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…’