How to Order at a Restaurant if You’re Dairy-Free

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If you have any dietary restrictions – whether due to food allergies, intolerances, or just strong preferences – it can be challenging to eat out and be safe, let alone relax and enjoy the experience. A bit of a foodie myself, I love to eat out and discover new flavors and places. But being gluten- and dairy-free, I know what I have to do to take care of myself and I take full responsibility for doing it in a way that is as unobtrusive as possible. Below are my tips for planning your meal out that will make it worth it. Much of it is in your expectations and attitude, the rest comes with a little bit of preparation and planning.

1) Set your expectations when choosing a restaurant.

I’m lucky to live in LA, a city that is familiar with dietary restrictions, and yes, picky eaters. Waiters are pretty used to requests for exclusions and substitutions. But given my two restrictions of gluten and dairy, there are some restaurants that I don’t even try to go to: French restaurants (due to the butter), Chinese, and Korean restaurants (due to the soy sauce). There may be some exceptions: if it’s a special event and you’re not choosing the restaurant, or if it’s a very modern, food-aware restaurant that you know is well-versed in dietary restrictions. But generally butter is so integral to French cuisine, and soy sauce is so integral to Chinese and Korean cuisine, that it would be very difficult to find something I could eat at these restaurants.

If you live in a town where, unlike LA, most restaurants are NOT familiar with dietary restrictions, then set your expectations for that, i.e. don’t expect to be able to eat a full delicious meal like everyone else at the table and maybe treat yourself to something yummy at home before or after to make up for it. And learn to cook yummy foods that you know are safe – there are lots of websites and cookbooks out there to help you, including ours!

2) Once you pick your restaurant, plan ahead.

Go online and look at their menu. The best scenario is that their dishes are labeled with their “free-from’s” – the most popular tend to be gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan. Sadly dairy-free often is not a label used in restaurants but if they already have the awareness to label their menu with these other categories, chances are that they’ll understand how to make a dish dairy-free. Also anything labeled vegan (but not necessarily vegetarian!) is safe for dairy-free diets.

You can also read the descriptions of the dishes ahead of time and make an educated guess of whether some of them are dairy-free. For example, if you’re going Italian (often a good choice for dairy-free diets, as long as you remember to say no cheese), and you see lots of dishes with red sauce, chances are there won’t be hidden butter or cream in the dish, unless it says creamy in the description.

The third and safest way to plan ahead is to call the restaurant and ask if they have dairy-free options, or if they can adapt dishes to exclude dairy. If they have no idea what you’re talking about, don’t waste your breath trying to explain more than a few words – chances are they won’t be reliable when it comes to actually understanding you and preparing your dish when you’re there.

3) When ordering, ask for help but don’t expect them to know.

What I usually do when ordering is I pick 2-3 dishes on the menu that look good to me, and that look like they could be ok or easily adapted for my diet. Then when the waiter arrives, I say something like “I can’t have gluten or dairy so I was hoping you could help me. I’m thinking of these dishes.” Then in the ensuing conversation I ask questions. Even if they say a dish is ok, I’ll ask about each part of the dish that has a chance of having dairy in it, e.g. whether it’s cooked in butter or whether the sauce/dressing has any cream in it. If it does, I ask if they could easily use oil instead. If they can make substitutions but the end result of the dish would be totally bland, then it may be worth it to choose another dish that doesn’t require as many amendments. Usually the waiter can help with that. The key is to treat it like a joint project and to be flexible, rather than to expect them to be knowledgable about what a dairy-free diet entails and to know how to adapt the whole thing.

Below are some common foods found in restaurants serving typical Western cuisine that contain dairy but may not be very obvious (like having cream or cheese in the name). This is by no means an exhaustive list but should give you an idea.

  • Fish – often cooked in butter
  • Confit – often means cooked for a long time in butter, although sometimes can be oil
  • Caramelized anything – usually cooked in butter
  • Pureed soups – often contain cream or butter
  • Chowders – unless they’re red, they’re usually cream-based
  • Salad dressings – often contain cheese or cream
  • Aoili, garlic sauce, pesto – these are some specific sauces that usually contain cream or cheese. In general it’s a good idea to ask about dairy with any sauce.
  • Rice – often butter is mixed in
  • Potatoes – often cooked with butter
  • Anything mashed – usually cooked with butter and/or cream
  • Also many people in the foodservice industry associate eggs with dairy, so when it comes to mayonnaise, I always say, if it’s just regular mayonnaise it’s ok, but the question is whether they add any cream to it

Here’s a more extensive list of potential sources of hidden dairy by our friend Alisa at Go Dairy Free.

4) When the food arrives, look at it.

This is your final test and also a good prompt to eat mindfully rather than just stuffing yourself. Take a good look at your dish before you dig in. If it’s white-ish, ask about it. If it’s got a thick sauce, ask about it. If it’s got white clumps of stuff in it, ask about it. Just remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry, even if it feels like you’re being a pain. The key is to do it all in a friendly way and remember you are depending on the efforts of the wait staff and kitchen staff to prepare your food safely and to communicate about it to you. Keep in mind that often they are probably not trained to take dietary restrictions into account, it’s probably not in their job description, and they’re usually under the gun to work quickly.

The key in all of this is to maintain an attitude of flexibility and friendliness. If you’ve been through all the steps above and your food still arrives with dairy in it, then yes you can let the restaurant know they’ve made a mistake. But if you go in there making it the problem of other people (the restaurant, your dining companions), then that will make for an unpleasant experience and probably cross contamination. If you have a good attitude but still encounter resistance at the restaurant, then it may be a good idea to go somewhere else, or to just order the simplest of side dishes and save your appetite for somewhere else. This does all take effort, especially if you’re just starting out with your diet, but I promise, it gets easier and more natural. I occasionally do have to remind myself to stay vigilant and keep asking questions, but in general, I’ve built up my repertoire of “safe” restaurants for me, and know how to do the work when trying a new restaurant.

I’d love to hear from you – what has been your experience dining out? Share in the comments below what are some tips that you use!

–Jennifer

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