Eating out – forget about it 10

One of the saddest things about being forced to follow a gluten and dairy free diet is that it makes eating out pretty much impossible. It is over a year now, since we were advised to keep Zac away from all foods containing gluten and dairy and during that time we have had a mixed bag of experiences.

It is true that some restaurants (independent and chains) are more aware of the need to clearly label their food. Others are going to the trouble of buying in gluten free pasta and selling gluten free cakes, but to anyone who is highly sensitive, it is still an absolute minefield and feels very risky.

When you are new to this lifestyle, you are at first overwhelmed and wonder how you will ever live a normal life. Then you start to learn more about it and find some information about the places who will ‘look after’ you. From time to time, you might happen upon a little garden centre coffee shop or bakery that sells gluten free cakes and you start to feel a bit more positive.

Earlier this year, I was thrilled to discover that Zizzis and Carluccios were selling gluten free pasta. We have tried both and I have blogged about our experiences – in short, great if you are only needing gluten free, but pretty dire for dairy free.

Also, the waiting staff often appear unclear about which items on the menu are gluten free and dairy free, and some don’t seem to understand what it really means, which leaves you feeling very uneasy. I was once offered parmesan when I ordered my gluten free pasta in a dairy free sauce! Do they think dairy just means milk? Some don’t seem to know that cheese is dairy! And others ask if dairy free means egg free – at which point it takes all my strength not to reply with a sarcastic – ‘well have you ever seen a cow lay an egg?’

Then there is the worry of cross contamination in the kitchen. Do they really understand that the gluten free dishes must not be prepared or cooked in the same place as gluten containing foods? Anyone who has ever suffered an ‘attack’ after eating a supposedly safe meal, will know that it is a great leap of faith to happily tuck in, when you have not been able to oversee the cooking yourself!

Today, was my oddest experience by far though. One that told me, I might just have to give up and carry Zac’s little Buzz Lightyear lunchbox with us wherever we go for many years to come.

We are on holiday, near my parent’s home, so have access to plenty of GF and DF foods and usually take the little lunchbox out with us. Today we decided to pop down to the beach for a few hours as it looked like the rain was going to stop. It did stop. The sun came out and before we knew it, it was nearly lunchtime and the children were getting hungry. All I had on me was snacks – fruit, gluten free breadsticks and some ‘safe’ biscuits. So we decided to ‘live a little’ and go out for lunch.

Zac has now got to the point where he won’t eat much else in a restaurant except for chips, unless I can persuade him that they do special food for him. He doesn’t trust it and why would he? I spend most days saying ‘Zac you can’t eat that, it will give you a tummy ache’. So in most places, chips feel like the only likely treat. But I have also learned to check the chips  – always remember to check with the waiting staff if they are cooked in a wheat flour/crispy coating – dangerous. Anything described as a handcut chip, tends to be safe. As it is often a ‘real potato’ just chopped up and cooked. ‘French fries’ are more risky as they are usually ‘coated’ in something ‘gluteny’.

As it was just lunch and I had a home cooked Bolognese sauce ready and waiting back home for later, I decided just chips for lunch would be ok anyway. We are on holiday and I like him to feel he can join in and have the odd treat.

So we ordered our meals and it was a really lovely holiday moment. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad and it was only when I was biting into a crouton that I remembered that the salad had a gf symbol next to it on the menu. I thought I might have imagined it, as it is a great restaurant with real foodie chefs, so thought I was perhaps confused, as a result of drinking most of my glass of wine before the food even arrived.

I couldn’t resist swiping a menu off another table to double check – I am never ‘off duty’. Sure enough the salad was labelled ‘gf’. There was no key on the menu explaining this. But there was some small print that reminded all patrons to notify staff of any allergies etc.

I assumed that they must mean gluten free with their ‘gf’ – but was so puzzled as there were croutons in the salad and I would be very shocked if they were gluten free. Then I looked at some other ‘gf’ dishes. One was smoked salmon served with rustic bread! I was amazed. Either this restaurant was really streets ahead and actually using GF bread and croutons to serve with their ‘mainstream’ dishes or they had made some pretty big errors!

The next dishes I noticed were (to me) obviously gluten free, but were not labelled – beef carpaccio with grilled Italian vegetables, roast lamb with potatoes and green beans. I could not see where the ‘gluten’ containing ingredients could be in these meals, yet they were not flagged as safe.

Bizarrely the scallops with pea puree were labelled gf – and so was the grilled sea bass with potatoes and vegetables. That was good, perhaps they do get it. Maybe not. As the seared tuna with soy sauce was marked gf – but many people have told me that soy sauce is not safe for gluten sensitive people.

So all in all, it looked a bit of a mess and potentially dangerous. I know that a coeliac sufferer or anyone with any kind of allergies would scour the menu and ask the waiting staff to talk them through the ingredients of all dishes, just to be on the safe side. But I felt that the random and unexplained labelling showed a lack of understanding and set alarm bells ringing. So I just had to ask.

I grabbed one of the more senior looking members of staff and told her that I had noticed the salad was labelled gluten free but had croutons in. I asked if ‘gf’ on the menu did actually mean gluten free. She said that the ‘gf’ on the menu was to indicate dishes that could be made gluten free on request, and so they would just leave out the croutons. I said I didn’t notice that on the menu and she said that she thought anyone with food allergies would ask. I told her that the labelling might make someone think that the bread and croutons were made with gf ingredients and she said, ‘can you get gluten free croutons?’ At that point I realised that it was a hopeless cause. Clearly the labelling and understanding was not to be relied upon.

And this is the frustration we face every day. In my opinion many restaurants who think they are doing a good job by labelling their menus are merely doing it to keep up with the competition. It is not driven by a conscience or interest in the condition or desire to improve the experiences of sufferers.

