Dear Salty, I have been a vegetarian basically since the moment I read Charlotte’s Web in the third grade, and I’m pretty expert at locating and avoiding meat in menu descriptions. I’m also certifiably Midwestern Nice, so I tend to “make do” rather than order off-menu when I’m at a restaurant without vegetarian options.
I have recently been diagnosed (by an actual, medical doctor through actual, medical procedures) with a gluten allergy. Since then, I’ve been trying to stick to restaurants that can handle my particular set of peculiarities, but, like anyone with both friends and family, I am not 100-percent in charge of those choices.
What is the official, Salty-approved way of dining out when you can’t eat anything on the menu at your mother-in-law’s favorite restaurant? Prolonged interrogations of your server? Sad piles of lettuce with oil and vinegar? My own meal carried in in my handbag? A gluten-free protein bar from my purse gobbled in the bathroom?
Thanks for your wisdom,
Your particular restrictions make going out to eat more difficult, but not impossible. Hate to break it to you, but you’ll probably be eating a lot of side salads. Even as your friends and family learn more about your gluten allergy, they’re not always going to “get it.” Given what I’ve seen from friends with food allergies, you won’t be able to count on your kin not to choose Bready O’Brian’s Pasta Palace for the next family gathering.
That said, restaurants are getting more hip to the gluten-free and vegetarian thing. (Depending on where you live, of course.)
My biggest piece of advice, as usual, has to do with your attitude. There’s no need for you to be so apologetic or embarrassed about your allergies and dietary choices—speak up. As this guy with severe allergies wrote, don’t be sheepish about what you can and can’t eat.
When customers tell me their allergies, I’m making it my job to make sure they don’t die. I take this very seriously, as any server with a functional brain should. Even if you think you’re choosing a dish without gluten in it, tell me that allergy anyway so I can relay it to the kitchen. You never know what ingredient might not be listed on the menu, so make it clear to your server what you can’t eat (a seemingly gluten-free stew might have a splash of soy sauce, for example). If they don’t seem to get it, ask to see a manager.
You’ll feel like a pain in the ass, probably, but the alternative is what… getting violently sick? Being a hangry brat? Chewing a cucumber while everyone else has full plates? State your allergies up front, and though it might take a couple extra minutes, you’ll end up with a real meal in front of you, which is less awkward in the long run than not eating.
My other advice is more logistical. If you can, scope out a restaurant’s menu ahead of time to get a jump start thinking about what dishes you could actually eat. If the pickings look slim, eat a small meal before you go so you won’t be desperate. Once you’re at the restaurant, you can think outside the box a bit to make a meal that works for you: order three appetizers as your meal, or get sauces on the side, or ask if the kitchen couldn’t use X sauce on Y dish. Be nice about it, and also be understanding if the chef can’t do it.
Hopefully, over time, you can communicate a few restaurant preferences to your family. In the end, though, Bea, it’s up to you to be your own advocate.
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