*Editor’s Note: This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment.
For people who have dietary restrictions, dining out and awkward social situations go together like peanut butter and jelly.
As someone who has a severe gluten intolerance, I know this all too well. Whenever I eat in a new environment—whether it’s a new restaurant, a friend’s house, or a buffet line—I feel anxiety creep in about how the food is prepared and whether I can eat anything.
This problem reared its ugly head during my sister-in-law’s wedding. In all the excitement of preparing for the big day, I neglected to bring along some gluten-free snacks in case of emergency. I would soon regret that oversight.
We sat down for a beautiful dinner, and the server came around to tell us about our options. I asked her which menu items were gluten-free, and she pointed to the salmon. I politely nodded without giving it a second thought. In the midst of wedding revelry, I didn’t have a chance to ask her my standard questions about food preparation.
My stomach dropped when the server placed my dinner on the table—the salmon fillet was swimming in a glaze that definitely included soy sauce, which typically contains wheat gluten. I asked the server whether it was made with gluten-free soy sauce, and she said she thought it was. Considering I would be sick for days if I ate a gluten-laden dish, I wanted to be absolutely sure it was safe.
With my husband’s blessing, I mentally committed to being okay with creating a bit of a scene in front of his family. I stood up while most people were digging into their meals, and I chased the server down near the kitchen area to ask whether she could check the label of the soy sauce used in the dish.
Shortly thereafter, the server emerged from the kitchen and apologized profusely—it turns out there was wheat in the soy sauce. She took my plate and returned a few moments later with salmon sans sauce. I felt slightly embarrassed, but I was grateful to be able to enjoy the night without a dinner mishap.
I have countless equally cringe-worthy tales of uncomfortable dining situations spurred by my dietary needs. It theoretically shouldn’t be a problem, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get accurate information about what’s in our food. This lack of data to make better decisions around mealtime inspired me to become an entrepreneur, and it drives me to keep pushing forward every day.
Embrace the awkwardness of dietary restrictions. Considering that 60 percent of American adults deal with dietary restrictions, it’s important to find ways to address allergy anxiety and disarm disastrous dining situations.
Here are a few tactics I’ve mastered over the years:
1. Be upfront about dietary needs.
It’s significantly more awkward to not eat a meal than it is to speak up about dietary needs. As is often the case, I learned this lesson the hard way.
When I was newer to my sensitivity, I was rarely proactive in telling others about it. I didn’t want to cause trouble, and I felt a bit embarrassed about my dietary needs. In the end, I made things a lot more awkward for my hosts when I didn’t say anything in advance.
Take the time I was invited to a friend’s dinner party with lasagna as the main course. Because I couldn’t eat the lasagna and didn’t say anything in advance, I spent the meal nibbling from a sparsely filled plate while everyone else felt uncomfortable about enjoying the meal.
2. There’s no such thing as over-communication.
Managing dietary restrictions can feel exhausting, and I sometimes become complacent when dining out. I was grabbing a bite to eat with my brother recently, and I simply ordered something marked gluten-free on the menu. My brother was surprised—and a little concerned—that I didn’t notify the waiter of the severity of my gluten sensitivity. He noted that merely ordering a gluten-free entree was insufficient.
He’s right. Not everyone orders gluten-free fare for health reasons, so it’s important to clarify that I avoid gluten because of serious health concerns. Nine times out of 10, restaurant staff members are willing to make an extra effort to ensure everything is completely gluten-free.
3. Bring backup.
I spent many years worried about making a scene during meals. I also wasn’t great at planning ahead, which typically led to me going hungry. Case in point: the lasagna dinner party I mentioned before.
My nourishment is now my top priority, so I go out of my way to travel with backup dining options. Whether it’s a nutrient bar, a bag of trail mix, or some fresh fruit, I try to bring along something small to hold me over in case I have no other options.
We’re living in a somewhat puzzling time when it comes to the relationship between people and food. Society is generally more aware of food allergies and sensitivities, but consumers send mixed messages to restaurants and catering companies by saying one thing and then doing another. Diners might order a carefully prepared gluten-free dish and then wash it down with a cold wheat beer. It’s no wonder so many people are confused by food allergies.
This rampant confusion can be detrimental for people who must avoid certain foods for serious health reasons. To eliminate some of these misconceptions, those of us with dietary restrictions must be upfront about our allergies, overcommunicate our needs, and bring along backup options to ensure we don’t starve. In due time, any awkward dining moments related to food sensitivities will be little more than a distant memory.
Author: Shireen Yates
Image: @ecofolks on Instagram
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Nicole Cameron
Social editor: Waylon Lewis