People in the food industry, if you are reading this then please listen – if you are not going to do it properly – then please don’t do it at all. It is too risky and disappointing for the sufferers whose spirits are raised by the gf symbol on a menu and then crash when they realise the waiting staff and chefs don’t really understand what it means. The consequences are of eating ‘contaminated foods’ are too great and your sales will be affected and you will receive bad press and complaints.

My hunch is that they are not thinking of the coeliac sufferers and other allergic people when they consider gluten free. They are thinking of the low carb, Miley Cyrus type fad dieters, who ask for some gluten free pasta with sauce on the side – purely because they are weight watching!

It feels like for now, it is safer to stick with the Buzz Lightyear lunch box and take our food wherever we go. I would advise any other sufferers to do the same (not necessarily Buzz Lightyear) but take your own ‘back up’ snacks – just be prepared to be told ‘You can’t eat your own food here’ – from time to time. I’m just glad Zac is only three and isn’t old enough to understand that he could be destined to miss out on the great pleasure of going out to dinner with friends and looking at the menu and saying ‘ ooh it all looks so good, I just can’t decide…’

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10 comments

  1. Oh how familiar this all sounds! The joy… And then the heartache!

    The restaurant you mentioned beggars belief. I do hope that the conversation with the member of staff causes them to review both their menu and their procedures.

    Well done for highlighting the problem for them!

    • Hiya. I still can’t believe it. It isn’t just me is it? Surely if you mark GF next to the words ‘rustic bread’. Some people might assume that you have used a GF bread? Inconsistent labelling and poor understanding are such an issue for any sufferer that eating out becomes something to feel nervous about and not look forward to. Make me very sad.

  2. Thanks so much. It is a heartbreaker. The desserts are always a joke too. Why can’t they just do a fresh fruit salad? Why does everything have to be ice cream? We were at the beach today and I am just so thankful that he no longer flies into a screaming fit everytime we walk past another child licking a big drippy, whippy ice cream. I guess I should just be thankful that he won’t turn into a pizza munching beer monster when he is older!!

  3. I completely understand. O(4) is a coeliac and DF and E(2) is GF(by my choice) DF & SF, going out is so traumatic. we stick with carluccios or take our own and eat on park benches.
    Went to the Olympic Park on saturday and it took us over an hour to track down a GF meal (chicken roll) as you are not supposed to take food.

    • Hi, thanks so much for the comment. It is a lonely life isn’t it? Makes me feel very sad some days. Thanks for the tip on the Olympics. Hadn’t thought about that. We have tickets for the Paralympics and I had just assumed ‘Buzz Lightyear’ would be coming with us. I will have to check this out more as it could be a long and hungry day for Zac otherwise. It just isn’t right. Best wishes.

      • Take Buzz! the impression they give you is that food is very much frowned upon but in reality I think you will be fine if you take food just for Zac and buy for yourself. I believe they discourage taking food in with you but as long as you don’t take a full on picnic and a sensible sized ruck sack you will be fine. There are places that have GF foods but don’t count on it. I will take sandwiches for the girls next time!
        On a positive note I have found that my girls are more adventurous with foods like olives, smoked salmon, parma ham etc which maybe I might not have pushed if they had easy access to ‘normal’ foods.

      • Thanks again. Will definitely take the lunchbox and be prepared to stand up for ourselves if challenged. Glad to hear your girls are getting adventurous. That is my dream with Zac. The irony is that he was quite adventurous as a teeny tot, but as he got older and he we had to start messing about with his diet with elimination etc, he forgot he liked a lot of foods and became extremely fussy. But I am not giving up. I am hoping as he gets older and hungrier and more trusting, he will start to try new foods and flavours again. Best wisehs.

  4. Hi there, we have a son who follows a gluten free, wheat free, dairy free, soya free, glutamate free diet (who also eats little meat). He has eaten this way for the last 7 years. Eating out has definately got better for him as some chains are really good at labelling food or adapting it. You still have to be totally on the ball though. We try to keep out of Italian restaurants due to the flour flying around, but there are some great chains out there to try with Zac. Wagamamas do rice noodles with grilled fish and have a well labelled menu. If you are in or around London you can try Wahaca, a mexican chain of restaurants (Owen loves the nachos and guacamole). There is also an excellent cafe by Great Ormond Street hospital called Danny’s gourmet wraps. His favourite dish is saag aloo and rice and my local indian restaurant in devon leave the ghee out for him. Other great chains include McDonalds for chips (as they fry theirs in oil used for just chips – most other places share friers with vegeburgers and other gluten filled nasties) and Wetherspoons, which is handy as you are never more than 6 foot away from a rat or a Wetherspoons!

  5. oh and if you can find vegusto cheese give that a whirl too – gf, df and soya free and doesn’t taste too horrific. Perfect for recipes where Owen doesn’t feel left out – like gf pizza.

    • Hi Dave. Thanks so much for your comments. Much appreciated. Great advice and all very reassuring. Hearing others experiences and stories is always interesting and makes me feel less ‘alone’ with this battle. I am starting to feel more positive about Zac and his fussiness! I have seen the vegusto cheese – at the Allergy Show. It did look interesting. So I might see if I can track some down. My problem is that as he is only four it is hard to explain that something that looks like cheese wont give him a tummy ache!
      All of those restaurant tips are great too. I really appreciate it. I have also discovered that Wagamamas are very on the ball, but they need to advertise this more. Wahaca sounds great and if ever Zac starts to show a bit more interest in trying new foods, we will give it a go.
      Kind regards and thanks so much for getting in touch. Hope your son continues to thrive and find new foods to enjoy.
      Nicola

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