Bringing food into a restaurant

I am not the most aggressive celiac person. I’m going to keep myself safe in every situation but I am typically not going to make a fuss. I’m more of a go along to get along person. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about bringing food into water parks, movie theaters, weddings, and even restaurants. Here’s what I think….

I think we need to think about the short and long term consequences of these actions.

If you are going to be somewhere with truly no gluten free options all day, then yes, you should be able to bring in a meal. For me, I would put it in my purse or backpack and not make a big deal of it. For example, at an amusement park or water park, I’d put a sandwich and some fruit in the bottom of my bag and not even have a discussion. But I would also make sure to buy a soda or water or some chips from them to balance out the difference. I would also eat a big breakfast before going to make sure I could make it most of the day before getting hungry.

Many places however, do offer gluten free options. They might be cross contamination nightmares, but maybe not. A bag of chips, a Snickers bar, and a coke can go a long way when hungry. A Slush Puppy or maybe a bit of pre-packaged ice cream will keep a child satisfied many times without the need for a big meal.

As consumers, we have a choice not to go to the place. There is an amusement park nearby that I’ve never taken my children to because they do not have any gluten free options. It stinks for my kids, but such is life. We choose to spend our money at other amusement parks where I can get gluten free foods.

For weddings or other more “social” gatherings, there is often times a caterer. Calling the host or hostess of the event prior to the event and explaining your issues might be the best option to ensuring a gluten free meal. The caterer should be aware of food issue and should be able to provide a safe meal. I wouldn’t count on getting a piece of cake, but you never know how generous someone can be until you let them know you need help.

If you are a guest of the invited person to the event, in other words the “plus one” with no relationship with the host or hostess, my suggestion would be to let the person that invited you know about your food issues. They may or may not want to contact the host of the event to discuss. If this is a new relationship or your “date” doesn’t want to mention it, you have two choices. The first options is to eat a big meal before, pack a small snack in a pocket or purse, and have another meal at a safe place after the event. The other option would be to decline the invitation. Please don’t do this. It would make me sad to think that someone would miss a fun event because of their food issues.

Regarding taking food into a restaurant, in my mind this is a big faux pas. Sitting at a restaurant is not an all day affair – it is 2-3 hours and at maximum 4 hours. When scheduling an evening out with friends, I always pick or approve the restaurant. If I don’t like the current choice, I offer an alternative of similar price point and type of food. I can go 4 hours without eating. I will eat before and after, but I don’t have to make a big deal about bringing food into a restaurant.

Restaurant eating takes on a whole other idea when it is a business function and there is no choice. If you are the guest or the plus one to this business function, it doesn’t matter. I would follow the same steps. First, contact the restaurant to determine if they can accommodate your needs. If so, problem solved. If not, then a suggestion of an alternate restaurant. If that falls on deaf ears, my suggestion is to say that you’ve had a big meal earlier that day and don’t order any food.

There are a few lawsuits working their way through the courts right now regarding those with celiac and restaurants. There is the lawsuit where the guy ordered french onion soup and got glutened from the restaurant and the one where the boy was on a field trip, didn’t feel safe allowing the restaurant to prepare a gluten free meal, and was asked to eat his lunch outside.

Many people point to the lawsuit where a college student was required to purchase the meal plan at school as part of their tuition and the university is required to accommodate her needs. Her celiac disease is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The only reason the university is required to provide safe meals is because they required her to purchase a meal plan.

The difference between many of the examples above and this case is that the student had no other choice than to purchase a meal plan. It was part of tuition. So in order to attend school, she had to buy the meal plan. One could argue that she could have gone to a different college, true, but she didn’t know until tuition and food were tied together, she had to choice. So, if you go to an all-inclusive that requires you to buy the meal plan, they are required to provide safe, gluten free food. Otherwise, you are on your own.

Also, from the ADA webinar slides regarding restaurant accommodations for food allergies, ” By way of example only, this may include: 1) answering questions from diners about menu item ingredients, where the ingredients are known, or 2) omitting or substituting certain ingredients upon request if the restaurant normally does this for other customers.”

There is a restaurant in Atlanta where I cannot eat. Their menu says, “Due to the nature of our service menu items cannot be altered.” The restaurant does not have to accommodate my celiac disease, because they don’t do it for other customers. If they did, they would have to accommodate me and they don’t. So I can’t go.

What if my husband wants to go to this restaurant? Number one, he wouldn’t want to go because of me. He might take a buddy and go, but he wouldn’t want to go. Number two, I can go and not eat. Number three, I can go, bring a cooler, and hope I don’t get kicked out. Then raise hell in the press because they didn’t accommodate my ADA needs and how dare they. When really, I’m in the wrong here.

Here’s the long term effect, if we start bringing our own food into restaurants they will stop trying to accommodate our needs. I would love to be able to occasionally eat out without worrying about cooking or cleaning or planning a menu or going to the store. If they stop accommodating our needs, then what are we left with? We will no longer have the ability to even occasionally go out. I just don’t want to see that. I want restaurants to do better, become educated about cross contamination issues, and be a safe place for me to occasionally get a respite from cooking all the time.

Anyway, I’ve started rambling. The bottom line is – yes, I think things could be better on restaurants and places accommodating our needs. No, I don’t think everyone needs to bring food everywhere you go. With a little common sense, humor, smarts, and politeness, we can get what we want every single time.

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