In an ideal world, the answer to eating out would be: Step 1: pick a restaurant. Step 2: ask for the gluten-free menu. Step 3: order whatever you fancy.
But in reality, that experience is far from the norm – in fact, it can be a veritable minefield of gluten. However, with a little planning and research, it genuinely can be easy!
So here’s my ultimate survival guide to eating out when you’re gluten-free, without the stress or any nasty surprises. I’ve used these steps here in the UK, as well as in France, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands and they’ve never failed me, once. Trust me, it’s easy when you know how!
1. Plan, plan, plan.
In the past, when our stomachs started rumbling, Mark and I could just walk into any old restaurant we fancied, but these days, that feels a little too much like gambling. Will they have a gluten-free menu or won’t they? Do they even know what gluten is? Do I even like the things on the menu that are safe for me? All those questions floating about in your head can make eating out so much more stressful.
But that’s what a little planning and research can eliminate. So one of the first things you need to know before eating out is where will you be when lunch or dinner rolls around? In the past, I often wouldn’t even have any idea where we’d end up around meal times, because we had absolutely no agenda whatsoever! But these days, that’s definitely not a situation I want to be in. So roughly planning out your activities that day is always a good idea.
For example, if you’re going shopping in the morning, then travelling over to the theatre for a matinee performance, it’s very likely that you’ll have lunch close to where you did your shopping and dinner close to the theatre. There you go, you’ve got your answer!
I know this seems really basic, but it’s not something most people have to even bother to think about. Why is it so important? Well, knowing where you’ll be around meal times gives you a starting point to…
2. Research, research, research.
I know the word ‘research’ makes it sound like you’re about to write an essay, but trust me – it means the difference between a good or bad experience.
So, now you know where you’re going to be, you can hop online and search for the location of where you’ll be, followed by something as simple as ‘gluten-free’ or ‘gluten-free restaurant’. Why? We’re hunting for menus!
Head over to the websites of all the nearby restaurants and cafes and check out their online menu. If they don’t have one, that’s usually a good sign that you probably shouldn’t eat there anyway!
Do they have gluten-free options on the menu? Do they have a separate gluten-free menu? Do they have any notes about allergies somewhere on the menu? What’s their stance on cross contamination? And yes, I need to know all of this information well before I ever even arrive!
Hopefully you’ll get some or all of the answers you need just from looking at the menu. And if not, you can always…
3. Just ask.
Give them a call, or if you’re really awkward on the phone like I am, send them an e-mail. So if you didn’t get an answer to one of the questions above, here’s where you can ask them yourself.
So much of eating out safely is based on judgement, so if you get the feeling that they have no idea what gluten is, or aren’t happy to cater for you, be sure to take that as a sign that you probably shouldn’t eat there.
As you might have spotted, so far we’re just doing all the things you’d normally do in person: picking a restaurant, browsing the menu and rightfully quizzing them on any questions you might have before you order. The only difference is that we’re doing it all ahead of time, so that when you arrive, you already know all the answers, instead of having to be seated, then awkwardly leave (something which I’ve done many times in my gluten-free career).
4. Always put yourself first in tricky situations and don’t be afraid to speak up
I’ve lost count of the amount of times that someone has booked a meet up or celebration at a restaurant that either has zero gluten-free options, or doesn’t even know what gluten is. That’s what I mean by a tricky situation!
Of course, apply steps 2 and 3 to the situation and if your investigation comes back as ‘abort mission’, then you absolutely shouldn’t go to please others. After all, it’s more than likely that you didn’t decide to be gluten-free by choice!
In these situations, it’s best to just express the situation to whoever booked the restaurant and have a few alternative suggestions ready. Sometimes this can feel a little awkward, but honestly, the sooner you get used to it the better.
Plus, this not only gets you used to these kind of situations, but in the long term, it makes others more aware of it too. Hopefully they’ll involve you first before booking next time, which is the best case scenario!
5. Check out your country’s Coeliac society’s website
Here in the UK, Coeliac UK actually have a list of restaurants that are ‘Coeliac UK’ approved. That means that, not only do they have a gluten-free menu, but their food preparation processes have also been scrutinised and given the thumbs up.
Most of the Coeliac UK approved restaurants are chain restaurants, which by their very nature, seem to be everywhere. So once you know where you’ll end up around meal times, searching for one of these restaurants nearby is often a really convenient, safe choice which eliminates the need for steps 2 and 3.
When we went to Rome, the AiC (Associazione Italiana Celiachia or Italian Celiac Association) made our trip any gluten-free person’s dream. So many of the restaurants were AiC accredited and they even have a smartphone app with a map of all the restaurants nearby. So for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to plan a single thing (though I still did anyway!)
Of course, the size and scale of your country’s Coeliac society can vary depending where you are in the world, but it’s always worth checking.
6. Join gluten-free Facebook groups relevant to your country or wherever you’re heading
If you’re struggling with step 2 (research) then fortunately, you’ll likely find that Facebook groups have usually done the hard work already for you.
Why do you think I went to Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Florence and Amsterdam in the first place? I was tipped off by other Facebook group members that these places were absolutely unreal for gluten-free food. And they were so right.
But even if you’re staying closer to home, popping a question into one of these groups such as ‘I’m heading to *insert city or town name here* for *insert activity here*, is there anywhere you’d recommend we should eat?’ Don’t forget to search the group and see if anyone has asked the same question before first too.
In a large group, you shouldn’t be short of recommendations, unless of course, the place your visiting doesn’t have anywhere that caters for gluten-free whatsoever!
Then, of course… do I even need to tell you? Get started with steps 2 and 3 again on any recommendations you might find!