Tips for Dining out on a Gluten-free Diet

With more and more restaurants offering gluten-free options, it's getting easier to eat out if you've got food intolerances or celiac disease

Credit: Flickr / Lauren Tucker Photography

Gluten, especially in wheat, is pervasive, making it a challenge for those with a gluten allergy or intolerance to eat out

It’s a foodie world out there but for people who have an allergy or intolerance to gluten, dining out is often more of a threat than a treat

Depending on your condition and level of intolerance, reactions to gluten can range from a dermatitis breakout to gastro-intestinal discomfort to life-threatening symptoms. Understandably, it’s hard to enjoy a night out when you’re afraid of keeling over from the food you’ve just eaten.

Online Resources for Gluten-free Dining in North America

Gluten allergies and intolerances are becoming an issue many restaurants are willing to accommodate. In the past few years it’s become more common to see gluten-free options available on traditional menus. Also, online support networks like the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG) provides support and suggestions that can help gluten-free diners choose their meals wisely. GIG also operates the Gluten-free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), a searchable datable that lists over 1,600 independent and chain restaurants that have passed a strict and audited accreditation test.

Restaurants that have the GFRAP designation have been vetted on issues such as food preparation, cross contamination, kitchen procedures, menu development and training. And all gluten-free menus or menus with gluten-free options have been reviewed by a registered dietician. While the GIG and the GFRAP in theory and on paper cover restaurants in North America, their websites currently list restaurants only in the US.

Canadian Resources for Gluten-free Dining Options

There are some great canuck-specific resources and events, like the the second annual Celiac-friendly Dine Around and Stay in Town food festival in Victoria, February 17 to March 16, 2012, with restaurants offering celiac-friendly meals at the $20, $30, and $40 price points. In fact, some of BC’s best fine-dining restaurants are offering a growing list of options for gluten-free meals.

For everyday dining, the Celiac Scene lists fast food chain restaurants across North America (including Canada) that offer gluten-free options as well as a searchable database that promotes restaurants that offer gluten-free meals. Just be mindful when using this database, since it’s not evident what the criteria is for including these restaurants. Unlike the GFRAP there doesn’t seem to be a test or audits to identify common gluten-free issues.

The bottom line is that you always need to be vigilant about what you eat when you’re dining out with any kind of food sensitivity. Gluten is in so many common foods that even if your meal doesn’t contain gluten itself, it’s likely that somewhere along the path from farm to your plate, it came in contact with gluten.

Tips for Eating Out with Food Allergies

Here are some tips and to help anyone with an allergy or intolerance to gluten get through what should be a lovely meal out, without medical assistance.

  • Use food cards. List your food allergies, and provide examples. This is something kitchen staff can attach to your food order and refer back to if necessary.
  • Order last. Let everyone else order first and then take your time explaining your food concerns to your server. The last thing said to your server will be the first thing on his or her mind when returning to the kitchen.
  • It’s not just wheat. If you’re talking to your server about your gluten allergy and he or she keeps saying, “wheat,” ask for another server. While wheat is the poster child for gluten, it’s far from the only source. You don’t want your server to go back into the kitchen and relay your gluten allergy as a wheat allergy.
  • Keep it simple. There’s no need to go into the gory details. Just say “allergy” even if your condition is technically an intolerance. Don’t expect your server, even in a designated gluten-free friendly restaurant, to have an advanced knowledge of nutritional science.
  • Stick to fine dining. Fine dining restaurants tend to use fresh ingredients instead of  packaged, processed items that tend to filled with gluten-rich fillers. Also, there’s less turnover in these restaurants, which means servers are more familiar with the dishes and there tends to be more focus on education on food issues. When in doubt, avoid sauces, gravies, dips and anything else that’s been thickened.
  • Ask about cross-contamination. If you’re concerned about cross-contamination, ask if there is a gluten-free station in the kitchen with dedicated knives, utensils, cokware and deep fryers.