How to Dine out With Celiac Disease

Not sure how to dine out with celiac disease without getting glutened? Does the thought of letting someone else cook for you scare you? Don’t let your fear stop you from living your life. People with celiac can eat at restaurants safely.

Yes, dining out with celiac involves risk but you can minimize the risk if you take the proper precautions. And it’s up to you to take these precautions because while most chefs are trained in cross-contact, most of them don’t know how to apply it to gluten unless you tell them.

So where do you start? In this post we will talk about getting in the right mindset to dine out, how to build confidence with dining out, and the 3 steps you need to take to dine out with celiac disease safely.

How to Dine Out With Celiac Disease (Yes, you can get safe gluten-free food at restaurants with celiac - let me show you how!) - Tayler Silfverduk

Table of Contents

You Deserve to dine out with celiac Disease safely

Let’s talk about mindset for a second when dining out with celiac. There’s a lot of emotions around dining in restaurants. Rather than confront these emotions people often avoid them (ex. never eating out).

Let’s take a moment to grieve the experience dining out used to be for us… Before celiac, dining out likely was more care-free, less stressful, and a way to connect with coworkers, friends, and loved ones.

Maybe dining out was a way of putting dinner on the table when you were just to tired to cook. Or maybe it was a way to escape the throes of life and spend a little 1:1 time with your partner.

Eating out with celiac isn’t any of that anymore (unless you’re able to find a dedicated gluten-free restaurant and then ENJOY IT!). Instead, it feel cumbersome, emotional, bulky, frustrating, and downright impossible.

Some might even feel like they’d rather spend the time cooking at home than play 21 questions with servers.

Here’s the thing, eating out with celiac is hard and it is possible. You can eat at restaurants with celiac and stay safe. With time and practice, dining out becomes more routine and they only way to make it better is to get out there and learn.

And dining out is hard and it’s also important. I say food is not just fuel a lot and this is exactly what I mean by it. You connect with people over food, you celebrate with food, you lean on restaurants during travel, and during travel you will want to try traditional cuisines.

And most importantly, enjoying restaurants with celiac can bring back the ability to be more spontaneous and it might even help you find a little more normalcy… So where do you start?

Brassica Bowl - Lunch - Gluten-Free Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio - Tayler Silfverduk
Gluten-free Brassica bowls from gluten-free friendly restaurant, Brassica

How to Dine out with Celiac With Confidence

Are you terrified to dine out with celiac? You’re not alone. I get a lot of clients that come to me who either never eat out or eat out but are too scared to ask for cross-contact precautions. Through our time together we are able to unpack these fears and build strategies to help them feel secure in the restaurant experiences.

But I think what many people skip, that I really like to spend time on, is understanding why the fear of speaking up is there. Because if we don’t understand the fear, it’s hard to move past it.

First, we live in a society that is not always accepting or understanding of people who fall outside of the social norm. This can make it uncomfortable to want to speak up when you don’t know how people will react.

Second, we live in a society that expects people to shoulder their own burdens. We have this idea that we shouldn’t burden other people with our problems. Which makes it even hard to speak up because we don’t want to burden the restaurant staff.

Third, there is a very real and valid fear of  getting glutened. I’m not going to lie, there is always a risk when dining out because you aren’t in control of your food. But you can minimize that risk with knowledge and skill. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the risk. If it’s realistic to never dine out.

So first things first, understand that the hospitality industry is there to serve YOU if you want them to. Meaning most restaurants are there to give you a delicious experience around food so don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Understand the Restaurant Industry

When building confidence with dining out with celiac disease, it’s important to understand the restaurant industry. Now many people may not know this, but dietitians are trained in restaurant management and hospitality. I had more training then I think most because of I chose a 2-year degree as a DTR before becoming a dietitian.

Having managed and executed my own menu for a week in my school restaurant in college, and having been in charge of ensuring food safety compliance in long-term care facilities, I am well-versed in food service. And here’s the thing about food service, it’s there to provide you safe food. Whether they actually deliver is another question, but the intention is there.

That’s why cross-contact prevention is covered in basic Serv-safe training. It might not be as extensive as additional Serv safe certifications, but it’s there.

And that’s why many (not all) restaurants take food allergies seriously. If you’re going to a restaurant who takes their customers experience seriously, they’re going to do their best to serve you a safe meal.

