Dining out can be very risky for those with celiac disease. Wheat and gluten hide in many unlikely foods and it can be difficult to know what’s safe both from intentional gluten content and kitchen contamination. While I advice others with celiac disease
to avoid restaurants the night before big events in case they are exposed to contaminated food, there are a few ways to minimize the chances of getting sick from gluten when dining out.
1. Consider writing or calling ahead. As more and more restaurants have website email is increasingly an option. This is a great way to find out about menu choices that should be safe for you and to alert the staff as to when you are coming in the importance of avoiding gluten contamination. If you call ahead, try to call during slow hours – for restaurants that serve both lunch and dinner, this means between 3pm and 5pm.
2. If you are dining at a chain restaurant, find out if the parent corporation has a gluten related policy. Since most chain restaurants have standardized menus, the company’s headquarters is a great way to get solid information on food ingredients enabling you to more easily avoid wheat and gluten. Chipotle, for example, has a gluten-free policy. The only gluten containing item in their shops are their soft tacos shells and their burrito shells. Their bowls, corn tacos and all meats and ingredients are safe for celiacs. If, when you order, you inform the staff that you are allergic to wheat and gluten, they will change their gloves to make sure your food is free from contamination.
3. Remember that some cuisines are safer than others. An Italian restaurant, for example, may leave you with very limited choices if it is pasta focused. However, risotto and meat based entrees may be perfectly safe. Sushi is perfectly safe for celiacs, but remember that soy, miso and most other Japanese sauces contain wheat and gluten. Sushi is often my default safe celiac dining option, but it means carrying my own wheat-free soy sauce with me.
4. Never be afraid to ask your waiter questions about the menu. Remember that wheat and gluten are commonly used as thickening agents in sauces and soups; I personally find this to be a particularly significant problem in French restaurants. It’s best to always preface your question with the statement that you’re severely allergic to wheat. I find that saying “celiac” or “gluten” can too often be confusing, until the conversation has gotten started. Many times, I will also run into waiters who are celiacs themselves, who can then tell me what they’ve eaten on the menu. It’s the best gluten safety test for restaurants that I know.
5. Word of mouth is the celiac’s friend. There are hundreds of gluten sensitivity and celiac related discussion boards on the Internet and many of them provide information on the safety of restaurants in the areas of their participants.
6. Avoiding gluten means avoiding ordering dishes that would normally be served with bread if you are sensitive to contamination. I find that asking for a hamburger without a bun too often leads to the hamburger being placed on a bun, then someone in the kitchen remembering and removing it from the bun – this is fine for those are low-carb diets but dangerous for those intolerant to gluten.
7. Remember to be aware of the possibility of gluten contamination from frying oil. The biggest risk to celiacs here? French fries. Be sure to ask if oil is reused or shared with other items to avoid this gluten risk.
8. Desserts are generally particularly problematic for celiacs in that many restaurants don’t even offer ones that are gluten-free. And while many celiacs will breathe a sigh of relief when they see a flourless chocolate cake on the menu, before sure to ask about contamination before ordering – it is not uncommon for a cake baked without flour to be baked in a pan dusted with flour for easy removal.
9. Remember that condiments such as ketchup and mayonnaise may contain undistilled white vinegar and carry a gluten risk. Additionally processed and cured meats may also contain either wheat-based fillers, gluten-containing preservatives or have used undistilled white vinegar in the curing process. If you can’t get the details on these foods, you may want to avoid them.
Having celiac disease and related gluten sensitivities does not mean you have to give up eating out, it just means you have to learn more about food, plan ahead and ask questions to be sure that wheat and gluten don’t spoil a good time.