Living with any dietary restriction — be it gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, animal-free, nightshade-free, sugar-free, or [fill in the blank]-free — can make mealtime anything but a stress-free project. It's one thing to prepare and enjoy your food at home where you have the ability to control every bite that enter your mouth. But going out to a restaurant is a whole other ballgame.
When you eat in a restaurant, the entire fate of your meal rests in the hands of your server. Think of your that person as your telephone line to the people preparing your food: it can either carry a static, unclear message, drop the call entirely, or have a crystal clear connection with the kitchen.
The good news is communicating with a server is an art that can be mastered! Here are some insider tips based on my years of experience as both a server and a cook:
1. Don't ever assume your server knows what any of these phrases mean.
He might think vegans can eat butter. He might think couscous is a gluten-free food. He might not know a nightshade from a lampshade. So, be specific. Tell your server exactly what you are avoiding: butter, cheese, tomatoes, wheat, etc. Double check that your specific ingredient is not in the dish you are ordering. (You can even ask him to check with the kitchen, most servers won't mind.) Just don't ever assume you're on the same page, put yourself on the same page.
2. Think outside the box, but stay inside the menu.
Often it proves more effective to modify an already existing menu item than to totally create your own. (An exception to this is if you're in a very high-end restaurant where there's a brilliant and passionate chef in the back eager to improvise a lovely meal.) But for the most part, you'll be dealing with skilled cooks in the kitchen who are trained in cooking the dishes on the menu. So help them help you. Order an item that's already on the menu, ideally one that requires the least changes — for example, ask for pasta with olive oil to replace the cream sauce, see if you can get the salad with chickpeas instead of the bacon, the burger without the bun.
3. Don't forget to ask about the ingredients.
Never assume a dressing is made without eggs or a soup without cream or a veggie burger without corn. SO ASK. Ask about everything you're thinking of getting, because there's nothing worse than ordering a meal, getting it delivered chock-full of cheese, and sending it back because YOU made the mistake of forgetting to ask to hold the parmesan.
4. Do a little research before you arrive at the restaurant.
If you have dietary restrictions that go beyond "no butter, please," it makes sense to do a little homework ahead of your meal. Almost every restaurant these days posts its menu online, so before you head to the restaurant, make sure they'll have something for you to eat. Try to find three edible options, just in case there's a hidden forbidden ingredient in your first two choices.
You read that right: sometimes you have to lie to your server. Sometimes you need to say that you have an ALLERGY to butter, peppers or flour to get your point across and to make sure your needs are met. This is especially true when there's a language barrier with the server or you just have one who seems rushed and impatient. When you use the word "allergy," it really drives the point home that you are NOT to consume that particular ingredient because the server knows that if you wind up in the hospital, he probably won't be getting much of a tip.
6. Be as kind as you possibly can.
Some servers are wonderfully accommodating to restricted eaters. Perhaps they can relate because they themselves have a unique dietary need, or they're a kind and understanding person, or maybe they just want a big tip. Other servers can be difficult. Perhaps their ex had a unique dietary need so they're bitter about it, or they're lacking sensitivity and patience, or maybe they just want leave work early. Whichever server you're assigned, always treat them with kindness. Being polite, appreciative and grateful can truly make the difference between your server going above and beyond to help you eat a fantastic meal and your server telling you the house salad is your only option. Always remember the basics: Smile and mind your manners, saying "please" and "thank you" goes a long way.