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Eating out with coeliac disease

Are you terrified to eat out? If you’ve had a few disastrous times (like being glutened), it’s not surprising you’re nervous. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never eat out again. When you have to have gluten-free because you're coeliac, sometimes restaurants can raise your blood pressure, but they doesn't have to.

Ali Walsh eating gluten-free successfully as a coeliac diner at The Ivy
It's possible to be coeliac and enjoy a meal out - I'm living proof!

I’ve put together this coeliac guide so you can safely navigate the world of restaurants or other eateries (like a café or staff canteen). You’ll have vital information and suggestions to make your dining experiences stress-free and enjoyable (yes, enjoyable!).

 

This gluten-free guide explores the best ways to approach eating out with coeliac disease. Sometimes it can feel a bit like homework but it's totally worth swotting up so you can eat a fantastic meal without fear.


Gluten-Free Restaurant Research

Check your phone for gluten-free restaurants near you

You know how easy it is to lie on the sofa and scroll on your mobile? Choose that moment to conduct some important research prior to eating out.


How to discover gluten-free friendly restaurants:

 

  • Grab your phone and compile a list of potential places to eat by using search engines to type in phrases like "gluten-free restaurants near me". When you find something you want to try, take a screenshot of the restaurant details.

  • Look at review websites and apps. Online platforms such as TripAdvisor allow you to filter search results to highlight restaurants with gluten-free options. You can also download dedicated gluten-free apps, like the ones from Coeliac UK or Find Me Gluten Free; they can assist you in finding suitable eating establishments.

  • Ask for recommendations. Look at coeliac support groups on Facebook (and include your location). This can be particularly useful if you’re away from home (e.g. on holiday). Go to the Facebook search bar and type in the city with the word ‘coeliac’ or ‘gluten-free’ (e.g. “Gluten-Free Manchester”). If you’re abroad, you may need to type in ‘celiac’ without the ‘o’.

  • Get excited if they offer gluten-free beers. If a restaurant has taken the time to stock gluten-free beer, it's more likely to know a bit about coeliac disease. This is a good sign.

Gluten-free drinks
A delicious gluten-free beer & martini at Niche in Angel, London

Communicating with the Restaurant


Once you've found a restaurant that seems gluten-free friendly, it's essential to communicate your dietary requirements with them. Don’t be bashful – this isn’t a time to neglect your needs. Be bold and follow these steps:


  1. Contact the restaurant in advance. Let them know about your coeliac requirements. This approach not only allows you to check their gluten-free level of understanding, but also gives the restaurant a bit of time to prepare for your visit. My local curry place will make special onion bhajis as long as you phone in advance. The place you contact may do something specially for you, too.

  2. Be clear with your waiter/server. When you arrive at the restaurant, go over your gluten-free requirements with the server and make sure this is properly communicated to the chef. I once ordered a roast and wrote down my needs with ‘GLUTEN-FREE’ in capitals. I don’t believe the chef even saw the note because he served the potatoes dusted in semolina. Always check and double-check if you’re unsure.

  3. Make sure they avoid cross-contact. Confirm any potential cross-contamination risks and check if they have a separate gluten-free menu available.

  4. Beware the gluten-free menu. Just because a menu says it's gluten-free, that doesn't mean they know about cross-contact or even gluten itself. I was once given a gluten-free menu where the soup was listed with pearl barley. Always check.

  5. Be cautious of unknown foods. If a dish is unfamiliar to you and you're unsure about its gluten-free status, always consult with the staff before ordering. I was once given a rice dish in an eastern European restaurant that was made with a gluten-containing powder for flavour. So never assume rice is just rice!

  6. Carry a gluten-free dining card (yes, even in English in England!). A dining card highlights your dietary needs in an easily understandable manner. It’s also great because it can be taken to the chef. If the server’s first language isn’t English, use your mobile and type in their language followed by “gluten-free restaurant card”. Remember: you get your English one free when you become a member of Life on a Rice Cake, which you can do here.


Choosing Gluten-Free Dishes


Once you’ve got through the faff of checking you can actually eat at the place you're in, selecting gluten-free dishes from the menu is crucial.


  • Know common gluten-containing ingredients. A good understanding of hidden sources of gluten-laden ingredients is invaluable when eating out. Be sure to ask if food is cooked with ingredients like soy sauce, barley, malt and meat substitutes.

  • Look for 'GF' symbols. Many restaurants indicate gluten-free choices on their menus using a "GF" symbol or label. You may also see a ‘GFA’ symbol which means they can make the dish gluten-free if you ask (like ordering soup without a roll).

  • Opt for naturally gluten-free foods. This doesn’t have to be boring (like a plain old jacket spud). As a general rule, dishes made with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and unprocessed foods are less likely to contain gluten. And it’s fair to say the classier the establishment, the more likely it is they’ll make everything from scratch.

  • Avoid deep-fried food (most of the time). Deep-fried dishes often pose a risk. Firstly, they may have batter (containing wheat) but even if they’re gluten-free you’ll have potential cross-contamination because of shared oil (i.e. other gluten-containing items being used in the same fryer). This includes chips. Unless they guarantee they're using separate fryers, don’t chance it.

Gluten-free chips at Holy Carrot
These chips at Holy Carrot in London are cooked in a gluten-free fryer

Handling Cross-Contamination Concerns


A major concern for people with coeliac disease is cross-contamination (or cross-contact as it’s sometimes known). It is essential to discuss these concerns with the restaurant staff to ensure your food remains gluten-free. Be sure to address the following potential risks:


Gluten-free afternoon tea at Tortworth Court
This gluten-free afternoon tea was prepared completely separately to avoid cross-contact

  • Cooking surfaces. Grills, ovens, and shared utensils may introduce gluten through contact with gluten-containing items. Ask about the restaurant's practices to minimise cross-contamination (e.g., separate grill, toaster, chopping board and so on). I’ll never forget a Xmas Eve where I made my dietary needs very clear and was given a dish with a crunchy topping. After I’d eaten some, I asked the server what the crunchy bits were. She chirpily replied, “Oh, I chopped your vegetables on the bread board!” Needless to say, Xmas was ruined.

  • Utensils and serving dishes. Shared utensils and serving dishes can introduce gluten into otherwise gluten-free dishes. Ensure that the restaurant is aware of this risk and request that separate utensils and dishes are used. Be sure no-one’s taken a spoon from a gluten-containing dish and used it in a non-gluten containing one. If you’re going up to a buffet, make sure you’re first in the queue and don’t go back for seconds.

  • Food preparation and storage. Contamination may occur within preparation and storage areas. Confirm that the restaurant follows gluten-free best practices, such as designated storage spaces and separate cutting boards.

  • In cafes, buy separately wrapped items like sandwiches and brownies to be absolutely sure your food hasn't come into contact with gluten.


Ali Walsh with a gluten-free chicken sandwich
I love this chicken sandwich! It's often available in local shops. Here I'm in a charity cafe.

Final Thoughts

 

Eating out doesn’t have to be a nightmare when you have coeliac disease. Follow these tips and you can enjoy a wide range of gluten-free dining experiences without worry. It may take time; it definitely helps to have a few eateries that get to know you so you can eat at places you trust. But be brave because you'll reap the rewards. Just look at that happy face!


Gluten-free food at Station 26, Brixton
Enjoying the gluten-free fare at Station 26 in Brixton, London

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Hi! Great to have you here...

My name's Ali and I help people on gluten-free diets have a better, easier and healthier lifestyle. 

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