Whether you do it a couple times a week or a couple times a month, dining out is a fact of life for most people. and this is no different for people who have to avoid gluten.
There are still times when we need to – and want to – go out to eat. Many years ago, this was fraught with perils. Few restaurant owners and chefs knew what gluten-free meant, and you certainly couldn’t be sure your meal was safely prepared in the kitchen.
These days, however, anyone avoiding gluten has numerous wonderful restaurant options. There are literally thousands of restaurants across the country – and overseas – that go to great lengths to prepare safe and delicious meals for their gluten-free patrons. Many even have a printed “Gluten Free Menu,” while others have gluten-free options notated with a GF on the “regular” menu. Still other restaurants are aware of all the ingredients in their food and can tell you what does and doesn’t contain gluten -- and tailor a specific dish to your needs.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t always be vigilant. You most certainly should double and triple-check everything and ask a lot of questions. There is always the potential for a breakdown in training or communication at restaurants – even those offering gluten-free menus. So there are a few things you should do…
1.) Do your research in advance. The Internet makes this easy, and I’ll talk more about some great resources at your disposal in a minute…
2.) No matter how confident you are after doing some research, it’s always a good idea to call the restaurant you’re considering and ask to speak with the manager or chef about your needs – and what options are available to you. The best time to call is at an “off” time between the lunch and dinner rush. The manager or chef will have more time to talk with you, and many will even embrace the challenge of creating some special options for you.
3.) Take pre-printed Dining Cards with you to help you communicate your needs to the chef, manager, or server when you arrive. There are several places you can find these cards online, and some are even free (and available in many languages). I personally like Triumph Dining’s bilingual restaurant cards, available for 10 different global cuisines (American, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, French, etc.). They explain exactly what gluten is, where it’s found, hidden sources in that particular type of cuisine, and how to avoid cross-contact with gluten-containing foods. It’s a quick yet thorough education for restaurant workers. And because the cards are two-sided with an explanation in both English and the native language, there is no risk of a language barrier getting in the way of understanding. They are available for a small fee, and it’s money well spent. They’re laminated and can be folded in thirds to tuck in a wallet or purse. I own a full set, and we take them everywhere when dining out or traveling.
4.) When in doubt, ask lots of questions. Don’t be embarrassed or hesitant to question anything and everything. An example of this is dining at a restaurant that serves gluten-free pasta. You need to make sure the pasta is cooked in a separate pot with fresh water (this will usually take longer, but obviously you are willing to be patient!). You need to verify that a separate, clean colander is used and a separate utensil for stirring and serving the pasta.
When it comes to gluten-free pizza, you need to make sure the pizza is prepared in a separate area, ideally with separate toppings that haven’t been contaminated by a worker dipping in their gloved hand that’s touched countless flour pizza crusts. A clean pan should be used that prevents the pizza from touching any surface (like the counter or oven) that contains any traces of flour. A clean pizza wheel should be used to cut the pizza.
Another important note about FRENCH FRIES: You need to ask TWO things to determine if the fries are gluten-free. You need to confirm that the ingredients, any seasoning, and the oil they are fried in are gluten-free. AND you need to ensure they are fried in a DEDICATED FRYER where NOTHING with gluten is also fried. That means that if a restaurant has gluten-free fries but they’re fried in the same fryer as their chicken nuggets or breaded onion rings, they are NOT gluten-free in any way, shape, or form! Most managers or chefs who are educated about gluten-free food preparation should be able to answer these two questions with a good degree of certainty. If not, skip the fries. Your waistline will thank you, too!
Let’s now talk specifically about CHAIN restaurants…
Even if you’ve never been a fan of chain restaurants (i.e. Outback, P.F. Chang’s, Uno Chicago Grill), chances are you’ll appreciate the lengths they’ve gone to in developing great gluten-free menus and in training their kitchen staff and servers. There are literally dozens of regional and national chain restaurants that now offer printed gluten-free menus, either available upon request or incorporated into the regular menu. A list of many of these chains can be found on our Gluten Free Restaurant Menus page. Click on any restaurant, and you’ll be taken to a page with a description of the restaurant and links to its gluten-free menu, locations, Facebook page, and even coupons.
Some national and regional chains have even gone through the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) or the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness’s GREAT Kitchens Program, which both lay out certain standards and provide rigorous training to restaurants. These are the restaurants you can feel most comfortable eating in, but you still should always be vigilant. There is still the possibility for error during a busy time, with a new employee, or because of some other honest mix-up.
Of course, the great thing about chains is that, with their multiple locations, you’ve got a good chance of having at least one or two safe dining options anywhere you live or travel, unless you’re in a pretty remote area.
Now, for independent restaurants…
These can be infinitely more interesting. They run the gamut from restaurants that know gluten-free inside and out, perhaps because the owner or a family member is gluten-free themselves…to restaurants that may not have a gluten-free menu but know exactly what’s in their recipes and can tailor a meal suited to your needs.
The great thing about these “gluten-free friendly” independent restaurants is that you never know where you’ll find them. Of course, some are in big cities, such as New York City, known to embrace food “trends” early and enthusiastically. But you’re almost equally as likely to find accommodating restaurants in any small town across America. Because people with Celiac are everywhere, and more and more restaurants are meeting the demand. Again, vigilance is the key word here...call before going, take your restaurant cards, and have a talk with the manager and chef again when ordering.
So, how do you find all these great restaurants?
