Whether or not you’re following the autoimmune protocol because you have food allergies/intolerances or are removing foods known to cause inflammation, it can be very difficult to avoid eating out in restaurants. Going out to dinner or brunch is a social activity that we shouldn’t turn down just because we are on an elimination diet. Rather than dining out being a free-for-all, order whatever you want event, it will be something you think more carefully and cautiously about. And that’s okay! This isn’t the time to feel sorry for yourself. You can make yourself all of the delicious food in the world 95% of the time, but for that 5% that you go out to eat, it’s okay to take it back to the basics to be as safe as possible. After following the AIP for 2 1/2 years and eating out probably over 100 times, here are the steps I always take to ensure my meal is free of allergens and cross-contamination.
4 STEPS TO DINING OUT WITH ALLERGIES
STEP 1 Do your research.
In the age of the Internet, almost every restaurant posts their menu online through either their own website or restaurant review websites like Yelp. You can look at a menu for a steakhouse in Hong Kong while you’re sitting in your apartment in Ohio, for goodness’ sake! It’s really never been easier to find a few viable restaurants in your hometown or before you travel to a new city. Here are the search words I use when looking online for an AIP-friendly restaurant using a top-down approach: “gluten free”, “Paleo”, “allergy”, “celiac”, “soy free”, “dairy free”, “vegan”, “organic”, “grass fed”. I’ll give an example of how I navigate those search terms now.
How to Use Yelp to Find an Allergy-Friendly Restaurant
1. Go to Yelp.com since it is the most visited review website for restaurants and the reviews are searchable for terms.
2. Type in the city you are trying to find a restaurant in. If it’s a small town, Yelp will likely pull up restaurants under your search for nearby towns and cities as well as the search town.
3. Now start with one of my more broad search terms like “gluten free”. Let’s say 10 restaurants pop up under this term. Click on the restaurant that looks most interesting to you and find the search bar on that restaurant’s review page. Type in “gluten free” again. Yelp will now pull up any reviews for that restaurant that include the term “gluten free”. I often will find reviewers who say things like, “This place is NOT gluten free friendly. My friend has Celiac and wasn’t able to find anything here that didn’t risk cross contamination.” Time to move on from Restaurant A. Other times the review will say something like, “I’m on a Paleo-type diet, and it’s hard for me to find a place that suits my needs. This restaurant has a Gluten Free menu, so it was easy to work off of it to find a meal that they could also make grain-free and dairy-free.” Generally if a restaurant has taken the time to make a gluten-free menu, it will also take your other allergy concerns seriously.
4. Continue this process until you narrow down all the restaurants in that search term that may be options. It’s up to you how deep you want to get into your research, but if I’m traveling somewhere new I often spend a couple hours researching restaurants using all the search terms above.
STEP 2 Call the restaurant.
You can stop your research after Step 1 once you find a restaurant online that you think will work, but if you want to be extra diligent I suggest calling the restaurant next. Call them at a non-busy time. For example, if it’s a brunch place, avoid calling between 8 am and 12 pm. If it’s a fine dining establishment that’s hard to get into, call them earlier in the afternoon like around 2 to 4 pm before the dinner rush arrives. You will have the highest likelihood of getting the manager or chef on the phone, and they know the menu best. Often times if the hostess is the one answering my questions, I sense hesitation and that’s a risk I’m not willing to take. The host or hostess usually does not know what oil they use or if the protein is pre-marinated.Never call same day either because it may take 24 hours for the manager or chef to return your phone call if they are unavailable.
Here are some questions to ask the manager or chef on the phone before you decide to dine there.
- Do you accommodate people with allergies, gluten intolerance, and Celiac disease? (If they say they cannot guarantee no gluten cross contamination and you are not willing to take that risk, this place may not be the right choice for you.)
- Do you pre-marinade your proteins? If so, what oils and spices do you use for marinades? Do you have any clean pieces of protein that you can cook fresh for me? (Most places that do marinade will have clean, untouched protein in the freezer they can take out for you if you call far enough in advance. Don’t be afraid to ask!)
- Does your kitchen know what nightshades are? (If they say yes, list out the nightshades and tell them you can’t have any, even in a seasoning mix on your food. If they respond confidently that will be no problem, it will likely be okay. If they say, “No our bacon does not have any nitrates in it…. Oh nightshades, no what are those?” then you may want to move on. This happens to me a lot, and because I am so sensitive to nightshades, I don’t take chances if someone has no idea what nightshades are. You may be okay taking that risk if you order something very plain like steamed fish and veggies though.
- Are you willing to come out to the table if I dine with you and answer any additional questions I have about menu items? (I find that ordering directly from the manager or chef to be more successful in ensuring my food is properly prepared. Waiters and waitresses often are so hurried they will forget to write down that you have a dairy intolerance or avoid soy.)
- Do you think it’s best to dine at your restaurant earlier in the night before the kitchen gets really busy to avoid any mistakes being made when preparing my meal? (This one is a no-brainer. They will likely say yes. Sometimes they will even suggest this on their own.)
