It's not just a blip on the radar—going gluten-free has officially hit the big time.
You know a diet has passed the tipping point of "trend" when national chains like Applebee's and Cheesecake Factory introduce gluten-free options on their menus. As Americans begin to recognize the effect their meals have on their health, more and more people are getting more specific about their dietary needs, even when they're eating out.
And for many, eating healthy is about more than maintaining a trim figure. Three of the biggest dietary options available—Paleo, vegan, and gluten-free—are popular not just because they help their proponents lose weight, but instead because they can help heal digestive issues, chronic inflammation and pain, and regulate mood.
And while these diets are incredibly easy to follow when you're cooking at home, ordering at a restaurant can be a different story. Here are a few tips for ordering off any menu with ease, no matter which of these three diets you follow.
Eating out on a Paleo diet can be pretty easy, but there are still a few things to look out for when dining at a restaurant. Avoiding added salt, sugar, and refined vegetable oils can prove challenging, but if you stick to the basics you should be fine. Start with a big, leafy salad (skip the croutons) with the dressing on the side—store-bought dressings can contain sugar and other processed ingredients that aren't allowed on a Paleo diet. If you really want something to add flavor to your greens, ask the server for olive oil or avocado oil on the side. Fresh seafood, fish, and grass-fed meat are perfect options for an entree on the Paleo diet. If you’re not sure where your meat is coming from, just ask. If you’d rather not feel like you’re straight out of an episode of Portlandia, opt for fish like Pacific Halibut or wild salmon.
For your main course, ask for your protein to be cooked in grass-fed butter, coconut oil, ghee, or even non-hydrogenated lard. Avoid any sauces that come along with your protein—generally they’re full of sugar and oils that are a no-no on the Paleo diet, and you’re better off just skipping them.
Avoid: Cereal grains, legumes, dairy (unless it’s grass-fed), sugar, refined oils, potatoes, and processed foods
Ordering vegan can be tricky—all animal byproducts are off-limits, but some ingredients like honey, gelatin, and butter can lurk innocuously in otherwise safe dishes. Ask your server for the vegan-friendly dishes on the menu. Even if there isn’t anything on the menu that’s normally vegan, ingredients like cream and cheese can often be easily omitted from the recipe.
Can’t find a main course that works for your dietary needs? Don’t be afraid to order a bunch of side dishes to create a tapas-style meal for yourself—veggie sides are usually a safe bet. Avoid surprises (or being told that the only thing you can eat on the menu is a house salad minus the dressing) by checking out your restaurant choices ahead of time. Just type your zip code into Happy Cow, a database of restaurants that serve vegan options, to check out all of vegan restaurants in your 'hood.
Avoid: Butter and cream, eggs, cheese, any meat or poultry, honey, gelatin, lard, and fish
Whether you’re eating gluten-free because you’ve been diagnosed with Celiac disease or because you suspect you may be gluten intolerant, one of the biggest issues that those avoiding gluten have to worry about is cross-contamination. Even though options are popping up at many restaurants to accommodate the growing number of gluten-free customers—28 percent of adults have eliminated gluten from their diets—some restaurants still don’t know to use separate tools to eliminate cross-contamination.
Ask for your server to tell you about gluten-free options on the menu if they aren’t already noted, and stick to grains like amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, and quinoa. Gluten can be present in many common sauces, condiments, and marinades, so unless they’re certified gluten-free, avoid soy sauce, ketchup, and aioli. Your best bet for ordering gluten-free? Ask to speak to the chef. He or she will know the ins and outs of every dish, and can easily make changes to accommodate a gluten allergy.
Avoid: Bread, bread crumbs, biscuits, crackers, croutons, soy sauce, wheat, beer, marinades, baked goods, barley, and rye
Illustration by Katherine Prendergast