have a safer dining experience. And if you don't have celiac disease but follow a gluten-free diet for other health-related reasons, these tips will apply to you as well.
Disclaimer: Please note these tips are not a guarantee. Always do your own due diligence when dining out and know that restaurants can change. If you do not alert a restaurant of your dietary needs, they will not know to take special protocols.
Five Mistakes To Avoid When Dining Out With Celiac
- Five Mistakes To Avoid When Dining Out With Celiac
- Not Researching The Restaurant Beforehand.
- Not Speaking To The Restaurant Yourself.
- Not Using The Word "Allergy" For Dining Out.
- Not Double Checking Your Gluten-Free Meal.
- Not Telling The Restaurant They Did A Good Job!
- More information: YouTube Video!
- Looking for more tips on living with celiac disease?
- Final Thoughts: Mistakes Dining Out In Restaurants With Celiac
Not Researching The Restaurant Beforehand.
This is a MUST! Researching the restaurant is a great place to start.
Showing up to a restaurant with no idea of their cuisine, menu items, protocols, or even awareness of servers is going to make your meal ten times more stressful. Of course, this isn't always an option, but if at all possible, research beforehand.
Things you can do to research: Google the restaurant. Check their social media pages on Instagram or Facebook and see if they are tagged by anyone with a gluten-free meal. Post in Gluten-Free & Celiac Facebook Groups to see what other's experiences have been. And of course, check apps like Spokin or FindMeGlutenFree.
FindMeGlutenFree has been my go-to app for over a decade to find safe gluten-free food. It allows you to read reviews from other celiacs and GF folks that have visited the restaurant before. All you do is type the name of the restaurant into the "Search" function and then scroll through. Users will share protocols and information about the restaurant, which is again, a great place to begin.
I've been a FMGF user for over a decade, but I think their Premium version is much more effective as it filters restaurants for most celiac friendly and dedicated gluten-free. Take $5 off a Premium Subscription with the code THENOMADICFITZ to make dining out a little less stressful.
Not Speaking To The Restaurant Yourself.
While researching the restaurant and looking up reviews online is a great place to begin, it should not be your only source of information.
Reviews are written by strangers on the internet (even me!). And everyone's health (especially celiac disease & dietary needs) are DIFFERENT.
The BEST way to know exactly what to expect at a restaurant and if their protocols WORK FOR YOU is to speak to them directly.
I know this can be intimidating so here are some ways to make this less stressful.
- DM or Message them on social media. Be mindful that you may be speaking to someone from a PR/Marketing Agency, and not the restaurant itself. Try Facebook or Instagram.
- Call and speak to the host. They usually can answer your questions, but if they can't, they can pass the phone to someone in the kitchen that can.
- If it's too anxiety-inducing to do this yourself, ask someone from your support system to step in and advocate/call on your behalf. A partner, friend, or family member that you trust is a great person for this!
Here's an idea of what you can say when messaging the restaurant on social media:
"Hi! I'm visiting your restaurant on (insert date) and had a few questions about your gluten-free options as I have an allergy. Do you have a dedicated kitchen space for gluten-free meals? How are these meals prepared? Any information you can provide is so appreciated. And if there is another person I should reach out to about this, would you be able to provide that to me? Thank you so much!"
Here's an idea of what you can say when calling a restaurant:
"Hi there, I'm interested in dining in your restaurant but had some questions about your menu as I have an allergy. Who is the best person to speak to about this?"
(They either say they are or hand the phone to someone else).
"Hi, I'm hoping to visit your restaurant but I was looking for additional information about your menu. I have a serious gluten allergy (you can follow up with celiac disease - more information on this below). Do you have a separate prep space for gluten-free meals? Separate cookware, utensils, cutting boards? Do you have dedicated fryers? Does your restaurant have allergen protocols in place and if so what are they? (Feel free to follow up with further specific questions as needed). Thank you!"
Not Using The Word "Allergy" For Dining Out.
Before you start yelling, "Jen, celiac disease is NOT AN ALLERGY!" I'm well aware.
But if you've ever had the blank "deer in the headlights" stare from a server when you say: "I have celiac disease, it's an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine and if I ingest any gluten my body will attack itself and I'll be in the bathroom with bloating gas diarrhea brain fog and all these things..."
Their eyes usually glaze over and you've lost them.
It's happened to me many times over the years until I started changing my script.
Here's the thing:
Restaurant servers, as I have learned from taking multiple allergen trainings, are more trained in food allergens than they are in autoimmune conditions. There are allergen protocols in place in many restaurants, but it's rarer to have celiac protocols.
Not impossible - but very rare.
Usually celiac protocols are in place in restaurants where the founder or owner has celiac disease or a family member of theirs has celiac disease, like Burtons Grill & Red Heat Tavern, or Crave in Beverly.