Now, you can’t always rely on this. Having experienced back of house myself, it’s organized chaos at best… but knowing what to ask for, what to look for, and how to advocate for yourself can help.

Ease Into Dining Out With Celiac

Now for the action steps of building confidence with eating at restaurants with celiac disease. Start with baby steps. Starting with small tasks first, and working your way up to bigger ones can help the idea of dining out feel not as scary.

  1. Start with doing research and calling restaurants to build up your skills around talking about celiac in an anonymous way.
  2. Build up to going to restaurants and ordering something small with cross-contact precautions taken.
  3. Follow-up with ordering something more complex and build up your cross-contact request skills.
  4. End with dining in with friends and family.

It’s important you work up to this especially if dining out makes you very uncomfortable or nervous. This is because just diving into dining out with celiac can be especially stressful and that stress-level might trigger the very symptoms you’re trying to avoid. For more help with this, practice simulations and more, check out my Celiac Crash Course!

3 Steps to Dine Out with Celiac Safely

Know for the part you’ve been waiting for: how to actually dine out with celiac disease safely! There are 3 general phases of dining out with celiac. The research stage, the advocacy stage, and the self-care stage.

When in the Research stage, this is where you’re spending time screening restaurants to see if you even want to show up. It can involve internet searches, phone calls to assess cross-contact protocols, gluten-free menu options, and willingness to accommodate.

In the Advocacy stage, this is where you’re actually asking for precautions. This sometimes can happen in the research stage too, when asking restaurants on the phone if they can take certain precautions. But it also happens the moment you get into the restaurant and start speaking with the staff.

Lastly, the Self-care stage, regardless of what happens it’s important your practice self-care after. This is the time to down regulate your nervous system, reflect on the experience, and learn if you can for future experiences.

By the way, these are steps I walk you through in detail in the Celiac Crash Course. Complete with worksheet, simulations, and dining out cards to make dining out less stressful. But let’s dive into these steps below…

The Research Stage of Celiac Dining

The first step to eating out with celiac is to do your research. This means look up the restaurant you want to go to and see what options they have available (if they even have any). You’ll also want to check what cross-contact precautions they have (if any) and if they are willing to accommodate you.

I walk through my initial research process in this video but my general tips on researching restaurants for celiac-safety include:

  1. Look up the “restaurant name + gluten-free” or “restaurant name + allergen menu” to see if the restaurant has already selected options.
  2. Search google reviews, yelp, or use find me glutenfree to see what other people’s gluten-free experiences have been. Look at pictures to get a feel for how things are plated and menu items.
  3. Call ahead and ask the restaurant staff what their cross-contact protocol is (as well as any other questions you might have about their menu). If they don’t know, ask them if you can speak to the chef or a cook in the back to clarify. This is especially good if you have a lot of anxiety doing this in-person. They don’t know who you are and you can hang up at any time.
  4. Choose 1-2 options to order and verify when calling the restaurant that they can take specific precuations. For more on this, plus practice simulations, check out the Celiac Crash Course!

Researching gluten-free restaurants often feels cumbersome and annoying, and sometimes get skipped but it is key to reducing risk of getting a “deer in the headlights” stare in the restaurant.

A pro-tip I like to give is to batch your restaurant research. Spend one day looking for restaurants you might want to try. Another day looking at menu options. Another day calling them and asking about safety. That way you slowly build a list of places you’ve screened for the future without overwhelm.

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The Gluten-Free Advocacy Stage of Dining

The second step to dining out with celiac is to advocate for yourself. This is where being prepared to order with cross-contact precautions comes in. After doing your research it’s time to put your research in action.

Depending on where you’re at this step might be intertwined with research. This is where you are speaking with restaurant staff about your order and telling them what you need. Meaning all the research and preparation of menu items, accommodations etc. are coming into play.

I like to break this step down into 2 parts:

Ask questions: use this time to use the research you did previously to ask questions. Verify menu items are gluten-free and confirm cross-contact protocols. Don’t shy away from asking your server questions and as mentioned above, if you need help building comfort around this, start with calling and asking questions and slowly move into asking them in-person.

This might look like “Hey, I have celiac disease, it’s like a severe gluten allergy, what are your cross-contact protocols? You don’t have any? If I were to order a gluten-free grilled cheese sandwich, would the chef be able to do xyz to keep it safe?”

