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Beginner's Guide to Kid Friendly Gluten Free Dining
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Like many families today, my husband and I have no food allergies, but strangely (& disturbingly) all of our kids do. Two of them are gluten-free. Wheats allergic to wheat?! Years ago, it was far more difficult to live with than today, since fad dieting & skyrocketing diagnoses have brought it into the public eye. Some health-conscious cities & little foodie pockets around the US make eating gluten-free easier, but it’s still difficult in most of the country & requires effort and a little research when traveling.
We still encounter restaurants, servers, & cooks unfamiliar with Celiac Disease or gluten free requirements. Kids are picky, anyway, making the challenge of limited foods that much harder. We’ve learned not to fear eating out, though, and along the way, we’ve found a list of go-to staples that most family restaurants have & that kids will actually eat and can do safely. This is the Survival Guide I would have dearly LOVED to have had when we started the gluten free journey. Gluten sensitivities & Celiac Disease can strike at any age. The number of gluten free people is in the millions. I get questions from newly diagnosed people all the time.
Step 1- Ask for a Gluten Free Menu
This will be your 1st indication of their awareness of gluten problems and their ability & commitment to preparing food gluten free. Even a number of fast food restaurants have gluten free menus, now. Many restaurants also detail their allergen info on their websites, so you can research before you go.
Step 2- Prep the Preppers:
Talk to your server and, if possible, to the cook/ chef. This might sound like diva behavior, but watching the suffering of contamination will convince you pretty quickly that it’s not a choice. At best, they end up with a very painful belly, diarrhea (sometimes bloody) and a wide range of other unpleasant & painful symptoms. At worst, it damages their digestive system, the chronic results of which can lead to life-threatening consequences. So talking to those who prep their food is as important of an act as vaccinations or any other medical decisions you make for your child. Talking to the chef allows them to take ownership of the dish, since there are usually multiple cooks in a kitchen.
Step 3- Make 5 points clear:
- That this is a medical necessity (if it is) & explanation if they’re unfamiliar (words like ‘Celiac Disease’, ‘Intolerance’, ‘like an allergy’- ‘intestinal damage’, ‘severe gastrointestinal problems, pain and diarrhea’ may aid their understanding.) Some servers take a little more explanation to understand the seriousness.
- What foods contain gluten (anything with Wheat (flour, bread), Barley, Rye (or their proteins), sometimes in packaged spice mixes.
- The importance of keeping the food completely separate from touching or cooking with gluten foods (even crumbs in the butter, same frying oil, or the same pasta water) and of using clean hands to prepare it.
- Not to use the same utensils & tools (such as cutting boards), serving dishes, or counter-tops that have had contact with gluten foods without a thorough, hot, soapy wash.
- Or the same cookware without a thorough, hot, soapy wash (Celiacs often have separate cookware at home that has never touched gluten, but this isn’t available at most restaurants. However, if that is a requirement that you need, ask clearly up front, maybe even call ahead, to see if that is available. There are a few organic/ foodie dedicated restaurants who practice this & a separate dedicated kitchen work-space, but it’s uncommon.)
It takes time & careful effort from them, but if you’re nice about it, they’re usually eager to help. They’ll often bring out a box or package for me to read the ingredients to see if it’s okay. Though cross-contamination is always a risk at restaurants. A couple of times, my son has gotten sick because of a utensil has been shared, even after talking with the server & cook. This has happened with ice cream and it’s happened with pasta. We’ve had servers bring out a burger with a bun and just take the bun off and serve the same burger. They’re not trying to be lax, but until you’ve lived with a gluten intolerance/ Celiac Disease & contamination, it’s hard for anyone to understand & fully appreciate. Stress it, educate, advocate & double-check to confirm. It’s the best you can do.
Staples of Gluten Free Dining with Kids:
Burgers with no bun are a staple for our kids- sometimes they’ll surprise you and have gluten free buns, depending on the region & restaurant awareness. Disney & parts of Universal Studios carry them, also Red Robin, Chick fil A, Culvers, IHOP, TGI Fridays, some Hard Rock Cafe & gourmet burger joints across the country, too, usually in larger cities & foodie pockets. And I’ve been known to bring our own in a Ziploc bag! Burgers (or any sandwich such as grilled chicken) can be wrapped in a lettuce ‘bun’, too.
