the incidence of gluten sensitivity and food allergies has risen in recent years, prompting more people to seek out gluten-free and allergen-free foods-not only when they shop in natural food stores, but also when they eat out. Gluten-free, in fact, was listed in the top five food trends of the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot in 2014 culinary forecast survey of 1,300 professional chefs. It has been a top trend for the past five years and is expected to continue to be 10 years from now. That means more restaurants than ever are offering gluten-free menus or items marked as gluten-free on their regular menus.
Still, not every restaurant is up to speed on how to avoid using gluten and other allergens. That means it's up to you to arm yourself with the right skills, knowledge, and tools so you can eat out confidently and have safe, enjoyable experiences when dining in restaurants.
If you have gluten sensitivity or other food allergies, try these tips:
Do Your Homework
Research restaurants ahead of time. Start by looking for restaurants with gluten-free options by viewing menus online, using a copy of The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide by Triumph Dining, or taking suggestions from celiac support groups in your area. National chains that offer gluten-free menus include Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, P.F. Chang's, and Ted's Montana Grill. Regional chains include Bonefish Grill, Chart House, Legal Sea Foods, Mitchell's Fish Market, Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, Charlie Brown's Steakhouse, and Firebirds Wood Fired Grill.
Once you've found a restaurant that offers gluten-free choices, call during a non-busy time (e.g., before lunch or mid- to late afternoon) and ask to speak to the manager or chef. Tell him or her about your specific food allergies, and ask about dishes that leave out those ingredients, or ones that can be made without them. Depending on the person's answers and attitude, you can decide whether or not you feel comfortable and confident that the restaurant can safely cater to your needs.
Some chain restaurants, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, and Pita Jungle, feature charts on their websites listing common food allergens in each menu item. This is a useful tool that can help you to narrow down your choices. Ingredients often change, however, so ask ahead of time to be on the safe side.
Be a Food Detective
Get super-savvy about your allergens and where they hide. Especially if you have severe reactions, consider buying a copy of Let's Eat Out Around the World Gluten Free and Allergy Free by Kim Koeller and Robert La France. It explains that there are three major areas to consider:
- Allergens as ingredients, which are easy to identify and avoid when eating away from home.
- Allergens in food preparation techniques.
- Cross-contact (also called cross-contamination), which occurs when a meal is prepared in the same frying oil as foods containing allergens, or when food particles are transferred by knives, utensils, cutting boards, pans, or grills that aren't washed between uses.
The book identifies where the most common allergens (e.g., corn, dairy, eggs, fish, gluten/wheat, peanuts, shellfish, soy, and tree nuts) tend to hide in ingredients and preparation techniques, and then teaches readers how to ask the right questions, such as "Is your chicken dusted in cornstarch or corn flour?"
Bring a restaurant card with you. Carrying a restaurant card that explains specific ingredients that you can and cannot eat is good extra insurance. You can point directly to the card to express your needs for safe gluten-free and allergen-free eating, or have the waiter hand your card to the chef, who can advise you about your choices. Sturdy, laminated, wallet-sized dining cards can be purchased at triumphdining.com. You can also download restaurant cuisine-specific, pocket-sized guides, eBooks, and mobile apps for allergen-free and gluten-free eating-or download free food allergy translation cards-at glutenfreepassport.com and allergyfreepassport.com.
Taking a trip or going out for several hours? Always carry gluten-free, allergen-free snacks with you.
You never know when your plans might get delayed. If you aren't prepared, you could be left famished.
Good gluten-free snacks to carry with you include nuts or seeds, Enjoy Life Foods Not Nuts! seed and fruit mix, Mary's Gone Cracker's gluten-free crackers, Organic Food Bars, Pure Bars, or Epic 100% grass-fed beef or lamb bars. Alternatively, try making your own food bar.
Melissa Diane Smith is a nationally known writer and holistic nutritionist who counsels clients across the country and specializes in using food as medicine for a wide variety of conditions. She is the author of Going Against the Grain and Gluten Free Throughout the Year, coauthor of Syndrome X, and a non-GMO educator and speaker. To learn more about her books, long-distance consultations, nutrition coaching programs, or speaking, visit her websites melissadianesmith.com and againstthegrainnutrition.com.
Search for gluten-free restaurants by zip code on the Gluten Intolerance Group's website, gluten.net.