How to survive a business lunch when you’re gluten-free
Since having to become gluten-free, I tend to frequent two kinds of restaurants:
1. The kind that has a gluten-free menu and kitchen staff trained to follow proper procedures for cooking for and serving gluten-free patrons
2. The kind where I know waitstaff is attentive and food is rather plain, where I could say something like “I am gluten-free, so would it be a problem for the kitchen to modify this meal for me so that the croutons don’t come on the salad/so that there is no bread on my dinner plate/so that the mashed potatoes come without gravy/etc?”
But what if you can’t eat at such a place? What if you have a business lunch where you have to go to a restaurant you haven’t eaten at before, with no known gluten-free menu, with fancier food and potentially hoity-toity chefs who don’t want to modify a recipe? Read on for my tips on how to survive—and stay gluten-free—at a business lunch!
* Eat beforehand. I know it sounds silly to eat before lunch, but unless you are going to a restaurant where you KNOW you can eat safely, you may not want to count on the restaurant being able to make you anything that is both safe and yummy for you. So always eat something before you go–protein-y snacks like nuts and cheese are things that can help keep you full for longer.
* If possible, offer to help pick the lunch location, and choose a restaurant that has gluten-free selections. Of course, this isn’t always possible.
* If you can’t choose the restaurant, do your research—and contact the eatery—before you go. Look at their menu online. Brainstorm what meals you could ask the staff to modify so that the food is safe for you to eat. You may even want to call them to discuss what options you might have. If the staff knows in advance that a gluten-free diner is coming to their restaurant, they may have an easier time modifying a recipe for you.
* Stash gluten-free snacks in your purse. You may or may not need them, but it’s always a good idea to have them just in case.
* Talk to your co-workers about it–to a certain degree. The people in my department know I’m gluten-free. Because of this, they’re not surprised to see me talking with a server for several minutes, trying to figure out what meal I can have. This also means they don’t ask me questions like “why can’t you eat that?” or “what’s wrong with you?”, which can get really annoying. But really, you only want to talk to them about it to a certain extent. Don’t tell them too many details about the um, digestive issues of what may happen if you eat glutenous food–it’s not the best mealtime conversation.
* Always be polite and courteous with servers, chefs, and other restaurant staff. This should go without saying–you should always be kind to them simply because it’s the right thing to do. But also remember that they’re likely making a special effort to make your meal right for you…and don’t forget that they also wield the power to royally screw it up for you. So be nice, be thankful and gracious, tell them you appreciate their effort–and when you’re the one who’s leaving the tip, tip well.
* Realize that you’re probably not going to have your favorite meal ever at this lunch. When I’m at a business lunch, my main goal is to get a meal that is safe for me to eat and is reasonably tasty. I understand that many places aren’t great at cooking for people who are gluten-free, so meals may not come out perfectly. And they may not be able to modify every entree to suit your allergy/intolerance, so you’ll need to be flexible and understanding. Aim to get the best meal you can possibly get, given the circumstances.
* There’s no need to apologize for your allergy/intolerance. You are a paying customer, and you deserve to have a meal that is prepared in a way that makes it safe for you to eat. As long as you are courteous when you are dealing with the staff and figuring out what you can safely eat, they’re not going to mind. They want to make it right for you so that you come back–they want you to have a good experience. So don’t feel bad about it–just do your best to make the most of it.
I originally published this article on Examiner.com.