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(Gluten-Free Family Life) Dining Out With Groups
Elizabeth Carroll


Photograph © Serghei Starus

January 30, 2013

Oh, if only eating out was always easy! Sometimes, circumstances, whether groups of families, friends, business colleagues, or location-specific needs dictate selecting a restaurant with less than perfect gluten-free offerings. When it's just our family, we try to select restaurants where we know they offer a gluten-free menu that we all enjoy and where we feel comfortable that they will prepare gluten-free meals safely. Here's how we try to handle less-than-ideal eating out situations...

My husband will ultimately be happy with plain meat, a salad, a potato and vegetables. It's nice to have someone so flexible, and he will eat more when he leaves the restaurant. My daughter, on the other hand, does not want to “stick out in the crowd” by eating food that is different. We try to plan ahead, when possible, to make sure that at least some parts of the meal are similar to others, in addition to ensuring she has something she likes and is nutritious.

In a few weeks, we are attending a group function, really more centered on the kids, with a large group. It's at an Italian restaurant, with a gluten-free menu, but the menu gets a 5 out of 10 in my new gluten-free restaurant rating scale. (More on that later.) Most of the large group will be served family-style from gluten-loaded offerings like fettuccini alfredo, chicken parmesan, and bruschetta. My daughter and I, for the same price, will order our own salad and entrees from the gluten-free menu -- my daughter choosing a lemon chicken and me a lemon salmon. These come without any sides or potatoes or rice. So, for my daughter, I will bring in pasta, cooked in a hotel kitchen, in a thermos in my purse and serve it to her on her plate.

For me, what's important is that she has food she likes and needs for the big sport competition the next day, but just as important, she and my son will be with their friends. I will also bring her a yummy gluten-free dessert, as the restaurant does not appear to even have vanilla ice cream. I hope that the restaurant does not say anything to me, and I have never encountered a restaurant that does make an issue of me bringing in gluten-free food. I do have a response ready, “If you were to sell it, I would buy it and would not have to bring it.” Certainly enough restaurants do have a gluten-free pasta these days! The situation is less than perfect, though we make the best of it.  

Now about my new gluten-free restaurant rating scale.... 

A rating of 1

 

A restaurant with no gluten-free menu and very limited, if any, gluten-free options on the regular menu.  Steamed vegetables, simple salad, and plain broiled meat.  Relatively uneducated about cross contamination.  

A rating of 5

A gluten-free menu exists, but it simply lists items that are on the regular menu, with the grains removed, if applicable.  A chicken pasta will become a plain chicken.  A hamburger will become a plain hamburger, no bun.  Fries are made in common fryer, so are not gluten-free.  Even corn tortilla chips (if homemade) are off limits due to the common fryer.  We ate at Harry Carey's on Navy Pier in Chicago in the past month and this gluten-free menu would earn a 5.  Some knowledge in the kitchen regarding cross contamination.    

A rating of 10

A gluten-free menu with a large assortment of gluten-free items available with sauces and sides.  Gluten-free bread is available.  Pasta is available.  Pizza crust is available.  Desserts are available.  And a dedicated gluten-free fryer is in place.  The kitchen totally gets the issues regarding cross-contamination.  

Traverso's is a nearby restaurant that now offers such a menu.  (This menu has been in place a little more than a year.  There was a time, shortly after my daughter was diagnosed seven years ago, that all she could and would eat at this restaurant was a broiled chicken breast and a bowl of shredded cheese.  We didn't go back for many years because it had a 1 rating on my personal scale.  But now, apparently due to a gluten-free diet in the family of the owner, this wonderful menu is now in place, thus earning it a 10!)

Ratings between 1, 5, and 10 have elements of the ratings above and below them.  For me, this scale is useful because I feel we have moved past the time when people needing a gluten-free menu are “wowed” by a simple listing of the simplified, regular menu items that they can eat.  Most of us know that!  Let's tip our hat by giving top ratings to those establishments that go above and beyond the rest in their gluten-free menus.   

And since I'm still navigating this, I have questions for you: 
How have others handled group dinners where you are not in control of the restaurant chosen? What are your experiences bringing gluten-free food into restaurants, where a comparable item is not available?  

About the author:

Elizabeth Carroll writes the "Gluten-Free Family Life" for GlutenFreeBaking.com.



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