Tell them the cross-contact precautions to take when ordering: after asking questions and confirming gluten-free status, tell the server to make note of your cross-contact needs on your order slip. Please note, asking questions is not enough. You need to TELL them what you need.

This might look like “Can you please make note that I have a gluten allergy and that I’d like the chicken cooked in a freshly washed pan and a baked potato baked in foil?” A dining out card can help too. Like the one I give in my Gluten-Free Restaurant guide.

For more on what cross-contact precautions to ask for, check out my post on How to Order Gluten-Free Sushi!

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Self-Care Stage of Dining Out With Celiac

Dining out with celiac isn’t just about the actual event but also about how you take care of yourself after.

Self-care is important in general, but especially if you have celiac disease. There are a lot of draining situations, like practicing dining out, that require you to fill your cup after.

Whether it was a learning lesson and you were glutened and need to take care of yourself, or you’re wiped out from the event, it’s important you have a plan to take care of yourself after.

I usually like to set aside time to reflect and to calm down. Maybe I’ll make sure I have some ice cream or another treat ready in case I felt super restricted while dining out.

Or I’ll make a date with myself to light a candle a read a book.

Dining out with celiac is hard and it’s important you don’t burn yourself out on it because your ignoring the emotions that come up afterwards, this is ultimately, where self-care comes in.

GF Lunch From Core Life Eatery - mostly gluten-free restaurant in Columbus, Ohio
Gluten-free lunch from mostly gluten-free restaurant: Core Life Eatery

Other Celiac Restaurant tips:

Dining out with celiac disease is overwhelming and stressful. And it can also help you keep some kind of normalcy in your social life. Here are some bonus tips to help make you experience dining out better:

  • Keep it Simple: Not a fun tip I know, but sometimes simply telling the server what you want as opposed to playing 21 questions with them is the better choice. Ask for things plain, naked, and without sauces or dressings which can have hidden gluten (unless you have an allergen menu or gluten-free menu available to read)
  • Eat Something Before Hand: seems counter intuitive, but eating something before dining out with celiac disease does two things: 1 it keeps you fed so you can make safe decisions, and 2. it will help prevent hanger should you have to leave a restaurant and find another. This is also why you should bring a snack with you too, in case you need some extra support.
  • Dine at Slow Times: Many people will say the slowest times for restaurants are between 2-5pm. You can always call a restaurant and ask too. The less busy, often, the less the risk.
  • Be Present: Remember why you’re dining out, it’s not all about the food.
  • Try to Stay Calm: You gut is anxious first and sometimes that can trigger the very symptoms we are trying to avoid. Consider taking a few deep breaths before your meal to try to calm your nervous system. Refer to the module on stressful food events for more guidance on calming down and grounding yourself before meals.
  • Send you friends and family a list: Once you’ve screened a bunch of restaurants and have a list of one’s you want to try or feel safe at. Write them down and keep them on your phone. Ready to send to your friends and family the next time they want to dine out. You can just say “I’d love to go grab dinner, here are some restaurants I feel comfortable going to, which one sounds good?”. Because I’m in Columbus, Ohio I send them my Gluten-Free Restaurants in Columbus blog post and have them choose.

Words of Caution

To wrap this post up I just want to give some words of caution when it comes to dining with celiac.

First, never take anyone else’s word for the celiac safety of a restaurant. People’s recommendations can be a helpful starting place, but you always want to double check the safety of a restaurant for yourself. Menus change, employees change, and people have varying knowledge and skill levels, so always double-check for yourself.

Second, trust your gut. If you talk to a restaurant and it seems like they just don’t understand celiac precautions, don’t go there. If you’re talking to your serve and they don’t seem like they are getting it, ask to speak to the chef or a manager. No, you’re not being a “Karen” (and sorry if you’re name is Karen), you’re simply “making sure your food is safe because you have a severe reaction”.

Third, don’t be afraid to walk out. Don’t sit down at a meal and try to get safe food if it feels like it’s impossible. It’s definitely not comfortable leaving after being seated but it’s better than being glutend. Hopefully, this doesn’t happen to you, as usually researching tends to weed the rough restaurants out.

Hopefully this was helpful, and if you have any tips of your own, share them in the comments! And if you need help with dining out, check out my Celiac Crash Course which covers all of this and more PLUS simulations and worksheets to help you practice! If you’re newly diagnosed, this course will make your celiac-life so much better.

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