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Defensive Eating and Dining Out with Food Allergies

by Sarah Stout

With the increase in food allergies in recent years, there is growing awareness of those that require special dietary accommodations. Eating in restaurants can be a nightmare for sufferers of food allergies, but with preparation, we can feel comfortable and safe when dining out. One recommendation is to plan ahead of time by contacting the restaurant in advance to speak with management or the head chef or finding their menu online to review choices before arriving. Being prepared makes it easier to ask how the meals are prepared (i.e., in a separate area, with special cooking utensils, in a designated kitchen, etc.). Many restaurants today are aware of the increasing number of individuals with allergies and sensitivities and want to please their guests. In most circumstances, having a pleasant and incident-free dining experience will lead to repeat visits and referrals to others with food allergies. Public awareness efforts have led to victories such as celiac disease being recognized by the Americans with Disability Act, which requires restaurants to make a reasonable accommodation to those requesting modification.

For gluten-free dining, it is best to avoid fast-food restaurants, not only because the number of ingredients makes it daunting to determine whether a meal option is gluten-free, but there is a strong likelihood of cross-contamination and lack of designated preparation areas. This means that the restaurants employees prepare safe food in the same work area as the allergenic foods, using the same utensils and wearing the same gloves, thereby increasing the risk of exposure. Some larger chain restaurants do offer options and will make reasonable accommodations for those with gluten allergies by offering gluten-free bread, changing gloves to prepare the meal and cooking the items on a protective surface such as aluminum foil. However, it is important to note that restaurants such as these still have a high potential for cross-contamination because they are working quickly to prepare a meal for a line of people. Scraping off the contaminating food does not ensure it is safe.

One way to minimize risk is politely explain the allergies and need for accommodation, such as asking an employee to change their gloves. In an open kitchen concept restaurant, we may even be able to watch them prepare the meal. When visiting a fine dining establishment, there are a few key things to remember. The first is to avoid dishes that are served with gravy, au jus, sauce or relishes. Try to order the protein simply grilled, baked or broiled, be certain to ask the server to make sure it is not dredged in flour or cooked with other foods containing gluten. This is when it is most appropriate to call in advance to speak with a manager rather than relying on wait staff to ensure safety.

Another tip is to order lots of vegetables and request that they be served raw or steamed. We can also request them to be sautéed or grilled in extra virgin olive oil, but make sure to ask, again, that no seasonings or sauces are added. Many restaurants will offer to cook the protein and/or veggies on a sheet of aluminum foil to ensure they are not cross-contaminated by the grill itself.

When ordering salads, it is best to assert the need for gluten-free accommodation, even if the salad does not list those ingredients, because restaurants do not always list every ingredient, including those such as croutons or tortilla strips. Feel free to offer examples by indicating your preference for ABC (avocado, bean, chicken) salad with no croutons and grilled chicken instead of fried. Be wary of salad dressings and order simple oil and vinegar or ask for some limes or lemons to squeeze over the salad, as many restaurants use soy sauce for flavor or flour as a thickening agent. If we frequent the restaurant often, we might inquire about vinaigrettes that meet our dietary needs. In a worst-case scenario, top the salad with salsa, watered-down hummus or mashed-up avocado or guacamole.

Consider avoiding other menu options that might contain gluten such as pasta, soup, chili, stew, rice pilaf, fried food, stuffed meat or items containing malted vinegar. Dessert options are limited when dining out, but it is becoming more common to see gluten-free flourless cake, sorbets ice cream or other gluten-free items on the menu. Fresh fruit is always a wonderful and healthy option, as well.

There are some restaurants that seek gluten-free kitchen certification, which is a wonderful way for those with gluten allergies to feel at ease while dining away from home. With a little preparation, a wonderful, satisfying and safe meal can be had by all.

Dr. Sarah Stout, owner of Reinventing Wellness, in Ballston Lake, is a doctor of naturopathy, certified in clinical nutrition, holistic health counseling, raw food detox and raw food cooking. She is offering a free presentation, Living Gluten Free Inside and Out, at 7 p.m., Oct. 10. For location and registration, call 518-410-9401 or visit ReinventingWellness.com. View recipes at Tinyurl.com/SarahStoutRecipes.

This article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Natural Awakenings Magazine. Click to read more.