How to Stay Gluten-Free at Restaurants

5 Rules to Follow to Dine Out Safely with Celiac or Gluten Sensitivity

Overhead shot of healthy gluten free food at a restaurant
Lumina / Stocksy United

It's easier than ever to eat out on the gluten-free diet. Multiple national and regional restaurant chains offer gluten-free menus and seem to have taken the time to truly understand the needs of people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Even many fast food restaurants now offer gluten-free options.

But it's still possible to run into trouble at a restaurant, especially if you're fairly sensitive to trace gluten. In most cases, the problem isn't gluten ingredients in the food itself—it's gluten cross-contamination.

It's helped that awareness of gluten-free issues and needs has risen generally among the restaurant community as many more people ask for gluten-free options. However, you still need to follow these five rules to make sure you stay gluten-free when dining out.

5 Rules to Follow When Dining Out Gluten-Free

Rule #1: Choose your restaurant wisely. Restaurants with gluten-free menus are a good place to start, since in many cases (but not all), staff members at those restaurants receive training on how to keep food gluten-free and to avoid cross-contamination.

But you still have options if you don't want to go to a chain restaurant. For example, many ethnic restaurants offer gluten-free options. In addition, you can try a local restaurant, although you'll need to choose sensibly—the local bakery and café may not offer good gluten-free options, and you may not even be able to enter the place due to the flour in the air. You'll have better luck with an upscale establishment where they make most of the food from scratch.

Rule #2: Talk directly to the chef or the manager. Having your server relay questions back and forth to the chef or the manager just doesn't work. At all. Details get overlooked and ingredients get garbled, especially as your requests get more complicated (and avoiding cross contamination is pretty complicated). Your server may say he knows how to ensure a gluten-free meal, but unless you take the time to quiz him extensively, you won't be sure if he really knows his stuff. Also, he won't be in the kitchen actually preparing your food; the kitchen staff takes care of that.

Instead of trusting your server to get everything right, enlist the help of a manager or—preferably—ask to speak to the chef directly. In most cases, I've found chefs to be very knowledgeable and very willing to help. Once I started skipping the server and going straight to the chef, my restaurant-related glutenings declined dramatically.

Conversely, skipping this rule—even for part of your meal—can lead to big trouble. At one restaurant we trusted, we spoke to the chef at the beginning of the meal. At the end, the server recommended the gluten-free brownie with ice cream. I didn't remember seeing a gluten-free brownie on the menu, but all seemed well, so I decided against bothering the chef again. That turned out to be a major mistake: The brownie was sugar-free, not gluten-free... as I learned only after eating it.

Rule #3: Cover gluten cross-contamination issues with your chef and server. Most problems in restaurants involve gluten cross-contamination, not actual gluten food mistakenly presented as gluten-free. Workers in busy restaurant kitchens need to share cooking surfaces, utensils, and pans, so it can be difficult to carve out a place to make an allergen-free meal in that chaos. Some restaurants that excel in gluten-free items actually keep separate kitchens for gluten and non-gluten food (Disney does this in some cases), but most do not.

To stay safe, make sure you ask the kitchen staff for the following:

  • Wash their hands and change their gloves before preparing your food
  • Mix any salad in a clean bowl (many restaurants reuse bowls, and they may contain crouton fragments or unsafe salad dressings)
  • Avoid using a grill surface that's shared with gluten-containing items (including hamburger buns, sauces, and breaded items)
  • Use fresh water to cook gluten-free pasta or steam vegetables (some restaurants reuse pasta water for this purpose)
  • Place gluten-free pizzas or rolls on a pan instead of directly on an oven surface, and cover them with foil to avoid crumbs

Also, ask your server to keep your food away from the bread basket and other obvious gluten threats; it's possible to have cross-contamination introduced between the kitchen and your table.

Rule #4: Question everything. Many restaurants follow the practice of having someone who's not your server bring your food to the table. In some cases, that person will say reassuringly, "Here's your gluten-free meal." But when the person doesn't say that, I always ask "Is that gluten-free?" I've saved myself from several glutenings this way, as the person realized she had picked up the wrong plate. If something appears on your plate that you didn't order (such as a garnish or a sauce), don't touch it or try to push it aside; instead, find out what it is and whether it's safe. If there's any doubt, ask for another plate to be prepared.

In addition, if you're very sensitive to trace gluten, you'll certainly need to ask more questions. For example, the restaurant may offer a dessert that doesn't include gluten ingredients (such as a flourless chocolate cake), but it may be made right alongside the gluten-filled pastries on the menu.

A Word from Verywell

The last rule for safely eating out when you need to follow the gluten-free diet—Rule #5: When in doubt, don't eat—is the most important rule to follow. 

In most cases, you'll be able to eat out safely and enjoyably. But don't be afraid to skip meals entirely on occasion if the restaurant staff seems clueless (or worse, indifferent) about gluten. Going hungry isn't pleasant, but you'll likely prefer it to getting sick. If the chef doesn't seem to get it—or worse, doesn't seem interested in trying—you're better off not taking a chance.

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.