French fries can be tricky, depending on how sensitive you are. Potatoes are gluten free, though ‘seasoned fries’ are often coated with a seasonings mix that often includes flour. The cooking process is the common problem, though. They’re typically fried in the same oil (though some have a dedicated fryer- ask!) with other fried & breaded foods- chicken strips, onion rings, etc… You may or may not be able to tolerate them, since they’re likely contaminated. Gluten intolerant eaters may be fine, depending on their level of sensitivity, but Celiacs should probably avoid, unless it’s fresh oil (maybe in a skillet) or ask if they’ll bake them, instead.
Another staple for many gluten freers are salads, but my kids, like many, aren’t big on salads for meals (If I’m honest, neither am I!), but some kids like them, so it’s an easy option. You can’t do croutons, of course, but can use corn tortilla strips (though, some can have trace amounts) and could even carry-in a packet of your own. Grilled chicken adds some protein. Be careful with salad bars where gluten dressings or croutons could be drizzled across areas and utensils are often shared. Many dressings are okay, but, several are not, again, you could carry your own. Some mainstream brands that have gluten free dressing options include (as of this writing): most Hidden Valley Ranch & Marzettis dressings are gluten free & will mark it if they contain wheat, rye or barley; Kraft will identify any gluten. For Newman’s Own, all but 2 are gluten free (Family Recipe Italian & Sesame Ginger blends contain gluten). Asian dressings may contain soy sauce which often contains wheat. House made dressings are typically fine. Shredded cheese used to commonly contain gluten (non-caking agents), but today, most are safe & grated Parmesan is fine, too.
Bread dough is probably the trickiest gluten-free food to get right. Pizza’s a little easier with all the yummy toppings and many of the restaurants who serve gluten-free crust just use a pre-made frozen, but taste & quality varies on this staple. Quite a few chains are starting to carry gluten free options. Some of those include (not always- some are regional) Monical’s, Donatos, Chuck E Cheese, Godfather’s, BJ’s Brewhouse, Dominos, Mellow Mushroom & select Pizza Huts. Many gourmet pizza shops offer homemade gluten free crusts & many regular, local places are starting to carry the frozen gluten free crusts for a quick, ready option, too.
With the popularity of places like Bob Evans, IHOP & Cracker Barrel, you can order breakfast all day long. Eggs, hashbrowns, bacon, sausage & ham are your go-to’s here, though IHOP have really good gluten free pancakes that can have all of the fun toppings for kids like chocolate chips, whipped cream, fruit, flavored syrups, etc…- though they call their items ‘gluten friendly’. IHOP doesn’t commit that they’re absolutely gluten free & don’t have cross contamination, so Celiacs eat with caution, but sensitivities may do fine. My kids loved getting to have pancakes out, let alone fun, kid ones! Fruit cups or yogurt are fine, too. Oatmeal can be a problem if you are very sensitive to small contamination. Oats are not inherently gluten, but are often transported and stored in containers that also process wheat & other grains, so cross contamination can be an issue. People with true Celiac Disease should stick to gluten-free or steel cut oats, but if you’re sensitivity isn’t as severe, you may tolerate them okay.
We already mentioned burgers, but meat, in general, is often another safe, go-to staple.
- Chicken or Turkey– Baked, roasted, smoked or grilled. Deep-fried Turkey is usually prepared without flour, but uses Peanut oil for those with nut allergies.
- Beef– steaks, burgers, roast (without flour rub)
- Seafood- baked, grilled or non-breaded
- Pork– ribs, ham, roast, grilled tenderloin, pork chops, bacon or sausage. Hot dogs, like it or not, kids love them & they’re usually okay, but some brands contain traces of gluten.
*** You should ask about pre-packaged rubs, spice mixes, or BBQ sauce used; many contain flour. As a result, quite a few BBQ meats contain gluten & Italian Beef is off your menu, too, unless they season it themselves. Meats seasoned completely by the restaurant are often safe. Read the ingredients carefully on spice packets. Gluten can sometimes ‘hide’ in Artificial flavors/ colors/ seasonings. You’ll have to avoid restaurant gravies that are thickened with flour. Meatloaf and meatballs are out, too, they use breadcrumbs, unless they offer to make your meatballs without.
