Celiac has turned me into a seasoned detective. I've learned that dining out is anything but simple anymore, and I now conduct an entire investigation before I consider stepping foot into a restaurant. Is there a dedicated GF menu? Is there more than one thing labeled GF outside of a 'side salad'? Is literally everything on the menu fried? Are those buffalo wings falsely claiming to be GF and actually fried in a non-dedicated fryer and subject to cross contamination? Unfortunately, unless you only eat in certified gluten free facilities for the rest of your life, which is fairly unrealistic, the process won't get any easier. I do promise though, that it will become more of a routine and feel (slightly) less annoying as time goes on.
Do Your Research.
First thing’s first. Get to your research. In a perfect world, you'd always be in charge of pinpointing the lunch destination of the day at your favorite GF hotspot where you're a regular, familiar with the menu which includes a plethora of safe options, the waitstaff is knowledgeable about cross contamination and you're even greeted with a question about whether there are any allergies to be aware of (currently dreaming of Bistango, my absolute favorite spot for Italian grub in NYC).
Of course, it's impossible to get your way all of the time, so sometimes you'll need to go along with predetermined plans. Hopefully your family and friends keep your dietary restrictions in mind when making decisions, but there's always group birthday dinners or other social events where your needs aren't necessarily on the forefront of the planning process. Don't be afraid to ask ahead of time for the name of the restaurant where you'll be eating. This will allow you time to start researching the restaurant, which can include checking the website for the menu and looking for GF symbols or options, calling to speak with a manager if you have questions, or looking up gluten free reviews (the site www.findmeglutenfree.com has been a lifesaver). I always feel most comfortable when I take the time to research the place in advance and stake out possible menu items I could order. Sometimes I feel pressured for time when I sit down with other people who may be able to more quickly decide what to eat without needing to give it much tho.
Change your APPROACH.
One of the biggest changes I have made when dining out since becoming gluten free is disciplining myself to only look at parts of the menu that I know I can potentially order from. Most times, I won't bother looking at the appetizer section, unless salads are included here. I've found that appetizer menus are typically comprised of items that are fried, breaded or chock full of gluten in general (think dumplings, flatbreads, calamri, etc.) and while the old me loved those foods, the Celiac in me doesn't want to be reminded of what I cannot eat anymore. I won't let my eyes get drawn to the pasta or sandwich sections, unless, of course, I know the restaurant offers safe GF options (to which I say, bring it on!) I like to look for dishes that can be safe with little to no modifications required. I pick one or two "starting points" for these dishes, where I choose a menu item that looks appealing, so I call over my server and inundate with questions about whether or not the dish is safe for me to consume, internally praying that I will get a positive response, but also preparing for disappointment. My favorite starting points tend to be to be any scallop or shrimp dish, or other fish. If all else fails, I'll default to a salad.
Learn the menu.
Regardless of the indicators on the menu, always be sure to let the server know about your dietary needs before ordering. I've learned that even though a menu item may say something is GF, it's still very important to let your server know that you need to ensure the meal is GF and that you are Celiac, as it is possible that items still need to be prepared with modifications to ensure there isn't any gluten present. Educating the waitstaff as much as possible is always a good idea. Just remember, you need to be your own advocate when ordering! Below are some of the various ways I have seen GF options offered in restaurants. It is important to also keep in mind that many places are offering GF options that appeal more to people who opt to avoid gluten voluntarily, where cross contamination may not be an issue. If you have Celiac, you need to be aware of menu items that could be labeled GF but may not necessarily be when all things are considered (mainly a shared fryer).
Gluten Free Menu - More and more restaurants are offering dedicated gluten free menus which is always a welcomed bonus when dining out. Kindly ask the hostess before being seated if there's a special menu you can have. I've started to see a few places incorporating the GF menu into the "regular" menu (hello feeling like a normal person again!). Even with a dedicated menu, you should still ask questions if you aren't sure about anything and remind the waitstaff of your restrictions with your order.
Gluten Free Indicator - While certain places may not offer a dedicated menu, many restaurants are including some sort of GF symbol next to menu items that are GF as prepared, or those that can be modified to be GF. Still be alert for anything that can be fried - cross contamination is a very prominent issue in restaurants even when labeled GF.
No Gluten Free Menu/Indications - Use your best judgement here and ask lots of question! If you feel as though the waitstaff is not able to provide you the information you need, including all of the ingredients, or whether certain dishes are safe, ask to have them to "confirm with the chef" or kindly request to speak to with manager. It may seem a little embarrassing or uncomfortable to take this extra step, but keep in mind you don't want to mess with your health and accidentally eat something that will make you sick later!
Celiac Warning - While many places offer GF options, I have noticed that many menus provide a warning at the bottom of the menu (regular or GF menu) noting that even those items that are marked GF may not be suitable for someone with Celiac and that kitchens prepare food that contains gluten/other allergens in a shared space. As everything else in life, you should exercise your own judgement before ordering. However, I often find myself OK to order items from these places, as long as I alert the waitstaff about my Celiac.
Gluten Friendly - This one always gives me a good chuckle and seems seriously counter-intuitive. However, this is how some restaurants are labeling their GF options.
You may find yourself in a situation where your only option is a salad, with grilled chicken and a dressing of olive oil and vinegar while your company gets to indulge in something richer in flavor. As a famous saying goes from my stepdad's mother, "a meal is just a stomach filler". Sometimes, you'll find yourself needing to just deal with a situation where the meal isn't the greatest so that you can still be out with family and friends. If you find yourself in this situation, just out and treat yourself to a big bowl of ice cream later. That helps to balance everything out.