Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eating Out-Precautions

Being gluten free means being extra careful when it comes to eating out. Since I've been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, I'm quite used to asking about broths used, meat products, etc. even if they are not listed on the menu. Even vegetable soups can have chicken or beef broth in them, since the chef is just thinking of flavor, not us vegetarians. So, when it came time to add gluten into the questions at restaurants, two things happened. One, I was much more adamant about getting it right. Now, if there happens to be chicken stock in something and I find out later, I may be very upset, but I won't be sick for days. If there happens to be flour in that soup, I will be more than just upset.

The second thing about eating out gluten free is that I am much more picky about where I eat out. Yes, I know I can have a salad anywhere, but that gets old really fast. I have even resorted to bringing my own food to a restaurant. I found a great local Ethiopian restaurant, and Indian restaurants, with excellent food, but no bread without wheat to scoop it up with. One serves injera, which is a great bread made with teff, but they also add wheat flour. The other serves Naan, which is a wheat flat bread. I just stop by a local Mexican market and buy fresh corn tortillas to scoop up my veggies. I've found that most restaurants are OK with it.

And even though I take precautions, it's not a guarantee that I won't get glutened. It's happened before and it will happen again. There is no way to prevent it, except to eat at home or bring my own food at all times. I just can't live like that. So I take my chances. And I also eat at home a lot more than I used to. Eating out is a treat for me now, even more than it used to be. And it's a treat for my kids since they don't get to go as often either.

A few things I've learned:

1. If the waiter does not know what gluten is, walk away. It's way too easy for them to contaminate something and not even know. I recently went to a restaurant that served gluten-free pasta. When the waitress told me they were out of the pasta, she suggested eggplant parmesan, it didn't have any gluten. What? I asked her if she knew what gluten was, she said, "Of's some kind of sauce." Goodbye!

2. Always ask about the fries. Most fries are cooked in the same oil as onion rings, chicken fingers, etc. This not only leaves gluten in the grease, but meat also. If you're not into either, don't eat them. And never assume that fries are not coated with something. A lot of fries that are bought frozen have a coating on them to make them crispy, which can contain gluten. Ask the wait staff to check the bag/box they are in if they are not 100% sure.

3. Even when ordering a salad, which seems to be the safest of all--beware. Salad dressing can contain gluten, including soy sauce. If they make the dressing there, that's your best bet. Also, order without croutons and if your salad comes with them anyway, make sure you get a new salad, not just the same one with the croutons picked off. Explain that it's like a peanut allergy, which people seem to understand a bit more.

4. Even well-meaning friends can be dangerous. Unless you know for sure that your friend is aware and totally understands your needs, you may want to be cautious. Why is it that so many people think that "just a little" won't hurt? Even when I was just vegetarian, and had emphasized a no-fish policy, I had a friend use fish sauce in the dinner she prepared and then declare, "I didn't think a little bit would matter."

I recently told someone I needed a vegetarian and gluten-free dinner, so she made spaghetti...Hmmm. I have also had things offered with soy sauce, crust, etc. Now, not everyone is doing it on purpose. Some people are just not aware of all the hidden sources of gluten. When visiting friends, always emphasize what you need, and always offer to bring your own to share with others. It saves the embarrassment of having to turn down your hostess's food. Bring a roasted-vegetable tart, flourless chocolate cake, brown-rice pasta salad, etc. I even have friends request the tart and chocolate cake when I'm invited now.

5. Finally, don't let this keep you inside and afraid. When I first began this way of life, I was so afraid to eat out, I practically became a hermit. I learned to cook things I needed, but I didn't even want to experiment. Once I got over feeling sorry for myself, I realized that I could experiment all I wanted. And eat out...I just have to be more careful. More and more restaurants are recognizing gluten-free needs and it's getting easier to buy things in grocery stores, Trader Joe's, etc. And yes, if you eat out there is a chance you'll get glutened. But it's a chance I'm willing to take rather than close myself up in the house. Even those with severe peanut allergies eat out, they just prepare themselves in case they are exposed.

I have found a few restaurants where I feel comfortable eating. It feels great to know that I can rely on these places, but even then I have to be aware. I have learned to make great food for myself and my kids. And even though neither one of my kids is GF, they are very happy to eat everything I've made that is GF. They love to experiment with new foods, and understand my needs. It's important to make sure that your friends and family are on your side, it's a long journey. But it can be an easier one if you take care.

Good luck.

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