How to communicate about celiac disease when you eat out

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Eating out when you have celiac disease requires planning and clear communication with wait staff and food service employees. Learn tips to help you eat out safely.

Key points

  • Plan ahead and ask questions to figure out if a restaurant can accommodate your dietary needs.
  • Practice using the MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary to let others know that you have celiac disease and what your health needs are.
  • Eating out on a gluten-free diet is challenging. Get support from others so they can support you.
  • Accept that it won't always be easy to eat out on a gluten-free diet, but if it's important to you, then it's worth making the effort.

Celiac disease is a lifelong condition. The only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life. Sticking to the gluten-free diet can make it a challenge to eat out, but with time and practice, it can get easier. Here are some tips to follow while eating out.

Plan ahead

If you know where you're going out to eat, plan ahead by looking up the restaurant online. Take a look at the menu and check if any information about the food, including meal ingredients and food preparation/service, are available. Call or email the restaurant before you go to ask them about ingredients and food preparation.

Think ahead about the questions you want to ask the server or management staff at the restaurant.

After asking questions about the menu and restaurant, you may feel that it is not safe to eat there. If you can, plan ahead by bringing safe gluten-free alternatives to eat just in case this happens.

Communication tool: MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary

MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary is one practical approach that you can use as part of managing a medical condition like celiac disease. It is a three-step approach that teaches you how to summarize and communicate your health history and needs to others, including your health-care team, teachers at school, manager at work or a server at a restaurant.

MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary

Sentence 1: Your diagnosis and brief medical history (only include the parts of your medical history that make sense for the situation and that you are comfortable sharing).

Sentence 2: Your treatment plan (for celiac disease, the gluten-free diet is the treatment plan).

Sentence 3: Your question(s) and/or needs.

Here is an example:

"Hi, I'm Max and I have celiac disease. I need to follow a strict gluten-free diet for my celiac disease. Do you have any gluten-free options on the menu?"

To learn more about the MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary, please read Celiac disease: How to be a self-advocate and communicate about your health.

Educate restaurant staff

After clearly telling your server that you need gluten-free foods, they might ask something like, "Is your gluten-free diet a preference or an allergy?" Not everyone knows what celiac disease is, so you may need to explain to the restaurant staff why you cannot have gluten. One option is to use the MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary to tell the server that you have celiac disease and that following a gluten-free diet is a medical treatment. Here is one example of something you could say: "I have celiac disease and if I have even small amounts of gluten, it will make me sick."

Another option is to tell your server that you need to avoid gluten like a person with a peanut allergy must avoid any small amount of peanut. Although celiac disease is not an allergy, it can help some people understand the importance of avoiding all sources of gluten. You could say to your server, "I have to avoid all sources of gluten, which includes foods that have wheat, barley or rye. It's like a nut allergy; even if I have the smallest amount of gluten, I will get sick."

It can be helpful to educate restaurant staff about gluten cross-contact and give examples of where cross-contact can happen. Let them know that cross-contact with gluten is when gluten is transferred from one food or object (such as preparation or cooking surfaces and utensils) to another food or object.

Ask questions

Be as specific as you can when you place a food order. Here are some specific questions you can ask to make sure the food at a restaurant is safe for you to eat:

  • Can you give me a list of all ingredients in this dish?
  • Can the kitchen staff take extra precautions to wash the area they are going to make my food on?
  • Can the kitchen staff make sure to wash their hands after making other people's food to prevent gluten cross-contact?
  • Can you put on a new pair of gloves after touching someone else's food?
  • Is there a separate, dedicated fryer for gluten-free items?
  • How is your sauce thickened? With flour? Can I have this with no sauce?
  • Can I have this dish with no bread/buns on my plate?
  • Can I have this salad with no croutons?
  • Can you please verify that the [seasoning, marinade, soy sauce, dressing, salsa, guacamole, chicken/beef stock] is gluten-free?
  • Is there a separate area on the griddle to cook gluten-free foods?
  • Is there a dedicated spot in the kitchen to prepare gluten-free dishes?
  • Is the gluten-free pasta cooked in different pasta water than regular pasta?
  • Are separate toppings used to make gluten-free pizza? How is the gluten-free pizza separated from other items in the oven?
  • Can you take out a new container of ice cream and a clean scoop for my ice cream dish to prevent gluten cross-contact?

Accidental exposure to gluten happens

It's important to remember that gluten-containing foods and products are everywhere, and it's common for people with celiac disease to have accidental exposures to gluten.

Communication skills, including the MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary, will become easier with practice. Do not be hard on yourself if you do not respond to situations the way you had planned or wanted. Sometimes, people won't get it, and that isn't your fault.

Remember, if eating out is important to you, then it is possible to do it safely while following your gluten-free diet. Just remember the following tips:

  • Plan ahead by looking at the menu online or calling or emailing the restaurant before you go to ask questions.
  • Consider the areas at most risk for gluten cross-contact.
  • Practice how you want to communicate before you eat out. Remember to be as specific as possible and repeat possible sources of gluten.
  • Talk to the server, restaurant manager or chef about your need for a gluten-free meal and ask lots of specific questions. Use terms like "food allergy" or "severe reaction" to stress the importance of your gluten-free diet.
  • Bring gluten-free snacks "just in case".

If you feel stressed or overwhelmed, reach out to someone you trust to tell them how you feel and get support. You can also connect with Kids Help Phone online, by text or phone to access services that can help you with your mental health and well-being.

Last updated: July 26th 2023