This post was probably the hardest for me to write in this series, not because there are no gluten-free restaurants out there but because I have had the most trouble going truly gluten-free in this area! It is also probably the longest of the posts. Remember, there is no such thing as being gluten-free 99% of the time! You have to be gluten-free 100% of the time. One itsy bitsy exposure, can set off an autoimmune response that could take up to 6 months to heal! I’ll give you the good news later in the post but for now, let me explain why this post is so heavy on my heart. I want to drive this point “home” so you don’t have to suffer like I did before I figured all this out. Make sure you read til the end because I am covering all kinds of situations and the good news is towards the end of the post. For me, this post was intense to write and may be intense to read but please do take the time to read the whole thing. It might save you from months (or longer) of troubleshooting your continuing symptoms.
Eating at Restaurants
When I first went gluten-free I thought to myself, “no problem, I’ll just order gluten-free foods and I’ll be fine.” I had no idea about the cross-contamination issues I was about to discover. Before I go on, I would like to re-post a video from my cross-contamination article a couple of years ago to help you understand what I’m talking about:
So, I set out to my favorite restaurants thinking I was going to be just fine. However, it wasn’t long before I saw that overall, these restaurants and workers didn’t have a clue what I meant when I said I needed my meal to be truly gluten-free. I remember the first time I ventured out to one of my then favorite Mexican restaurants. I thought it would be fine so I just explained to them that I needed a corn tortilla (making sure first that the corn tortilla was 100% corn) that hasn’t been placed on the same grill as the wheat tortillas and I asked that they hold the chips as I knew the tortilla chips were fried in the same oil as their gluten containing foods. It really looked like they understood so I began to dream about the beautiful gluten-free taco I would be placing my teeth into in just a few moments when my meal came. The corn tortilla was there BUT I was horrified (yes, you can get horrified when your order is ruined by something like this) when I saw that they put tortilla chips on the top of my taco making the rest of the meal contaminated. So, as hard as it was, I flagged the waiter and asked if he could please ask the chef to start all over again because the chips have contaminated my taco and stressed to him that I could not just have the chips removed; I needed a whole new plate with NO chips and please make sure the corn tortilla is not placed on the same grill as a regular flour tortilla. This was embarrassing for me to do but I knew I needed to do this. So, focusing on whether the chips were on my new plate or not, I get my order brought to me again. Awesome! No chips. I am so hungry at this point, I dive right into my taco. I notice that the tortilla has a bit of a “chew” to it. Oh no! I call the waiter over and ask (after spitting out this bite) if the tortilla was corn or flour and they said that it was definitely flour. Noooo! Okay, I calmed myself down and rationalized that I didn’t actually swallow so I asked for them to try one last time. They got it right the 3rd time and by then I decided never to try that restaurant again. Later that evening I got all my gluten symptoms and realized that even though I didn’t actually swallow, I was contaminated that day.
Then there was the episode at another Mexican restaurant (these tend to have the best chance of having a lot of veggies and fewer ingredients for cross-contamination) but I ended up with another bad deal. This was a restaurant that puts the food together for you while you are in line and then you pay for it. They did put new gloves on after I said I needed it to be gluten-free (so immediately I thought I had it made). They got new lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream, etc. from new containers during the assembly process. Here’s the problem; after they did all that, I asked if I could have a little bit more salsa so they scooped the salsa out of the same place where all the other orders were being assembled where the ladle touches the flour tortillas of other people’s orders! I thought, “oh, that was just one small incidence, I’m not going to make a big deal about it.” As I ate my meal, in the back of my mind I thought there is no way that little bit of cross-contamination could bother me so I enjoyed my meal. But you guessed it, later that night, all my gluten symptoms came full force. I haven’t been to another Mexican restaurant since. And that is sad.
I rarely eat out anymore to lessen my risk of contamination, but I have one more story to share with you. It was a little Middle Eastern restaurant that focused solely on meat (well, there were a couple of side dishes but they were gluten-free except for the rolls for their sandwiches). They guaranteed the meat was gluten-free and the only gluten in the place supposedly would be the rolls. (Of course now I realize that most people only see “gluten” as bread and I no longer take their word for it unless they tell me they live with a Celiac or are a gluten intolerant person themselves or are otherwise very familiar with the seriousness of gluten exposure for the true gluten sensitive individual.) It was a very hard day that day and there was some type of celebration (someone’s birthday) and I wanted to feel like I was celebrating too. So my husband and I went to this place and tried really hard to make sure they knew we could not have anything touch the meat that could be associated with gluten. Their assembly area with the meat hanging was right behind the cashier so we could watch the whole process. Making sure you are truly gluten-free when eating out can get really discouraging at the beginning, and this episode was pretty much the last straw for me. I watched as they put on their gloves and started cutting the meat for our order. It was busy so they were also filling other orders. One of the other workers said that they forgot to put the bread on someone else’s plate so the one that was working on OUR order, grabbed a piece of bread, cut it on the cutting board before giving it to the other customer and then proceeded to place the meat from our order on the same cutting board where the bread was cut! There is a point in time where you are so run down by all of this emotionally, you just say a little “prayer” that you won’t get sick. Well, I got very sick that night and my friend who is also gluten sensitive got sick too (although I warned her that I thought it could have been contaminated). For my friend, it was immediate. Her eyes got red and she could barely stay awake and needed to go home, knowing she would soon experience all the stomach issues she gets with exposure. And that tipped me off that I would likely have mine kick in later that evening (usually when I would lay down to go to sleep) and I would be up for hours that night with serious systemic inflammation, including in my brain. My symptoms to gluten exposure include first stomach inflammation, followed by palpitations, dizziness, feeling like I am going to pass out, needing to stay up because the symptoms get worse when laying down, and then it stays like this until a few bathroom trips about 6 hours later. Then symptoms of dizziness, brain fog, forgetfulness, confusion, depression/anxiety, and insomnia rule for at least 5 days afterward, followed by 1-2 more weeks of brain fog, sluggishness and sluggish, or at times, impossible digestion. That was it. I would no longer eat out unless I went to a restaurant that had a dedicated area for gluten-free cooking.