So to make sure you are better understood by your server, I recommend you GO LAST when ordering (so that your order is the most fresh and recent in their minds) and that you use the phrase "I have a gluten allergy" or "wheat allergy". This will alert the server to make a note of an allergy on your order.
Sometimes there is a button they press in the computer and specific additional protocols in the kitchen that follow once an allergy order comes in, such as washing their hands, changing gloves, using separate plates, etc. This is not always the case for celiac disease, especially since so many people do not know of the condition.
Can I still say celiac disease?
Of course, you can! If a server asks you for more information, you can even follow up after you say wheat/gluten allergy and add "It's celiac disease." But using the word allergy may save you blank stares, lack of understanding, and maybe the possibility of getting glutened. Do whatever works for your comfort and sensitivity levels.
Here's an example of how you can order your food (again, adjust this to what works for YOU.)
"Hi there, I have a serious gluten allergy (follow up with celiac disease - they may ask for clarification). I spoke to (insert title or name of person you spoke to when contacting restaurant) earlier about your gluten-free protocols. If I wanted to order the burger on a gluten-free bun, how would that be prepared? (You can also use this time to repeat the questions you previously asked when calling/contacting the restaurant.)
By ASKING the server to EXPLAIN how they prepare gluten-free meals, it forces them to tell you how they cook gluten-free food. And it allows you to make a JUDGMENT CALL right then and there in case something doesn't feel right. This is a good way to avoid accidental gluten exposures - especially if the server has NO clue what gluten is and tells you something concerning, like shared fryers kill gluten (Nope, they don't. Read more here.)
If the server proceeds to say the burger is cooked in a clean pan, separately, in a dedicated kitchen space for gluten-free meals, and it comes with a gluten-free bun, you may feel comfortable with those protocols. So repeat that back when you order.
"Thank you for explaining those protocols, they will work for me. May I please have the gluten-free burger, medium well, cooked in the separate pan of the gluten-free meal prep area with a gluten-free bun? And if you can please make note on the order that it is for an allergy and tell the kitchen I would appreciate that."
Ask questions throughout the ordering process, and ask them to treat your meal like an allergy!
Not Double Checking Your Gluten-Free Meal.
Even if you're starving, another mistake when dining out with celiac disease is when you forget to confirm you actually received the food you ordered!
When your server (or hopefully, for an allergen meal, a manager) places your plate down in front of you, double-check with them it's exactly what you ordered.
So if you ordered a burger on a gluten-free bun with a side salad and no croutons, repeat that back to them.
"Burger on a gluten-free bun with a side salad and no croutons, right?"
Then, look at the meal placed in front of you. You can also check for allergy toothpicks, different colored plates, or different shaped plates. These are all signs of allergen protocols in the kitchen. Do this BEFORE you take a bite!
Nobody wants to get glutened at a restaurant, but mistakes can happen and orders can get messed up. Taking a few more seconds to make sure it is your food is just another safety layer that can help.
Note: Restaurants are more likely to make mistakes during their busiest times, such as between 5-7 PM, especially on weekends. This is when everyone wants to go out to dinner. To avoid mistakes and errors, try going outside that window, either before or after it, so the servers are not stressed out and running around like headless chickens trying to get everyone's orders in.
Not Telling The Restaurant They Did A Good Job!
It's really easy to find negative reviews of restaurants online. Especially ones that do NOT take celiac disease or food allergies seriously.
Between advertising shared fryers as safe, the term "gluten-friendly", and other common faux pas, there's already a large number of negativity about restaurants online.
The last of the mistakes when dining out with celiac is forgetting to thank the places that do take our needs seriously.
If you had a positive dining experience, were understood by your server, noticed clear protocols in place, or feel that you were well taken care of (and of course, did not get sick), let the restaurant know. Leave a review online and mention specifics of how they helped you eat safely. Call them or message them on social media and thank them. Tip them too.
The more we can spread the word about places that ARE doing a good job, the better and safer dining out will be. One of the ways I like to do this is on FindMeGlutenFree or Spokin. I also share about positive dining experiences I've had here on my website in my gluten-free travel guides!
More information: YouTube Video!
If you want more information on the five mistakes I shared here, I walk through them in this YouTube video. While you're there, please subscribe to my channel or leave a "thumbs up" if you found it helpful! Thank you!
Looking for more tips on living with celiac disease?
Struggling to plan a vacation? Watch this free training on my top tips for traveling with celiac.
Looking for gluten-free products on Amazon? These are my top ten favorites (psst - donuts are on the list!)
Want to know which restaurant chain is top-rated in the allergy community? Read this post to find out!
Final Thoughts: Mistakes Dining Out In Restaurants With Celiac
What tips would you add to this list?
What mistakes do you think people make dining out with celiac disease?
Let me know in the comments below.