Eating out. It's social. It's business. It's community. And if you're a celiac, it's hard. Learning to eat out safely is one of the top challenges new celiacs face. The stakes are high: get it wrong and you will suffer.
In one of my previous jobs, the company Christmas party was held at a well-loved local restaurant. Over the years, I tried eating only what the chef recommended, eating only fruit salad, even not eating and just drinking wine and water. Every year, on the way home...bloating and tummy rumbles. Each time, I barely made it to the bathroom. I never did figure it out, but along the way I learned a lot about working with restaurants on getting safe food. Here are my top tips for dining out as a celiac.
Choose With Care
Try to be the one who chooses the restaurant. Recommend one that you know, or ask local celiacs for recommendations (thank you, internet). If you can't choose the restaurant, visit the website a few days before going there and check out the menu. If they don't have a gluten-free menu, contact them about your needs in advance.
If you end up at a restaurant without gluten free dishes, choose dishes that are likely to be gluten free already, or dishes that are easily made so by just 1 substitution. One of my favorite dishes in an Italian restaurant is pomodoro sauce over sauteed spinach, instead of over pasta. It's all about the sauce for me, and the spinach is easy and adds another serving of vegetables.
Have a backup plan too - if there's nothing on the menu, ask for something easy that you like. That pomodoro over spinach works well (ask them to bake a bit of mozzarella on top...heaven!). In a pinch, I ask for an unmarinated piece of chicken or salmon with lemon and capers and a side of vegetables. Delicious, and easy to order and make.
Say Thank You
Restaurants don't owe celiacs a spectacular meal. Special orders make life difficult for the kitchen staff, and our cross-contamination concerns make it even harder. When a restaurant gets it right, say thank you.
That means a good tip for the server as well as actually saying the words. I like to thank the server by saying 'thanks for taking good care of me. I know it's extra work to make sure my meal is gluten free, and I appreciate your help." On the way out, ask to speak with the manager and thank her or him. Complement the chef and your server (use your server's name), and thank them for taking an interest in serving you a safe meal. Share your experience within the celiac community, and with friends and family. This can become one of the restaurants you recommend for group meals.
Even with the best ordering skills, you'll have some mishaps. Some places will never be safe - remember my Christmas party adventure? I avoid most pizza places and bakeries for just that reason: they just aren't set up to be gluten free, so I don't ask them to be.
If something goes wrong and you get sick, don't berate the management. Don't post emotional 1-star rants on Yelp or in celiac community sites. Definitely tell us about your experience, just be factual.
You can do this. With a bit of practice, you too will become comfortable in restaurants again. Remember, it's social. It's business. It's community. keep that in mind and you'll enjoy it more.