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!
About This Dining Out With Celiac Blog Post
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 4 different allergen trainings: Allergen Training online for Restaurant Servers with Massachusetts ServSafe, Fare Check Certified training with FARE (Food Allergy Research Education), Allergen Awareness Training with Always Food Safe, and Beyond Celiac Gluten-Free Food Service Training. 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. Of course, not a guarantee, because there's always a risk when dining out. But our goal is always to lower that risk and make decisions with the information we have available.
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
- About This Dining Out With Celiac Blog Post
- 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 Asking For Cross-Contact Protocols
- Not Double Checking Your Gluten-Free Meal.
- More information: Restaurant Masterclass!
- 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 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 who 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 calling a restaurant:
"Hi there, I'm interested in dining in your restaurant but had some questions about your menu as I have a severe gluten 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 severe 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, and 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.
So to make sure you are better understood by your server, I recommend you GO LAST when ordering (so that your order is the freshest and most recent in their minds) and that you use the phrase "I have a severe gluten allergy". This will alert the server to make a note of an allergy on your order.
Sometimes there is a button they press on 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 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.
Not Asking For Cross-Contact Protocols
Probably the #1 mistake I see is that people with celiac assume because they notified their server they have an allergy, or that they have celiac disease, that means the server completely understands and will instruct the kitchen to prepare your meal safely.
This is not necessarily true. And if you've ever been glutened in a restaurant after you told them you're gluten-free, I'm sure you can relate.
While this might encourage the server to note it's for an allergy on the ticket, it's up to you to clarify exactly how you need your food prepared to help prevent cross-contact from happening in the kitchen.
Because as we know, it's not just the ingredients that need to be gluten-free, but the preparation as well. So YOU need to tell them to change their gloves, use a separate pan, pull fresh ingredients, etc. You want to go step by step for every ingredient, to make sure you don't miss anything. This can be a lot to manage mentally and can be socially uncomfortable to have to go through these steps so thoroughly. So if you're nervous about having this conversation, start with a more simple meal with fewer ingredients or possible points of cross-contact (For example, ordering GF pasta with butter as opposed to a loaded burger.) Then, build up to more complex dishes.
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.
More information: Restaurant Masterclass!
Let's be honest - getting glutened is the WORST. And I don't wish that on anyone!
So if you found this blog post to be helpful, I share exactly how I avoid gluten exposure inside this 1-hour masterclass!
Of course, there are no guarantees for dining out with celiac, and we always assume the risk when picking up a fork at a restaurant table. But by evaluating the risk, asking questions, and telling the server about the cross-contact protocols we need, we can lower the chances of something going wrong. And that's what you'll learn in this training!
It's pre-recorded, meaning you can quickly watch it on your own time, and also comes with scripts & examples to help you for your next restaurant trip.
This masterclass is based on 4 allergen trainings and has helped me avoid getting glutened in a restaurant for almost 2 years now.
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.