STEP 3 How to Order Food
When you arrive at the restaurant, let the hostess know that you called earlier about your allergies. She will likely let your server and the manager know, if it’s a quality restaurant. You really can judge a place based on how seriously they take food allergies at all stops on the hierarchy. If she smiles and just says, “Okay” try to make it more clear to your server how serious your allergies are instead.If the restaurant offers a Gluten-Free Menu, ask for it right off the bat. Expect them to still ask you if you want bread before you meal. It doesn’t matter how many times I say the words “gluten free”, the waiter still thinks there’s a chance I want bread. This is a great time to giggle to yourself. Let’s pray the kitchen has a better idea about gluten than your waiter at this point. Hopefully you’ve seen the menu before you even arrived at the restaurant and have already found a few options that may work. Maybe you’ve even already discussed the exact meal you will be ordering with the manager or chef (this is ideal)! The hard part for you is already over, but you still need to relay all of this information to your waiter so the order gets put into their system correctly.Here are some tips for ordering off a menu when dining out with allergies.
- Look at the entrée salads first. They have the highest likelihood of just being vegetables, protein, cheese and dressing, all of which you can leave off. I am going to give an example of how I order off the salad menu at a place here in Austin called The Grove.
- Here’s a salad I often adapt for myself at a local restaurant. I order the Kale Salad which is already notated as gluten-free. To make it AIP, I check to see if the grilled watermelon has been marinated before. It has not. I ask to remove the pepitas (pumpkin seeds), feta cheese (dairy), and lemon poppyseed dressing (seed oils and seeds). Then to make the meal more substantial, I add a plain piece of grilled salmon, a double portion of avocado, and a side of olive oil and lemon. I bring my own sea salt grinder in my purse so I can add as much salt as I want to make my meal more flavorful without worrying if the salt they use is iodized or table salt.
- If nothing on the salad menu looks enticing, move over to the entrées. Find a piece of meat that is least likely to be marinated or touched by spices such as a filet mignon or ribeye. It is up to you if you are okay with eating grain-fed meat when you are out. Unless you have a severe corn allergy and corn-fed meat affects you, it may be your best bet! Most restaurants do not offer high quality pastured and grass fed options, but they are becoming more available. Seafood is also not often marinated. Look for raw oysters, shrimp, salmon, or scallops. Most restaurants cook do not marinate these since marinades can break down the seafood into a mushy mess. They are also quick to defrost if they have some in the freezer that are completely untouched!
- Now build out the vegetables in your meal. Take a look at the sides. Do they offer steamed broccoli, asparagus, or sautéed spinach? Steamed vegetables don’t usually have any oil added to them but they may have seasoning so ask just for salt (or bring your own sea salt and ask for plain). If you choose sautéed vegetables like a squash medley or spinach, ask them to cook the vegetables in olive oil only. If they don’t have any pure olive oil (it’s often cut with canola or soybean oil in restaurants), then ask them to steam those vegetables or dry sautee them instead.
- Never order anything fried even if they say it’s gluten free. Unless they have a gluten-free fryer, use coconut flour and arrowroot as the breading, and fry in coconut oil (haha, yeah right), you cannot eat fried food on AIP.
- If you still can’t find anything on the menu that remotely looks AIP-friendly, don’t be afraid to build your own meal!
- Here is an example of a meal I will build when nothing else works: plain grilled chicken breast, salad greens, avocado (I ask for a double portion), fresh herbs (if they have), and another side of vegetables/fruit (steamed broccoli, baked sweet potato, a cup of fruit). It’s not exciting and it’s not going to win any awards, but if you’re hungry it gets the job done.
STEP 4 Express Gratitude
Your motto when dining out with allergies is “Thank You”. Should we double over in gratitude when a kitchen serves us plain cooked chicken and lettuce? Eh. But they are stepping outside their comfort zone, taking measures to ensure your safety, and open to changing up menu items/retrieving something from the freezer/making an entirely new dish for you even if it’s super simple. I always thank the waiter/waitress several times during the ordering and dining process, and if the meal was exceptionally good I’ll ask to personally thank the manager or chef.
WARNING: CROSS CONTAMINATION
Cross contamination is a very real thing in the restaurant industry, and there are also allergens hidden in many foods you’d never think! Rather than worrying about being “a pain” and asking too many questions about exactly how a dish is prepared, do your absolute best to be sure you don’t encounter cross contamination. Here are some ways foods you are avoiding may end up in your meal, but this is not an exhaustive list. Make sure you always ask about every ingredient that goes into your meal.
- Breadcrumbs in dishes like meatballs, meatloaf, pan-fried fish, croutons.
- MSG, Soy and Gluten in soups, stews, chowders, gravies etc in the form of bouillon cubes, premade stocks, MSG, soy sauce
- Nightshades in marinades, sauces, dips, spice mixes, and guacamole
- Dairy in sautéed vegetables, cooked meats/fish, soups, salad dressings
- Corn in the form of high-fructose corn syrup in salad dressing and marinades, vegetable oil cooked protein and vegetables
- Eggs in salad dressings, “washes” on pan-fried proteins
- Refined sugar in salad dressings, marinades, mixed beverages
- Soy, Gluten, Corn, Canola, or Peanut in anything that has been in a fryer or next to the fryer
- Shared cutting boards, grill pans, utensils grills, work spaces. Ask for your meal to be cooked in a separate, clean pan or ask them to properly clean an area of the grill for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for clean cutting boards and utensils to be used too. It’s YOUR health at stake, not theirs!
