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Mastering Eating Out: Is Your Meal Really Gluten Free?

Since going gluten free you may feel that eating out has become more of a hassle than an enjoyment.  It’s too overwhelming and just not worth it.  I completely understand that initial reaction because I’ve been there and use to dread going out to eat myself.

What I have learned over the years, is, with time, knowledge, and experience, you will enjoy eating out again.  If you’re new to the gluten-free lifestyle, stick to restaurants that have gone through a gluten-free certification process.  This will ensure you will be served a safe, gluten-free meal and most importantly help you gain confidence and knowledge in ordering such a meal.

It’s not all about swapping out gluten foods for the gluten-free alternative.  If that were the case, eating out would be a cinch.  Cross-contamination, I think, is the bigger issue when eating out.  Here are just three ways your gluten-free foods can be contaminated:

  1. Cooked in shared fryers with breaded items
  2. Contact with crumbs and gluten debris on work surfaces
  3. Sharing of cooking utensils

Another issue that can be overlooked by inexperienced, restaurant workers is “hidden” sources of gluten.  Most people think of gluten and think of flour-based products such as pastas, breads, and flour added to soups and sauces for thickening.

They don’t think about…

  • Broths
  • Marinades
  • Breadcrumbs added to meatballs or crab cakes.

Most restaurants nowadays offer a gluten free menu. Can you truly trust that you will be served a safe, gluten-free meal?  Not always and here’s why I say that.  It comes down to the two things I mentioned above, cross-contamination and “hidden” sources of gluten. 

I have had two such experiences with “hidden” sources of gluten and want to share one of them with you.  Without my extensive knowledge of and experience with the gluten-free diet, I would have trusted the convincing server that my son’s meal was indeed gluten free and safe to eat.

The first experience was at a national chain that provided a gluten free menu.  My son ordered seared ahi tuna.  I knew the tuna was safe because it was tuna encrusted with plain, sesame seeds and was being cooked in a clean pan.  When the server brought my son’s plate, I noticed they served it with a dipping sauce that looked like it was soy sauce-based.  I asked what was in the sauce and sure enough it contained soy sauce.  I asked if it was made with wheat-free, soy sauce.  The waitress told me, with convincing confidence, the chef wouldn’t serve it if it weren’t gluten free because he was “very knowledgeable” about the gluten free diet.  Not convinced, I had her go ask the chef if the soy sauce contained wheat.  She came back and told me it didn’t.  I still wasn’t convinced it was gluten free so I had her go back and ask the chef to read the label on the soy sauce and look for wheat.  She came back surprised that the soy sauce did indeed contain wheat.  If I hadn’t known to ask that one pressing questions, my son would have ate the dipping sauce.  In my10+ years of eating out gluten free, I’ve come to learn that most restaurants use wheat based, soy sauce.  Soy sauce is one of those products that contain “hidden” gluten and frequently is overlooked.

This is the experience and knowledge you gain as you live and learn the gluten-free lifestyle.  Don’t doubt your instincts or knowledge even when the server, chef, or manager convincingly tells you with confidence your meal is in fact gluten free.  Ask to read the labels and use the opportunity to educate and bring awareness to those restaurants that are still learning what it truly means to be gluten free.

Amy Macklin (Gluten Free Roots) is a registered dietitian nutritionist that specializes in helping families transition their children to the gluten- free lifestyle. She believes gluten-free children deserve to live life without limitations and believes they should not be defined or held back by their diet.

Amy is holding a free, educational tele-class for parents titled “Fitting Your Gluten-Free Child Into A Gluten-Filled World: A How-To Guide For Parents”.

To learn more or register for this free event CLICK HERE or visit