In our society, eating out is important socially. For those of us who are the chief cook and bottle washer at home, its nice to get a break from the stove, and to taste someone elses cooking for a change. While its definitely a challenge for those of us with CD, its also possible to eat out AND to eat out well. We DONT have to settle for a plain grilled something with a baked potato and steamed vegetables.
The key to eating out successfully is communicating welland communicating with the right people. Give specific information, and ask for it.
Preparation is also important. While its possible to eat out spontaneously, it increases the risks and the odds of your getting a less than satisfying meal.
The safest and most reliable way to eat out is to cultivate one or more local restaurants. Call and make an appointment to sit down to talk with the chef. Bring information about CD and about the diet. Explain that wheat can be hidden in foods where one wouldnt expect it, soy sauce, for example. Go over the menu with her. Ask which meals are GF by nature and which might easily be made GF. For example, sauteed chicken might usually be made with the chicken dusted with flour, but if they leave off the flour could well be GF. It might not be quite as crispy, but itll taste wonderful anyway. Ask what in the ingredientsdo they make their stock there and how, or is it bought pre-prepared? If the latter, whats in it? Explain about cross contamination and why its important. I tell them that CD is an immune problem and that the immune system is extremely sensitive. Generally, people are delighted to do this. Its a creative challenge, and theyre feeding a deeply appreciative audience. Once youve set up this relationship, thatll be a restaurant you can visit time and again with confidence.
If you cant do this, or if you want change, try to call the restaurant in advance. If youve had a chance to glance at the menuin person, faxed or on the webthats great, because youll be able to ask more directed questions. Again, youd run through the same basic questions as if you were meeting with the chef in person. Get the name of the person to whom you spoke, so that when you arrive, you can tell the server that shes expecting you.
The last option is to walk in without calling ahead. Its always safest to eat out when the restaurant is relatively quietbefore six is a good time. That way, you can get the attention of the chef or manager, and there is less likelihood of a mistake being made as there would be in a chaotic kitchen at prime time.
Always try to speak directly to someone who has some degree of control over your meal, preferably the chef; if not, the manager. Dont go through the serverit can be too much like playing telephone. I usually tell them that I have celiac disease which is like a severe allergy to gluten, which is a protein in wheat, oats, rye and barley. While I know that technically, its not an allergy, this is a term that people know and understand. I tell them that I can get very sick if I eat even a trace of these foods, and then I proceed as I would when calling ahead.
If I get ANY sense that my needs are not going to be taken seriously or any resistance, I leave. This is tough, especially if youre with others (like your kids, who are already embarrassed that you merely exist in all your uncoolness), but its tougher to get sick.
The best places to choose are small privately owned restaurants. These people usually care about their customers and have an investment in your coming back. Most of the time, they have made up the menu themselves and they prepare the meals from basic ingredients, so theres a good deal of flexibility. Chains are more difficult. This is because the hallmark of a chain is consistency, and much of their food is supplied pre-prepared and pre-packaged from outside. They have less control over the individual meals, and they are used to following protocol. Some chains, like Applebees, out and out state that we shouldnt eat there. (So who needs them...) Others, like Outback Steakhouse and PF Changs, have GF menus. But even then, dont relax your guard. Still reiterate the bottom linethat you have a serious medical condition, and that attention to the details is critical.
Another help is a GF dining card or paper. Ive got one stored on my computer; when we go out, I print out a copy. A copy is availabe onthis web site so you can print it out and alter it to meet your needs. You can get a small laminated version to carry in your wallet or pocket from Living Without magazine. It comes in several different languages. BUT never rely on this to do your talking for you! It serves as a reminder, but YOU still need to clearly communicate your needs.
Another helpful idea is a restaurant kit to take with you. I have a nice leather backpack that I keep stocked. I take it with me if were going to eat out or when we travel, even for a day trip, in case we end up eating out. I carry a bag of GF pasta, some GF salad dressing, GF bread or crackers, and a bottle of GF soy sauce, as well as a copy of my dining out information sheet.
And now, there is one more wonderful option in terms of eating outthe Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program.
The Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), was developed by the Westchester Celiac Sprue Support Group. It facilitates relationships between individuals with celiac disease and restaurants that understand their dietary needs. Participating restaurants are able to prepare GF meals in addition to their regular meals. The owners have been given detailed information on the GF diet and cross contamination issues. Right now, they have restaurants in Connecticut, NY, NJ, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington State, and Gannby Quebec. These restaurants are identified by this logo in the window. They have a web site, www.glutenfreerestaurants.org, where you can find restaurants by location, cuisine or price. Theres a brief description of each restaurant on the site. I am proud to say that the Greater Hartford Support Group is the first in Connecticut to sponsor a restaurant, Elizabeths in Rocky Hill.
Always be polite. People will be happier to meet your needs if youre pleasantand you are relying on their good will.
Leave a generous tip. Palpable gratitude is remembered.
Last of all, send a thank you note. Either carry a few blanks with you to fill out and leave with the tip, or send one the next day. You are in a way an ambassador for celiac disease, and these little touches will make restaurants more eager to make eating out for us a relaxing and enjoying experience rather than an ordeal.
-by Bobbie Coughlin
May 7, 2004