- Gluten in hamburger joints – most places grill their buns on the same grill as their burgers.
- Anything that goes into your meal that contains a label before it does. Gluten can hide in tons of different additives and food labels such as “natural flavors” and “modified food starch”. That’s why I suggest ordering VERY simply and sticking with plain protein and veggies!
BEST TYPES OF RESTAURANTS FOR PEOPLE WITH FOOD ALLERGIES
- Places with Gluten-Free Menus
- Mid to Higher End Restaurants
- Farm to Table Restaurants
- Vegan Restaurants (In a pinch! Don’t bring your own meat! See tips above for dining in a vegan restaurant.)
- Seafood Restaurants
RESTAURANTS BEST TO AVOID ON THE AUTOIMMUNE PROTOCOL
- Asian (Sushi restaurants are an exception. See tips below.)
- Food Trucks
- National Chains like Applebee’s, TGIFridays, Carabbas, PF Changs (Higher likelihood of only cooking with vegetable oils, offering low quality marinated meats and vegetables, heavily grain and dairy-based menus)
MEAL IDEAS FOR SPECIFIC RESTAURANTS
Vegan Restaurant This is the time to really up your vegetable consumption! When eating at a vegan restaurant (usually because it’s the most organic, healthy option available), I order a vegetable juice like the one below to start. I also order fruit for carbs, since most vegan restaurants don’t offer non-grain based carbs like sweet potatoes (since those tend not to be served raw). I then order a large salad and remove any seeds, sprouts, or grains from it and add extra avocado. Avocado is your best friend when dining out on AIP because it provides a high amount of satiating fat and calories.
Example of a vegetarian/vegan restaurant I’ve dined at in Sedona while following AIP.
- Sushi Restaurant Order sashimi which is thinly sliced raw fish. Ask for a side of avocado since most sushi restaurants use avocado in their rolls. Bring your own coconut aminos as a dipping sauce. Some sushi restaurants are now offering low carb rolls that don’t include rice. Order a salmon, avocado, cucumber and carrot rice-less roll wrapped in seaweed or even thinly sliced cucumber.
- Steakhouse Order any steak of your choice and ask that it comes only seasoned with sea salt. Order sides of steamed broccoli and asparagus or spinach. If they don’t have baked sweet potato on the menu, I have brought my own and just slipped it on the plate. Sure they look a little confused when they come by to ask how your meal is, but if you need some carbs with your meal, don’t be embarrassed!
- Burger Joints Ask for your burger to be grilled on a cleaned portion of the grill away from the buns, using clean utensils. Ask for the burger to be placed on top of several large pieces of lettuce so you can wrap it up. Get avocado and red onion on your burger for extra flavor. Some places offer bacon, but I would ask for all of the ingredients on the bacon package since they can contain spice extractive (i.e. nightshades), nitrates, or preservatives.
WHAT TO DO IF EXPOSED TO A FOOD ALLERGEN
I have only been exposed to a known allergen one time in the last 2 1/2 years and it was this past summer at a sushi restaurant here called Uchi. I went for my wedding anniversary with my husband when my daughter was 6 weeks old and it was our first (and still only) night out alone. I chose that place because it’s known to be one of the most popular, nicest places in town that is frequented by celebs. In fact, we saw Pierce Brosnan there that night. The meal cost us over $200 and I ended up with a terrible full-body case of hives that lasted 3 1/2 weeks. The time it took me away from my daughter during those weeks is irreplaceable. I was running around to doctors, acupuncturists, pharmacies, taking several salt baths a day. Seriously, awful. You bet I didn’t let them get away with something like that! They refunded my money completely (so at least my husband got to enjoy his free meal), and I expressed how important it is for everyone in their kitchen to be trained in food allergies.
- Consider taking activated charcoal immediately. I like ones made from coconut shells but that tends to be hard to find. Instead, it’s easy to source a gelatin capsule charcoal like this one from Nature’s Way.
- Talk to the manager immediately. That may mean calling the restaurant the next day and following up if they do not respond. It’s vital you let them know their kitchen slipped up and served you an allergen. This needs to be taken extremely seriously because some of us have anaphylactic reactions.
- Write a review on Yelp even if you’ve spoken to the apologetic manager. Other diners with allergies need to know whether or not a place has a poor track record. On the flip side, if a place does an excellent job accommodating you, tell the world as well!
- Consider taking GlutenEase at meals when dining out. It can help you digest gluten and casein enzymes that your sensitive immune system is unable to on it’s own. This is NOT an excuse to eat pizza when you are out.
WHAT TO PACK IN YOUR PURSE WHEN DINING OUT
Small Sea Salt Grinder
Small bottle of olive oil
Baked Sweet Potato
Need extra protein because the restaurant only gave you a few ounces of chicken? A pack of Power Balls provides 12 extra grams of collagen protein!