The trials and treats of eating out low FODMAP: Restaurants

Low FODMAP meals at home? No problem. Eating out? Possibly a different matter entirely, at least at the beginning.

Eating out is something I’ve always loved to do whether it’s visiting my favourite restaurants or trying a new place that’s been recommended by friends or reviews. I’ve been eating a wheat-free diet for many years, and that’s something most restaurants can accommodate. But try removing onion, garlic, milk and a seemingly random list of fruits, vegetables and nuts, and it can feel too complicated an ordeal to venture out and put your health in someone else’s hands!

My first few restaurant visits after starting the low FODMAP diet stuck to the safe options of steak or gammon with chips (checking they didn’t have any coating) and salad (beware that most salads seem to be pre-doused with unsuitable dressings unless you specify otherwise) or salmon with new potatoes and safe vegetables.  I like both those meals, and cooked well they can be really tasty. However, knowing that’s all I could eat made those options far less attractive.

steak (500x313)

After deciding not to settle for this (far easier when you’ve got your head properly around the diet rather than having to check the Monash app to find out whether or not you can eat something), things have got much better.  I’ve found many restaurants (mostly those that have proper chefs that cook meals from scratch rather than chains that do little besides reheating) are more than happy to accommodate dietary requirements.

A few months on I’ve eaten Thai, Italian, Bengali, Greek and English cuisine, mostly with great success, and although I can’t pick from as wide a selection as I used to, it’s expanding as I get more confident in knowing which questions to ask, which dishes might trip me up and which restaurants are great at adapting meals.

Here are some tips that have helped me:

Call in advance

Ring up the restaurant, preferably at a quieter time when the chef is more likely to be available, and explain that you have some food intolerances/ allergies and ask if they’ll be able to accommodate you.  Doing this also helps reassure you that you’ll be having a nice meal with everyone else, and that you won’t have to have a massive discussion about what you can and can’t eat when you order (with everyone at the table listening in, which I never find too enjoyable!).

Before I ring, I usually look at the menu online first (if available) to pick out a few things I think I’d like and would be easy to adapt. The first time I did this was a Bengali restaurant where garlic and onions are in everything, so I had nothing to start with beside ‘Feel free to laugh at me for even asking!’. But that ended up being a hugely successful meal out as they immediately assured me they could make something special for me and were really thorough about checking all the ingredients they included. And it was delicious.

Ringing in advance also gives the restaurant time to do some prep if necessary. For example, some restaurants marinate all their meat as soon as it comes in the door. One restaurant told me that if I rang the day before, they’d either keep some meat plain for me or get some in specially.

When you order, get them to write ‘no onions or garlic’ (or whatever your main triggers are) on the order

I’ve had a couple of pub meals where the waiting staff were under the impression something didn’t have garlic or onion in anyway, so haven’t specified this to the kitchen, but when it’s arrived in front of me, the onion has been visible on a salad or in a fish filling. Most errors are down to a lack of communication, so this adds an extra layer of insurance for you.

If in doubt, check again when your food arrives

I had an instance of ordering a fish dish with spinach and feta minus the onions, only to have my plate mixed up with someone else’s who’d ordered the same. The waiting staff serving the meals hadn’t realised one was different, so I got onioned. Luckily I spotted it before I tucked in, but my onion-free dish had already been half eaten by that point. So if you have any suspicions or niggles, ask the staff to confirm with the kitchen that it’s onion/ garlic free when it arrives and allow them to put it right (I find this so much easier to do at a restaurant, than when you eat at someone’s house – more about those pitfalls another time!).

Keep the explanations simple

We know we can eat the spring onion greens but not the white part and that garlic infused oil is okay while garlic is the devil. But let’s face it, these things don’t always make sense to us even when we’ve been on a low FODMAP diet for some time. You may have a chef who is creative and willing to accept random rules, but I find the looks you get when you tell people things like this just switch their thought processes from thinking it’s a complicated diet that helps your health, to assuming you’re following some faddy Mickey Mouse diet. And if they don’t take it seriously then they’re less likely to be stringent about checking what goes into your dish.

Use the allergen menu if available

Larger restaurants often have allergen menus which can be really useful. A member of staff will usually help you look through it if needed. For example Pizza Express have a very thorough allergen menu which includes garlic and onion. The first time I had one of their gluten pizzas a few years back, the base was so tough that I concluded I’d used more calories chewing it than I’d actually gained from eating it. But I had another recently (thanks to my Tesco Clubcard vouchers) and it was pretty good; their pizza sauce doesn’t contain garlic or onion which is a major bonus.

If you have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them so please add them in the comments section!

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