Several years ago after a week of business travel, my husband picked me up at the airport and we headed for our favorite Thai restaurant for dinner. This little eatery has become a safe haven for me. I have dined there many times and developed a relationship with a knowledgeable waitress, Michelle, and the manager, Matt. My husband and I befriended the bartender, Charlie, and enjoy chatting with him while waiting to be seated. Even though they don’t have a gluten-free menu, most of their dishes are naturally gluten-free or could be adapted by using wheat-free tamari. One of my favorites was a rice noodle dish filled with veggies and shrimp.
Me and my husband, Dave
On this particular occasion, the restaurant was pretty quiet with only a few tables filled when we arrived. Dave and I had so much to catch up on; my travel adventures and updates on our family and business. Michelle wasn’t working, but Charlie came to the table to take our order. We ordered our usual favorites and continued the conversation over a glass of wine. The entrees arrived and we dug in. As soon as I took a bite, it dawned on me that I didn’t request the wheat-free tamari. Charlie knew I needed to have that option, but he forgot, too, since I didn’t mention it. He felt horrible about it and of course I did, too. We left immediately and well you know the rest of the story… so sick.
This was totally my fault. I let my guard down, got too comfortable and made assumptions. I learned a few valuable lessons the hard way. The silver lining? I get to share my learnings with you so you can avoid making the same mistake. Here are some tips to try out next time you go out to eat.
Try this: Always be accountable for your own health
Instead of: Getting comfortable with your environment and letting your guard down
Whether you’re at home or dining out, one thing remains the same - things happen. You never know when a manufacturer will change a product’s ingredients or if your “go-to” server or chef will be absent. Your health is your responsibility. As any fencer would tell you, be “on guard!”
Try this: Ask for their help
Instead of: Demanding special services
At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s safe to say that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. People are more inclined to work with you if you talk with them, not at them. Remember that servers and chefs are the ticket to getting a safe gluten-free meal. If you make a connection with them, they’ll be eager to help you get the accommodations you need and are more likely to be honest with you if the restaurant is not able to provide you with a safe meal.
Try this: Put yourself in their shoes
Instead of: Getting defensive and thinking that they should “get it.”
Empathy works both ways. Waiting tables can be a thankless, demanding job and many times the staff doesn’t receive adequate training. When you ask for help, do so in a calm manner. You want them for you, not against you.
It’s easy to get frustrated when people don’t get our gluten-free needs, but it’s sometimes understandable, too. If a person isn’t gluten-free themselves or doesn't have a close relationship with someone who is, the gluten-free diet isn’t a part of their everyday lives and requires more attention and time to grasp what it really means. Remember how you felt when you were diagnosed? The gluten-free diet seems pretty overwhelming. It’s even more difficult to navigate when it’s not something that’s regularly required for you. Basically, be patient with the server or chef. It might be the first time they’re hearing about the gluten-free diet.
Try this: Plan ahead
Instead of: Relying on past experiences and making assumptions
Set yourself up for success by having some provisions with you… always. If you can, call ahead and speak with the manager, chef and hostess during a non-rush hour. It’s up to us as the diners to give them enough information and advance notice so they can have the opportunity to be successful at their jobs, too. It might go without saying, but by planning ahead and not relying on past experiences, you can avoid making the same error I did when assuming that I did not need to ask for the wheat-free tamari. No matter where we eat or how comfortable we are with a restaurant, we always have to be on our toes when it comes to self-managing a serious genetic autoimmune disease.
Try this: Tell it like it is. Explain to them that you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’) and that maintaining the gluten-free diet is not a choice for you.
Instead of: Only asking for the gluten-free menu with no additional comments or questions
Be clear about your needs. Advocate for yourself and tell them you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and that your gluten-free diet is a medical necessity. By acknowledging that you’re doing it for your health and not for weight loss or the perceived health benefits, you’ll be more likely to be taken seriously instead of being dismissed as a fad dieter.
Be patient - getting savvy at dining away from home takes time and practice. It helps to also find a restaurant that is trained through the Beyond Celiac GREAT Kitchens program, which consists of online courses that teach safe gluten-free food preparation practices. You can check it out for yourself through our mini course, A Taste of GREAT.
I encourage you to connect with Beyond Celiac and other community members on Facebook and Twitter. You can help others who share similar concerns about dining out. You might even learn a new trick or two for yourself!