Jenny Finke

Ordering a Gluten-Free Meal? Ask These 5 Essential Questions First

One of the biggest challenges the gluten-free community faces today is eating out. Eating out is often fraught with anxiety, fear, high emotions and gluten.

While the fear of eating out safely is ever present, eating out is something many of us enjoy doing. It makes us feel normal and gives us pleasure. 

Just because you eat gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to give up eating out; you just need to tweak how you eat out so you can stay healthy and safe.

As a self-proclaimed eating out gluten-free expert, and author of a book about eating out gluten-free, I have learned a thing or two about the eating out process. I work hard to demystify eating out for the gluten-free community, showing them how to get a safe, GF meal each and every time. 

What I have found is that once you pick a place to eat at, you must ask your server the following five essential questions.

5 Questions to Ask When Ordering a Gluten-Free Meal

gluten-free meal

Question #1:  Do you have a gluten-free menu? 

Most restaurants will either have a separate menu with a list of gluten-free options, or they will have items labeled “GF” directly on their main menu. When you see a gluten-free menu or allergy-friendly labeling on the regular menu, it’s a good sign the restaurant has at least given some thought to preparing food for its gluten-free customers.

Potential Pitfall: When you see the GF label, it doesn’t always mean the item is gluten-free, as-is; rather it may mean the item can be prepared gluten-free with a few substitutions or omissions. Always disclose that you need the item to be prepared gluten-free for you.

Question #2: What do you suggest are the safest options for someone serious about being gluten-free?

Just because an item is labeled “GF” doesn’t always mean it’s safely prepared gluten-free. It may just mean the ingredients are inherently gluten-free, but the preparation may not be.

Exhibit A is pizza. Most pizza restaurants have a gluten-free crust option … but is the gluten-free crust really gluten-free when it’s prepared on the same surfaces in the same ovens with the same gluten-y hands touching the cheese used for your pizza as was used to prepared the gluten-y pizzas?  Unless you’ve thoroughly vetted a restaurant (there are a few that do GF pizza well), avoid pizza when eating out. Other items at high risk for cross contamination include pasta, pancakes, waffles, toast, etc.

When you ask your server about the safest meal, he or she will likely direct you to the foods that have the least risk of gluten cross contamination, which is key to eating out safely. It might mean you get a burger lettuce-wrapped, an omelet instead of pancakes, or grilled chicken breast with a baked potato instead of a bowl of pasta or pizza. 

Potential Pitfall:  Your server says, “We can make you a meal free from gluten ingredients, but we cannot guarantee it’s gluten-free because we have flour in our kitchen.” I get it. It’s a way for restaurants to CYA. This is why getting a satisfactory answer to Question #3 (next) is essential.

Question #3: How does your restaurant typically handle “allergy” requests?

You might be surprised to know that many restaurants have trained their staff to handle allergy requests and that they have a process in place for allergy orders.

At Red Robin, allergy requests are flagged and the final meal will be presented to you with a purple stick in it. At Chick-fil-a, if you say “allergy,” the server presses a button on the register to alert the staff of an allergy order. The staff handling the order is supposed to change their gloves and package the allergy items separate. 

If you get a satisfactory response about how your order is handled, you are safe to proceed with your order. If not, you may have to make a few special requests or ask to speak with the manager. It’s not uncommon for a manager to prepare my meal directly as to ensure the allergy process is implemented properly.

Potential Pitfall:  Just because a restaurant has an allergy process in place doesn’t mean the process is implemented each time, nor does it mean all the staff are properly trained or remember what to do. Restaurants have a revolving door of staff. If the person you’re working with doesn’t know how to answer Question #3 or doesn’t give you a satisfactory response, ask to speak with the manager.

Question #4: Do you have a dedicated _________?  (dedicated fryer, toaster, colander, waffle iron, etc.) 

I love French fries, but they don’t always love me back. While French fries are naturally gluten-free (they’re made from potatoes), they fall into the “not gluten-free” category when they’re deep fried in the same fryer/oil used to cook breaded chicken nuggets and chicken wings marinated in soy sauce. All of those gluten-y bits are floating around in the fryer ready to sabotage your precious, no-so-gluten-free fries.

