By Rachel Begun, MS, RD
One of the most common dialogues I have with clients is how to safely eat gluten free when dining out. When possible, I like to have conversations with my clients that are specific to a given restaurant, whether it is a neighborhood eatery they want to try or options available while traveling. These conversations empower gluten-free diners to enter a restaurant knowing which options are safer than others and how to confidently ask questions about their preparations.
However, in a general conversation such as this one, it’s best to share overarching tips that can be applied to all eating occasions outside of the home.
Before Going to a Restaurant
While spontaneity is fun, it’s not the best course of action for gluten-free dining. Call the restaurant ahead of time to let them know you need to eat gluten free. This allows time for management and the staff to discuss your needs and be prepared to serve you safely. It’s best to call at a slow time of day, so you have the host’s or manager’s undivided attention. Avoid calling during lunch or dinner hours when the restaurant is loud and hectic.
If possible, review the restaurant’s menu online and narrow down your choices to a few selections. This way, when speaking with the server, manager or chef at the restaurant, you can have a more focused and productive conversation about a few items rather than the entire menu. The easier you make the conversation, the more likely you will be served a safe meal.
Just because a restaurant has gluten-free options identified on the menu doesn’t mean the staff is educated about cross-contamination. Solicit recommendations from gluten-free friends, support group members, bloggers and restaurant guides to identify eateries with a reputation for providing attentive service to gluten-free diners.
While at the Restaurant
While you want to be friendly and gracious in your dialogue with servers and management, it’s important to communicate clearly, assertively and without shame, apology or embarrassment. It’s important not to trivialize your condition or need to eat gluten-free, as you want the wait staff to take your needs seriously.
If you detect that your server is not knowledgeable about celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or which menu items contain gluten, politely ask to speak with the manager or chef. If you cannot get confident answers from anyone in the restaurant, it is OK to courteously leave the restaurant.
It’s OK to remind the wait staff about steps they can take to ensure your safety, such as placing the bread basket away from you or bringing out your plate by itself so that other dishes do not contaminate yours. Such tips will benefit the next gluten-free diner.
Upon Leaving a Restaurant
If you have been exposed to gluten while dining out, it is vitally important to let the restaurant know as soon as possible. They need to identify where the mistake was made so they can improve their service in the future.
On the contrary, if you have been given attentive gluten-free service, be courteous and gracious. Let the staff and manager know and tip well. Rewarding good behavior will encourage similar service to future gluten-free diners. And spread the word. The gluten-free community wants to know which restaurants provide a safe eating environment, and these establishments should be recognized for their attentive service.
I know it’s not easy to implement all of these steps, but with time and knowledge it becomes second nature.
Rachel Begun, MS, RD is a food and nutrition communicator. She provides education, communications and consulting services to health organizations and the food industry. She also educates the public via speaking opportunities, online activities and writing for publications, including her own blog, The Gluten Free RD. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest via her website at www.rachelbegun.com.