One of the most challenging aspects of going on an elimination diet—whether it’s Whole30, low FODMAP, the clean program, AIP or something even simpler—is learning how to navigate the meals that you’re not fully in control of.
Since I’m a big believer in home cooking as the biggest step towards achieving your health goals, I think that the biggest hidden positives of these restrictive diets is that they force you to get in the kitchen. In fact, the more dietary restrictions I accumulate, the more I end up “living my message” of cooking the majority of my meals at home.
If you’re not someone with any experience or basic skills already in your tool belt, though, this can be especially jarring. And it’s not realistic to think you’ll go from microwave burritos and takeout Thai food to homemade blue plate specials 3 meals a day, 7 days a week.
I cook all the time, and I don’t want to make dinner every night. Which is why meal prep is so important to make sure there are always building blocks in the fridge. Since a lot of the time it’s people’s first rodeo with an elimination diet, I make sure all the recipes in my 4 Weeks to Wellness Program are able to be made ahead of time and fit within a streamlined meal prep session over the weekend.
But realistically, your diet is only as successful as your ability to live out in the world with it. So today I want to share some tips on how to maintain your dietary restrictions while eating at restaurants.
I know when I first went gluten-free I had no idea how to navigate a menu, hone in on the problem items and ask educated questions of my server. Moreover, 7 years ago, most of the servers didn’t even know what gluten was. Today, luckily, restaurants have become much savvier with dietary restrictions. But it can still be embarrassing to burden your poor waiter with multiple requests.
To make things easier for you, I’ve put together a simple guide to the best and worst cuisines for an elimination diet and what to eat there. The checklist will help you scan for problem dishes, ask more targeted questions and set yourself up for success while eating out. I’ve also included the best cuisines for different elimination categories, ideas for what to order, and dishes you’ll definitely have to stay away from.
Do you have any additional questions on eating out while on an elimination diet that I didn’t cover? Leave them below in the comments section and I’ll address!
Never been on an elimination diet but want to figure out your own food sensitivities? This is something I can help you tackle in my program. The next session doesn’t start until the fall, but it’s never too early to mark your calendar.
With health and hedonism,
ELIMINATION DIET EATING OUT FAQ
Before tackling this post, I posed the question to you guys on Instagram: what are your biggest struggles when it comes to eating out while trying new dietary restrictions? I got dozens of questions, and it seemed like the consensus was that the hardest part is knowing what to order and making your needs known without turning the entire table (and restaurant) against you. Here are some thoughts on these dietary dilemmas.
Traveling for long weekends for work or play means that I often end up on the road in a small town where it seems like everything is cooked in vegetable oil and nothing is compliant. Do you fast? Or do you fall off the wagon? If the latter, what’s the best way to get back on?
The reality of being on an elimination diet means you’re either going to have to be extra prepared for all scenarios, or accept the fact that your meal is going to be a little sad. Fasting, friend, is never the answer. You just might be eating a plain salad of iceberg lettuce instead.
Here are some quick tips to avoid this situation, and then we’ll address the question of when it’s okay to “slip.”
First, treat your body like a temperamental toddler and always be prepared with snacks. I try not to mistake snacks for a real meal. But when traveling with dietary restrictions, a well thought out snack pack is a necessity at all times to avoid hangry situations in which you feel like you’re between a piece of rock candy and a hard place.
Second, there will always be something to eat. Even in a small town. Even at McDonald’s. It just might not be very delicious and/or you might have to bend the rules slightly. In my e-book guide I go over some simple formulas for finding options at a variety of different cuisines and some ideas for what to request, depending on what you’re eliminating.
When it comes to straying, you have to remember the original mission of your elimination diet: is it to discover your food sensitivities, or simply reset? Often times protocols like the Clean Program and Whole30 will eliminate other irritants like alcohol, caffeine, and sugar from the mix and advise that you avoid fried items, cheapo vegetable oils, gums and additives in packaged foods.
As you know from my Vice Detox, I am a big believer in what removing those inflammatory ingredients from your life can do to your body. But they aren’t likely culprits for an actual allergy or immune response. When you’re removing SO many things from your diet and are faced with desperate situations, I think it’s important to remember the hierarchy of your omissions and the things that aren’t as important to be perfect on.