Fear not, plenty of restaurants have dedicated gluten-free fryers. Ask. If your server doesn’t know the answer to Question #4, it means he or she is not the person you want handling your allergy order anyway (ask for a manger). Most servers, however, know what a dedicated fryer means.

Five Guys, Red Robin, Chick-fil-a and several other national restaurant chains have fryers dedicated to just cooking French fries (or a dedicated gluten-free fryer). Support the restaurants doing gluten-free right (and as a bonus, you’ll get to eat those delicious fries!).

Along these same lines, if you order pasta, ask if clean pasta water is used to cook your pasta. I verified that clean pasta water is used at Olive Garden, but I’m highly doubting if clean pasta water is used at the Cheesecake Factory based on my Nima Sensor testing fiasco.

At brunch places, ask if the gluten-free toast is toasted in a dedicated gluten-free toaster (or if it’s just the same toaster used to toast gluten-y bread). Ask if a clean griddle or pan can be used to cook the gluten-free pancakes, and avoid the waffles if the same waffle iron is used to cook the gluten-free and gluten-full waffles. 

Potential Pitfall:  The staff says they use the same griddle to cook the gluten-free pancakes as used for the regular pancakes … but they say they’ll clean it first. This is what happened to me at The Original Pancake House. If this happens, you have to make a tough call. Most of the time I’ll just order something else… but if you really want the pancakes, you’ll need to continue to ask questions. Will they use a clean spatula? Will they use untouched blueberries? Can you make sure they clean the griddle thoroughly? 

nima test

Question #5: I am going to test my food with my Nima Sensor. If Nima finds gluten, will you be able to make me something else?

I love this question for three reasons:

  1. It demonstrates my commitment to eating gluten-free. Why in the world would I test my food for gluten if it wasn’t important to me? I think of the Nima Sensor has having a “Beware of Dog” sign in front of my house. Don’t mess with me. It really does put the staff on guard and makes them extra vigilant in the preparation of my food.

  2. It allows me the opportunity to introduce the Nima Sensor to my waiter before I order so he or she is not surprised when they find out I tested my food and it’s not okay for me to eat. When I’m upfront with a waiter about testing my food, they are typically hanging around my table after the food comes, curious to find out the results too. (And boy are waiters intrigued by the Nima Sensor – get ready to answer lots of questions!)

  3. It gives me an upfront contract with my waiter. If the food tests fine, no worries. But if Nima finds gluten, your waiter has already agreed to make you something else. Having that upfront “contract” will save you a lot of hassle post-test.
 

Potential Pitfall: It’s important that you do not abuse the power of the Nima Sensor, as with great power comes great responsibility. It is up to you to order a safe meal. For example, if you order a gluten-free pizza that you know isn’t prepared properly, it is unfair to test it and send it back when Nima displays a “Gluten-Found” message. However, if you order French fries cooked in a dedicated fryer, and Nima finds gluten, by all means send it back and express your dissatisfaction.

Bonus Question #6:  Is it gluten-free? How do you know?

Once your meal arrives, ask the server placing the dish before you, “Is this the gluten-free meal?” and “How do you know this is the gluten-free dish?” The server might say it came on a different kind of plate or has a toothpick or flag inserted in it, etc. Look for visual and verbal cues before digging in as a lot can go wrong between the time you place your order and get your food.

Ready to Eat Out Safely?

I hope these five questions will empower you to eat out safely when you cannot eat gluten. Always be as upfront, honest and serious with your waiter as possible, ask the right questions, only order safe meals, and test your food with your Nima Sensor to ensure it’s really gluten-free. Each step will ensure you stay healthy while enjoying all the wonderful benefits of eating out. 

This article is written by Jenny Finke of Good For You Gluten Free. Jenny is the author of the book, Eating Out Gluten-Free: The Ultimate Guide to Gluten-Free Dining at Restaurants and On-the-Go. Jenny is a certified integrative nutrition health coach and advocate for anyone managing celiac disease, gluten sensitivities and other gluten spectrum disorders. Find her online at GoodForYouGlutenFree.com or on Instagram at @goodforyouglutenfree.

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