There you sit, with sweaty palms and a furrowed brow. Your heart isn’t racing yet, but your eyes are nervously scanning the menu. Even if you are lucky and have a server who knows what you are talking about, can you be sure the cook does? Does the staff know the difference between gluten-free and wheat-free? What if they are using a mix and forget to check the ingredients?
Eating out for the food allergic can be an anxiety filled event. With hidden ingredients in spices, sauces and seasonings, it’s hard to know when something on the menu is one hundred percent safe to eat. You feel helpless, but you are not. There are ways to minimize the risk of exposure to allergens when eating out.
Know your allergy. Know that spelt is not gluten-free, but buckwheat is. Know that wheat-free and gluten-free are not the same. If you can, know what ingredients contain gluten (it is a longer list than wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt) and get to know what foods might contain them. It’s worth it.
Be polite.Those of us with dietary restrictions are already high-maintenance customers. Please don’t make it worse. Restaurant staff that don’t know about your allergy need your help so they can serve you better. If you are annoyed or rude, it makes their job even harder. Besides, niceness begets niceness.
Stay simple. Eat foods with the least amount (or no amount) of preparation. Salads with no dressing, steamed veggies and dry-grilled plain meats are safer choices than soups, stews and casseroles.
Inform and double-check. Even if you feel confident in your meal order, still inform your server of your allergies. Dairy-free? An innocent plain baked potato could be rubbed in a butter mixture before it even arrives at the restaurant. And when they bring you your food, double-check that it is gluten-free. Politely.
Become a regular.When you find a restaurant that you feel comfortable in, make it your first choice. Local eateries can sometimes offer more tailored service, but chain restaurants can offer easy decisions when out-of-town.
Think ahead. If you want to try a new place, call ahead when the restaurant is least busy (avoid calling during the lunch or dinner rush) and ask to speak to a manager. Explain your needs and ask for suggestions on how and what to order. Write it down if you have to. Some restaurants even have websites that offer ingredients lists or separate gluten-free menus.
Eating out is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. If you don’t feel confident in ordering something new, don’t take the chance. Stick to a salad with lemon juice or oil for a dressing. Or bring some gluten-free crackers to nibble on, just in case.
No matter how prepared you are or how knowledgeable the staff might be, you are not making your meal. Mistakes can be made. Limit dining out so you can eliminate the possibilities of digesting gluten down to one: the restaurant you just ate at. And if you suspect a mistake was made, feel free to contact the manager to inform him. Just remember to be polite.