LET ME GIVE YOU GOOD NEWS HERE – I HAVE NOT HAD THIS TYPE OF REACTION SINCE GOING TRULY GLUTEN FREE AND GRAIN FREE. AND THIS HAS BEEN FOR OVER A YEAR AND A HALF. (I have had some accidental exposure but it has been much less serious than what I used to experience as described above.)
Here’s where the good side of this post kicks in. I have good news and it continues to get better as time goes on. Let me explain:
PF Changs has a whole procedure to making sure they serve the gluten-free community well. I have only had one experience with them that didn’t go well after eating there. Of course, now that I am grain free, I don’t find much here I can have anymore but it was GREAT when I was transitioning to gluten-free. Here’s a good idea of what they do in order to protect their customers with allergies:
Just so you don’t think this restaurant is the only one out there who is working hard to keep those with gluten sensitivities/allergies safe, I would like to show you this walk-through with Tinsley from Celiebo.com:
I was also excited to find a list that has documented 100 gluten-free restaurants! Perhaps there is one in your area!
And you would never believe the best place I have ever found to be gluten-free and thoroughly enjoy my eating experience. It’s Disneyland (and I’m sure Disney World or any Disney facility)! They are so meticulous about making sure your meal is safe, it is crazy! I absolutely have not gotten sick and I had a PASS and visited a lot during the last two years! They spend extra time preparing your meal completely away from the main kitchen (you have to wait a little longer but it’s so worth it). There is one restaurant in Disneyland I visit that the chef actually goes downstairs to a completely gluten-free kitchen where she prepares my meal separately from the rest of my family. I felt so relieved and felt finally someone really cared! The meal pictured is just one of the beautiful meals I have had at Disneyland. I have actually had the best experience eating out at Disneyland than anywhere I have ever been and it has been consistent. So, if you need a break and can afford a gluten-free vacation without so much worry, Disney is great for this. Here’s a great website with videos and information all about gluten-free and Disneyland!
The way I decide where to eat (if I ever do go out) is to check reviews on the Internet of the restaurant I am going to in order to see if other gluten-free customers have been satisfied with their experience. One of my favorites (but not without problems) since I have been grain and gluten-free, is Outback Steakhouse. However, they so far don’t have the precautions the restaurants above do. Search for gluten-free friendly restaurants in your area and if you can’t find many that way, it’s usually helpful to stop by local health food stores which often know which restaurants in your area are most friendly to your gluten-free needs. I have also heard many warnings to be very careful about pizza places advertising gluten-free pizza because many times they still use the same ladles between both the regular and gluten-free pizzas. Make sure you talk to the manager and ask what precautions they take before you attempt to eat there. If they sound uncertain, don’t take the risk! The real sign of a restaurant worthy of your patronage is when the manager or one in charge obviously understands the risks of cross-contamination. I am sad to say that is still very rare. But you will know one when you visit it. It will be a breath of fresh air to hear of all the measures they take to keep you safe.
Eating at Social Gatherings
Now, we move onto an ever harder area and that is eating at someone else’s home or at a picnic. I wish I could give you better news but those beautiful fruit bowls that you assume are gluten-free just may have been cut on a cutting board previously used for cutting bread! We just can’t take chances. This goes for every one of the dishes someone else might be making for you unless they are gluten-free themselves and understand your needs.
This leads me to the hands-down, most difficult part of gluten-free for me and that is not being able to eat at someone else’s home even though they want to make sure they are making food especially safe for you. As you have been able to determine from the prior posts in this series, just cooking in the same pan as a pan used previously for pasta can be very contaminated.
So what do I do? I bring my own food and believe it or not, I am quite used to this and so are my friends and family. I usually also bring a dish that others can eat with me in order to share. This can be simple things like a watermelon or a vegetable dish or salad. I also have some favorite desserts I like to bring. When you are first starting out, remember you can “cheat” by getting gluten-free dessert mixes that you can bring “on the fly” to share with others. I still do this even if I am not going to eat the treats so I don’t contaminate my kitchen. (I would eat them if I were not grain and sugar-free.) Most of these treats are so good, it’s really hard to tell they are gluten-free and I have found most people don’t even care as long as it tastes good! You can find all kinds of dessert mixes here on my affiliate partner’s Amazon site.
I want to remind you once more that I am not just gluten-free anymore and my suggestions above are for the gluten-free transition, not a healing diet. Processed foods are not good for those attempting to heal disease. I have a link to the healing foods I use (or have been recommended to use) as the base for my healing diet here. But for the purposes of transitioning, I found the process much easier when being able to use these comfort foods without the gluten for a while. This choice will be entirely up to you and your doctor!
It is very hard to write these posts as they can be discouraging for some people. Keep in mind that your healing is worth all of this and over time, these stringent measures will be less necessary as your body heals. In the meantime, take all this at a pace you are ready for. I hope this post has helped you decide where to go to eat out and how to safely mingle in social situations.
The whole “Let’s Go Gluten Free” series can be found here.
Disclaimer: All posts are describing my personal journey through health issues and are in no way meant to guide anyone towards any method in particular. I am not a medical practitioner or have a dietary or medical license, and this blog is not intended to be taken as authoritative advice. Please see your doctor, or health professional before making any drastic diet changes! Also, occasionally I find others to partner with whom I have had tremendous help from and therefore, there may be paid advertisements and links to support them and help me financially run this website.