There are a number of free websites and apps that list “gluten-free friendly” restaurants by city or state. It’s a great starting point when evaluating your options. Our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, and our free mobile app, DINE GLUTEN FREE, go a step further. They not only enables you to search GF-friendly places by location but also include user-submitted reviews of these restaurants – as well as other venues like hotels, B&Bs, resorts, cruises, and grocery stores -- around the world. It's easy to search by town or zip code or you can do a broader search by state, province, region, or country.
Other guidebooks and apps, like those sold by Gluten Free Passport are more “general” and help guide you toward safe menu options with any type of cuisine, anywhere around the world (a bit like the dining cards mentioned earlier).
All the resources mentioned above can be great when planning a trip as well. After all, reading a review of a hotel or resort – or the restaurants nearby – submitted by someone with your same gluten-free needs can provide honest feedback you can trust.
There are now even travel agents who specialize in gluten-free travel planning, which you can find on our Trip Planning page. Another company called Bob and Ruth’s Gluten Free Dining and Travel Club organizes trips all over the world – and arranges for ALL the meals to be gluten-free. Be sure to check out our Hotels and Resorts page for specific recommendations for GF-friendly accommodations, as well as our Gluten Free Getaways page featuring enticing opportunities for gluten free getaways in exotic locations.
If you aren’t traveling with a group where all the gluten-free meals are arranged in advance, you’ll want to follow all the guidelines mentioned in the Dining Out section above. Call to speak directly with the Executive Chef of a resort, hotel, or cruise ship before booking anything. If you decide you’re comfortable with their level of gluten-free knowledge, have them note your special dietary needs on your reservation. Find out what gluten-free options they have available – and even ask if you can send some of your own favorite items ahead of time (i.e. gluten-free frozen waffles or a favorite gluten-free sandwich bread). Pack as many favorite gluten-free non-perishables in your suitcase as you think you might need. Scout out stores and restaurants near where you’ll be staying (again, using the many websites at your disposal). And pack your dining cards! Then, call the hotel or resort once more, about a week or two before your trip, to remind them of your arrival and confirm any special arrangements.
Even if you find yourself in a situation that is less than what you expected, you can always eat plenty of fresh fruit, meats and fish (just make sure marinades or other ingredients are safe), vegetables, rice, potatoes, cheese, nuts, and yogurt. The important thing with travel is to remember why you’re at your destination…the day need not revolve around meals…there are sites to see and relaxing to do.! Spending less time at meals will give you more time to enjoy these things – and you’ll probably find you don’t gain those unwanted “vacation” pounds either!
Finally, if you'll be traveling on a plane to get to your destination, be sure to read the Gluten Free Tips When Traveling By Plane post on our Gluten Free Travel Blog. You don't want to be starving and without any options on a long flight, so a bit of advance planning is necessary.
Best Places To Travel If You’re Gluten-Free
For domestic travel with kids, it’s hard to beat Disney World in Orlando. They have been setting the standard for catering to guests with special dietary needs (gluten-free and other diets) for many years now. They are trained in the “Disney way” and provide a truly “magical” experience for all their guests. Virtually every sit-down restaurant in their parks and resorts has at least several gluten-free options, and many of their counter-service restaurants do as well. There are even plenty of options at their snack carts throughout the parks. Best of all, you can obtain lists of the places in each park or resort that best suit your gluten-free diet by contacting Disney’s Special Diets department in advance of your trip. Just call (407) 824-5967 or email them at email@example.com. Making reservations at the desired restaurants is strongly recommended, as early as their booking will allow. That way, you can have your pick of the most accommodating restaurants and your GF request can be noted. Call 407-WDW-DINE.
I'd recommend visiting our Annual Contest page, too, for top spots for domestic travel. These are areas of the country that have received the most user-submitted dining reviews on our website. You will not be lacking for ideas on where to find a safe gluten free meal in any of these locations.
Beaches, Sandals, and Club Med – as well as most cruise lines -- also have a reputation of understanding and providing for their gluten-free guests. In fact, many cruise lines are raising the bar for gluten-free fare, so if you like cruising, this may be a good option for you. Visit our Cruise page in which we detail the gluten free policies of all the major cruise lines and link to a sampling of reviews submitted to our website for each of these cruise lines.
Internationally, countries run the gamut in terms of their understanding of the gluten-free diet. Some countries, like France, seem to be where we were 5+ years ago in terms of their knowledge (or rather, their lack of knowledge of gluten-free diets and safe food preparation). And cross contact is always a huge possibility there, given all the bread and pastries.
On the other hand, Italy (home of pasta, ironically) has a reputation of being very friendly for Celiacs, due to awareness of the disease being very high there (and diagnosis better than it is here in the U.S.). The United Kingdom is at least where the United States is, in terms of the level of gluten free knowledge, and Ireland, with a rate of Celiac Disease twice ours (2%), is also apparently a very “gluten-free friendly” place to visit. Australia and New Zealand are other favorite destinations. You can search our site for reviews of places to dine in any of these locations.
Some cultures generally are much less reliant on wheat-based foods as we Americans are. Take, for example, Latin America and Africa...they use flours made from corn, quinoa, teff, and amaranth, so in theory they can be safe places to travel and experience new ways of eating gluten-free.
Basically, any area of the world can be safely navigated when it comes to following a gluten-free diet, providing you do your research ahead of time, talk to chefs in advance, carry bilingual gluten-free dining cards to help you communicate, and pack back-up snacks when possible.