Ask Shelley Case: Eating Out – Resources & Tips

Question: I just got diagnosed with celiac disease and my two children also have food allergies. Can you give me any tips on eating out safely… and easily?

Answer: Eating out can be a real challenge, especially when you are first learning about the gluten-free diet, so I recommend mastering the basics of the diet before venturing out to eat in restaurants. But once you’re ready to eat, there are a growing number of restaurants that are gluten-free (GF) friendly. Many have a GF menu or they’re willing to make adaptations and substitutions in order to meet the needs of the GF customer. Also it’s exciting to see initiatives like the Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) from the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) that includes educational and training materials for restaurants and their staff. Once they meet specific criteria they are listed on the GFRAP website so that individuals can search participating restaurants in North America by restaurant name or city and type of cuisine. Check out

There are many other great resources to help you eat out and travel safely:

1. The Celiac Scene™ features a free database and downloadable maps of restaurants that locals with celiac disease trust in cities across the USA and Canada. Owned and updated by an individual with celiac disease. Many restaurants bear the special symbol of the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program.

2. is another free online global directory of over 6000 GF listings of restaurants, bakeries, hotels, resorts, spas, cruises and more. Recommendations are submitted by individuals with celiac disease or others following a GFD, as well as individual GF eating establishments.

3. has a variety of resources on safe GF travel and dining. One is a great book called Let’s Eat Out with Celiac and Food Allergies that provides practical information on eating out in regular and ethnic restaurants. It includes 7 international cuisines with hundreds of menus items showcasing common ingredients, hidden allergens and food preparation techniques used by chefs and restaurants. In addition they have cuisine specific pocket size guides that include sample menus, menu dish descriptions, preparation techniques, quick reference guides and questions to ask to ensure safe meals. Another handy resource is the multi-lingual phrase pocket guide that has over 1200 translations from English to French, Spanish, German and Italian. The phrases include dining requests, ingredients, specific preparation requests, sample menus and over 300 health phrases in 4 languages. They have also just released new iPhone/iPod touch applications for some of their resources.

Listen to my podcast (scroll down to podcast #3) with Kim Koeller, co-author of “Let’s Eat Out: Your Passport to Living Gluten-Free and Allergy-Free.” It features an informative discussion on Kim’s newly released revised edition on eating out in regular and ethnic restaurants around the world and tips to eat out safely.

4. Triumph Dining has an Essential GF Restaurant Guide that features over 5000 restaurants across the US listed in a state by state directory and every listing is verified and updated each year by an individual with celiac disease. And the Guide has 80 GF lists from various chain restaurants. Triumph Dining also has laminated wallet sized dining cards for 10 different cuisines. One side of the card is in English and the other side in the foreign language.

5. Bob and Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining and Travel Club is a company specializing in assisting individuals on a GFD. They offer escorted GF getaways to resorts, on cruises and tours of exotic places all over the world. All the arrangements are taken care of and you can eat safely in these various locations with fellow gluten-free travelers while enjoying a wonderful vacation. My husband and I booked a one week trip with Bob and Ruth a few years ago to the Caribbean. We stayed at the Club Med and not only was the food fantastic and safe, but we met so many nice people.


Here are a few tips for a safe and successful dining experience for those with celiac disease, as well as any intolerance or dietary restriction:

1. Call the restaurant the day before or earlier in the day and ask to speak to the chef or manager to discuss meal options. They can often substitute other ingredients or create an alternative menu or menu item.

2. If possible try to avoid peak meal times. Dining early or late will allow more time and easier access to the staff that can answer questions and usually accommodate special needs.

3. Explain your dietary restrictions briefly. The terms celiac disease is still often unfamiliar to many to those in the food service industry. So I often find it easier to explain that you have a serious food allergy and will get very sick if your order is not handled properly. Indicate that you must not have any  foods or ingredients containing gluten which means no items made with wheat flour, breading, croutons, etc. It often helps to ask to speak to the manager or chef to make sure the order gets placed properly and prepared safely.

4. No matter whether the restaurant has a special GF menu or some GF items on the menu, it is still essential to ask specific questions. You need to inquire about cooking methods, specific ingredients that are in the item and how it is served.

5. Request that your food be prepared on a clean grill or in a clean pan. If this is a problem, suggest cooking it on clean aluminum foil.

6. When they bring your meal make sure you ask again if this is the special meal and were your instructions followed.

7. Don’t forget to thank the server, chef and manager. Leave a generous tip for good service and patronize the restaurant again.