Chinese cuisine has some things that are safe, but your big hurdle will be that most use Soy Sauce brewed with wheat. It’s a good idea to bring your own, unless you know they use a safe one. La Choy & the “Gluten Free Kikkoman” (it’s the only of their soy sauce blends that is gluten free, though they have gluten free teriyaki) soy sauces are 2 major brands that offer safe options. Rice itself is gluten free (although packaged flavored rice often contains flour), but Chinese restaurants season their own. Steamed rice is okay and Fried rice could be if prepped without gluten Soy Sauce. They may have pure rice noodles available. They have a number of meat & vegetable items, as well as Egg Drop Soup, though they may be prepared with gluten Soy Sauce. PF Changs has a gluten free menu and designated cookware and prep area.
VEGETABLES & FRUIT-
Corn, potatoes, green beans, pretty much any that are not fried or in a casserole (thickened with flour). Fruit, as long as it’s not thickened or coated with flour, such as pie filling or cooked apples. Dishes such as cooked apples, though, can be easily thickened with corn starch, so ask about possibilities & work with the Server/ Cook to be creative when possible. Mashed potatoes are fine; yay!
Tacos with hard corn shells, Tortilla chips, or Tostada shells. Nachos with queso, salsa or guacamole. Even loaded nachos can be safe. No flour tortillas, but most of the other menu items are fine. Soft corn shells as opposed to flour ones, such as those on Enchiladas are usually safe. Most Tortilla chips are safe today, though cross contamination is possible. Occasionally the taco meat uses a spice mix that contains gluten, but we’ve been lucky with this. Check. For ‘fast’ Mexican, Taco Bell has chicken, steak & veggie bowls, though their ground beef mixture, sadly, contains gluten. Their chips, beans & rice are gluten free. At Qdoba or Chipotle, go with nachos & queso or your typical ‘burrito’ toppings on chips or corn shells, rather than flour ones. Their meat is gluten free. Each of them have allergen info on their websites.
Soups at restaurants are usually out because they often have noodles, or thicken with flour, but a Chili or Tortilla Soup can be okay, depending on their recipe. They could be thickened with cornstarch, but are usually made in large batches, which make an individual bowl made separately unavailable.
Desserts are usually prepared with flour, but simple ice creams or milkshakes can be a safe option, as can fruit with Cool Whip, yogurt, chocolate, or powdered sugar. A Root Beer float can be safe, however some Root Beers have gluten in their caramel coloring, so clarify the brand used before drinking these. A&W and Barq’s are gluten free. BJ’s Brewhouse has an amazing Gluten free Pizookie (Personal Pan Chocolate Chip cookie topped with ice-cream)! Yum!
Gluten free Pasta is available at some popular chains & typically vary from spaghetti to penne. Olive Garden, Biaggi’s, Carabba’s, some Bravo Italian, Old Spaghetti Factory & Romano’s Macaroni Grill offer gluten free pasta. I have been known to bring a Ziploc bag of our own uncooked pasta for them to cook, too. Most Marinaras are gluten free and you can ask them to cook your pasta separately, in the back. Aside from a Marinara sauce (tomato based “spaghetti”-style sauce), you could add grated cheeses, sauteed or grilled vegetables, meats, butter, garlic & seasonings. Cream sauces like Alfredo are not gluten free, since flour is a base of their sauce & I haven’t found a restaurant that uses gluten free flour, although you may find a gem out there that does. The soups are often made in large batches with gluten pasta. Grilled chicken, salad and seafood is available at most Italian restaurants.
Those are my Survival Tips for Dining Out With Kids Who are Gluten-Free. It’s scary and overwhelming in the beginning, like grocery shopping after diagnosis, but with this guide, you’ll be able to walk through it with confidence and before you know it, you’ll be passing along the Survival Guide Tips to help someone else, down the road. If you found the article useful, don’t forget to Share (at the top) to Social Media for someone else who is struggling, or for the ones who’ll face this challenge tomorrow and don’t yet know it. Good luck and stay healthy & well!
I don’t have a medical degree so I can’t give medical advice. This Guide is based on our own family’s experience and condition, and is current & accurate to the best of my research, experience, and knowledge, as of date written. It is not uncommon for companies to alter their recipes, so to be sure they’re still safe, check their website. Cross-contamination is possible any time it is outside of your home & control, even at restaurants with gluten free menus. Foods can also be contaminated at the food processing manufacturer or distributor levels. Tolerance & sensitivity to gluten, symptoms & contamination results vary greatly among individuals and depend on many factors.
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