With junky ingredients like the ones I mentioned above, you’ll likely feel the effects immediately, regardless of how many days you’ve let your body rest from them. If it happens, you get back on the wagon the next day and use the physical response as a reminder of why you’re doing this diet in the first place. Sugar is pretty addictive, so it might be harder to tame your cravings after a slip, but c’est la vie.
For gluten, dairy, soy, corn, egg and any other food that you’re specifically testing for allergies, I would try to stay as strict as possible since you’re trying to give your immune system a rest for 21 days. Only then can you get a clear response when you reintroduce. More on elimination diet reintroductions here.
What is the best language to use with servers? When I’m eating out on an elimination diet, do I have food allergies? Are they preferences? I struggle with not wanting to be an inconvenience while making sure my language represents what I need. How do I make my requests not annoying, but also something that shouldn’t be dismissed?
This is the struggle! And the simplest tactic is to get all your questions out of the way over the phone, before you ever enter the restaurant. I did this all the time during my early days of being gluten-free when I wasn’t well versed enough in scanning the menu for problem dishes. Calling in advance is much less embarrassing, and if you do so at a time that’s less busy (lunch hour or early evening) the kitchen and waitstaff will be that much less annoyed by your questions (frankly, if my server days taught be anything, they are probably bored during those times and happy to help!).
In the my free e-book I give you some red flag dishes to scan for depending on your dietary restriction, and once you get used to them, you may be able to ask far fewer questions. My recommendation, whether in person or in advance: identify 3 specific dishes that look like your best possibilities. Then simply ask the server, do either of these dishes include _____? If they are unsure, just ask them to double check with the kitchen.
If the follow-up question is whether your request is an allergy or a preference, you can simply say: I need to avoid these items for health reasons. What they are really asking is whether the kitchen needs to take extra precautions for cross-contamination. This usually applies for nut, seafood, or celiac-level gluten allergies. Until you know for sure that you ARE allergic to one of these items, I would not make the kitchen bend over backwards to protect you.
However, in the case of gluten, there are a few cross-contamination things to keep in mind. On an elimination diet, it’s not necessary to worry about a few stray crumbs of bread on the counter. Or even the toaster. But I would recommend that you not eat items that have been in a cross-contaminated fryer or in the case of pasta, cooked in the same water as regular noodles. In the last two instances, you’ll end up with more gluten than just a few crumbs on your plate.
What do you do when you have to combine multiple kinds of diets? I’ve been vegetarian for years and know how to navigate that, but now that I’m trying dairy-free and gluten-free it’s a lot more complicated.
Anytime you’re combining multiple food groups, as happens with an elimination diet, things definitely get more difficult. The good news is, that you already know how to scan the menu for part 1. Now you just have to learn to scope out the other elements. Vegan gluten-free is a tall order, but most restaurants can accommodate it creatively these days by combining vegetable side dishes. Any restaurant that serves gluten-free pasta is also a great option since you can just add vegetables. And worst comes to worst, there’s usually a salad to be had.
MORE ELIMINATION DIET RESTAURANT TIPS
BYOB: bring your own beverages or beet chips.
Some of the cuisines that I highlight in my free guide here are just not that friendly to elimination diets. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get around them by bringing your own supplements. For example, if you’re on Whole30 or avoiding corn, a bag of Taro chips is a game changer for enjoying guacamole or salsa at a Mexican restaurant. Those avoiding alcohol and sugar can DIY lime or lemonade at the table with a portable bottle of stevia. And if you’re going to a sushi or Japanese restaurant, don’t forget to pack your own bottle of gluten-free tamari or coconut aminos!
The simpler the cuisine, the better.
When you’re avoiding multiple food groups, the less you’ll have to face on one plate the better. Despite the soy sauce, sushi restaurants are quite easy. You can bring your own coconut aminos as mentioned above, and then the other elements are self-explanatory: either plain fish, or plain rice, or plain fish with rice. You can ask for sliced avocado or a side of greens if need be and use a few slices of lemons as your condiment or dressing. New American, Greek and Mediterranean restaurants with clean, streamlined dishes also work well. These places should at least be able to do a green salad and scrounge up a piece of protein that is not pre-marinated. Hello, whole fish and lemony potatoes!
For more ideas on specific dietary concerns, make sure to download my free e-cook: The Elimination Diet Restaurant Cheat Sheet!