Tips adapted from Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide by Shelley Case and Restaurant Dining by the Gluten Intolerance Group.

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6 Responses to “Ask Shelley Case: Eating Out – Resources & Tips”

  1. Joan Panepinto Says:

    Hi Shelley.
    I think it is wonderful that you are now sharing vital information via Be Free For Me website. Do the GIG & CSA groups/chapters know about this site? I feel all newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease should be made aware of this free & easy way to access reliable gluten-free information.

    Have a great day.
    Joan Panepinto RN,RD

  2. K Davis Says:

    Your blog is most positive, informative and usually right on accurate, so I was surprised to read you proffering inaccurate information about GF dining out in your blog of Sept. 8, 2009. Your statement about explaining GF: “So I often find it easier to explain that you have a serious food allergy and will get very sick if your order is not handled properly.” If celiac is to be understood and effectively understood, saying it is an allergy, especially when used by those with the disease, does not aid our cause properly. Celiac is NOT an allergy, it is a deficiency, disease, or condition at the very least, if you do not wish to use the more truthful or accurate word. If gluten intolerants sprpead misinformation about celiac, we work against ourselves. The same thought is expressed using the same phrasing, but instead of calling it a “food allergy” call it what it is, a “health and medical condition.” Tis best to be accurate when explaining [our GF] medical needs than to be generally inaccurate. It makes the point stronger when it is true.

  3. Kathleen Reale Says:

    Hi K-

    Thanks for your post and your thoughts!

    I do agree that celiacs everywhere need to spread good solid info about celiac disease awareness. It is something I practice everyday – both on a personal and professional level.

    Shelley Case, who wrote the blog posting, is also a true advocate of spreading celiac disease awareness. She is a fantastic resource and her book, “The Gluten Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide” is one of the best resources out there.

    I can’t speak for Shelley, but from my own perspective, I believe that she may have suggested referring to celiac disease as a “serious food allergy” in situations where you “know in your gut” the wait staff you just explained celiac disease and the gluten-free diet to just doesn’t “get it”. I myself have referred to my celiac diagnosis “like a bad food allergy” if I am given that “blank stare / I have no idea what you are talking about” look on a face from a waiter or waitress. I think we all know the look.

    However, I do usually speak to the manager or chef (as Shelley suggested) and explain celiac disease / gluten free diet. If it is a reputable or chain restaurant I send an email after my visit asking them to consider a GF menu and the training of their staff.

    What are others thoughts on this? How many celiacs have described their celiac diagnosis as a “serious food allergy” to wait staff?

    Be Free!

  4. Amy Says:

    If I might add a Tip #8 — always say thank you and let your server know how very much you appreciated them helping me eat out. I also almost always send a quick thank you email/note to the establishment or turn in one of the comment cards saying thank you. I figure it can’t hurt to reward the behavior you want more of! 🙂

  5. Christine Says:

    In a perfect world, we would all be able to explain what celiac ACTUALLY is to a restaurant employee and they would understand. Many will listen and might understand. However, when eating out with our 9-year old son (the celiac), we have at times resorted to explaining it as a “bad food allergy” because you know when you get that “deer caught in the headlights” stare that sometimes it’s better to go with something they might be able to grasp. We always start with “celiac disease” to give it it’s proper due and go from there. You can usually tell if your server and/or manager is willing to listen and understand. If not, I see nothing wrong with occasionally “dumbing it down” to get what we need at that moment! And by the way, in the two years since he’s been diagnosed, we’ve come across more and more restaurant/hotel employees who DO have knowledge of the disease and are prepared to deal with it. So–the message is getting out there somehow.

  6. K Davis Says:

    Kathleen Reale, thanks for taking time to express yourself clearly.

    Agreed, some “just don’t get it at all” with blank stare, etc. LIKENING celiac to a serious food allergy is a good alternative to calling it an allergy (which we know it isn’t). There isn’t only one approach but in all cases, it’s my belief celiacs do best always telling the truth.

    Being Positive, Polite, Persistent but not overdone makes it most clear and is well received. Agree with you, too, talking to the manager upfront helps ton, especially if it’s your first visit to the eatery. Truthful thank yous with details of what you appeciated about the certain way something was done for you, mentioning the chef, kitchen’s attention and the server by name goes far. If you spoke to the manager, letting them know what the staff did well before you comment about missed areas is, in my experience, recieved well. A little bragging about a job well done at the time it’s done makes it very clear how important ALL the detatils are.

    I hope to see celiac mainstreamed in US, like in Ireland, and not in the distant future.

    Thanks for the work you do! KD

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