I used to love to go out to eat. In fact, one of my favorite parts of dating was going to a restaurant every weekend (sorry, guys!). Even before the gluten-free, dairy-free life, I still ate pretty healthy, so restaurants were my chance to treat myself to all the stuff I wouldn’t allow myself to keep in the house. A creamy pasta or seafood dish was always a winner. Follow that up with a brownie topped with ice cream and you can guarantee I had a pretty good night. In fact, the very first “real” date my husband and I went to was to an Italian restaurant, and, I’m not proud to say, I wasn’t able to resist the temptation to sample some cheesy pasta.
My intestines didn’t thank me.
After my diagnosis, things changed. Restaurants no longer became fun for me. My options were extremely limited, and I didn’t like being reminded of that. As a result, I would just take my chances with whatever on the menu seemed like it should line up with my restrictions. This left me with some protein entrees and a lot of salads. And since I’m not a huge meat lover, practically every time I dined out, I ate some combination of lettuce and dressing. I skipped the dressing or just had some oil and vinegar for fear of what kind of thickening agents, creams, and cheeses were in the dressings, but even with doing this, I’m sure I was also ingesting a whole lot of cross contamination and hidden gluten along the way.
Worse yet, there was a crippling anxiety that came over me every time I sat down to a restaurant table. No matter who we were with or what we were eating, I knew the conversation would eventually turn to my diet. And if there was one thing that I hated even more than being limited to what I could eat, it was having my wacky diet be the center of attention at a table full of people.
I’ll admit: a big part of the problem was my own self-consciousness. I was embarrassed by all of my eating restrictions. I know that might sound silly, but it’s the truth. I hated to bring them up. Now, throw in dating in your early twenties (which were most of the situations I found myself in when eating at restaurants) and you can see there was absolutely no way I wanted to bring up my gastrointestinal deficiencies. My husband still feels badly about his choice of Italian restaurant for our first date, but the thing is, he had no idea about my food intolerance. If he had met me four years earlier, the place would’ve been a hit!
Needless to say, eventually I told my now husband about my diet, and he was super supportive. He was the one that pushed me to start being my own advocate at restaurants. Slowly I started to get up the courage to mention my situation to the waiter, and much to my delight (and relief), most servers were very helpful. They’d point out options that might be good for me, or even talk to the chef about modifying a dish. It sounds simple, but sometimes speaking up isn’t the easiest thing. The truth of the matter is that this kind of diet is a special circumstance that you have to learn to live with. Once you adjust your thinking to that fact, it becomes a whole lot easier to deal with.
Not only did I start to eat more than a bowl of lettuce and a Diet Coke, but the way I felt when I sat down to dinner changed as well. I didn’t spend the entire time at the table completely obsessing and worrying about what was in my food. I was able to enjoy the experience of dining out again.
Now that said, going to a restaurant out will never be what it used to be. I don’t have my pick of the menu, but I’m cool with that. As more and more restaurants develop gluten-free menus, hopefully it will keep getting easier (Yes, currently some of these menus are just salads or chicken breasts, but at least they’re trying). The real key to getting what you want is just to muster up the courage and ask for it. There really is no embarrassment in having food restrictions; it’s all in our heads.
So speak up!
How do you handle eating out in a restaurant with food restrictions?