Whilst it’s brilliant that so many eateries safely cater for people with coeliac disease (or anybody that requires a gluten free diet), unfortunately, there are a few that don’t quite get it right. I personally feel the lack of understanding, of how crucial a strict gluten free diet needs to be for people with coeliac disease and the fact that some people choose the diet as a lifestyle option (but are not always committed to the diet) seems to have caused confusion about the true need and meaning of a gluten free diet.
Anybody living with coeliac disease will tell you, how reassuring it is to walk into a place to eat and be taken care of by staff who totally understand the coeliac condition. But it’s important to remember too, that there are other reasons why people need to follow a gluten free diet. They may have gluten sensitivity or have removed gluten from their diet before they were tested for the coeliac disease. And as there is only around a quarter of people living with coeliac disease in the UK that have actually been diagnosed, the chances are, that many people who opt for a gluten free diet as a lifestyle choice, may be unknowingly living with the condition and therefore need protecting too.
Some eateries put a lot of extra effort in place to ensure things are ‘gluten free’ when catering for somebody with coeliac disease – opposed to somebody who has chosen to follow a gluten free diet. But this shouldn’t be the case, as if you are advertising a dish as gluten free then that’s exactly what it should be at all times.
As someone who has worked as a cook for many years, I felt it would be good to use the experience I’ve gained in the catering industry, and the knowledge I have about living with coeliac disease, to offer up a few tips that you may like to adopt in your kitchen, to help ensure you can safely feed anybody that requires a gluten free diet.
Planning a gluten free menu
A well thought out gluten free menu is definitely the way to go for both gf diners and hospitality staff. And whilst it may be lovely to have an extensive menu to pick from, the majority of people who live with dietary needs totally accept that most of the time the options available to them may be more limited. So, when planning a gluten free menu, the only things you need to concern yourself with is that it’s great food and it’s completely gluten free.
When drafting up a gluten free menu, pay careful consideration (and be realistic) as to what gluten free food you can safely prepare in your kitchen. Only add things to the menu that start out gluten free and will remain gluten free throughout the whole preparation and cooking process.
You will probably find that you already have things on the menu that are naturally gluten free or which could be made so with a few simple ingredient switches. Stocking naturally gluten free ingredients as standard will also make it much easier to rustle up gluten free options.
Ingredients that carry ‘may contain’ any gluten containing grain or ‘not suitable for coeliacs’ warnings should not be used in gluten free food preparation as they are not 100% safe for people who require a gluten free diet. Personally I wouldn’t recommend using gluten free oats either, as not all coeliacs are able to tolerate them.
It’s best to review the menu on a regular basis, as manufactures can sometimes change the recipe of a product. And what was once suitable to include as an ingredient may no longer be.
Preventing cross contamination from gluten
For gluten to be harmful to a coeliac it needs to be digested. However, for anybody that has the condition, even the tiniest amount of gluten can cause gut damage and that is why it is not safe for them to eat any food that has come into contact with gluten.
Preventing cross contamination from gluten may sound daunting. But unless you are a busy bakery with flour flying around all over the place, it is totally achievable in any shared kitchen to prepare gluten free food safely.
You will need to dedicate some time to work out how you can safely prepare gluten free food in your kitchen. Consider the areas you’ve got and pick out the most workable spot. Somewhere that can be easily wiped down when you need to safely rustle up gluten free options. Even a nice clean trolley would make a great gluten free workstation.
Here are a few key things to remember (and simple switches you can make) to prevent cross contamination from gluten:
- Wash your hands before starting to prepare gluten free foods and avoid touching gluten containing foods until you’ve finished prepping.
- Ensure all the equipment you use to prepare and serve gf food on is spotlessly clean.
- Use clean stainless-steel utensils (they are non-porous) to stir gluten free foods.
- Wipe down gf preparation areas with disposable kitchen roll rather than a cloth that may have been used for other tasks.
- Use a separate dedicated chopping board when making gluten free sandwiches. A large clean plate will do the trick if you only occasionally make them.
- If you don’t have a separate fryer to cook gluten free chips (heat does not destroy gluten) then you could always ‘chip’ a few potatoes and cook them on a tray with a little vegetable oil in a hot oven.
- If you need to toast gluten free bread but only have one toaster, then place the gluten free bread on a clean tray or piece of kitchen foil and toast it under the grill instead.
- Store gluten free bread, flour etc on a dedicated shelf – well away from dusty gluten containing things like flour.
- When heating gluten free food in a microwave ensure that it is covered to prevent any food debris falling onto it.
- Cook uncovered gluten free food on the top shelf of the oven and always place the food onto a clean baking tray first and not directly onto the oven rack.
- Label up a butter pot with a ‘gluten free’ sticker to use for gf sandwiches, jacket potatoes, etc. You could instead use separate butter portions.
- Unless everything is gluten free, salad bars and buffets are not safe for people who require a gluten free diet. Instead, make up a plate for them direct from kitchen.
- Ideally get into the habit in the kitchen of using a clean spoon and not double dipping into condiment jars, sauces and jams as this will ensure that if gluten free it will still be safe to eat.
- Offer a pre-order service that would allow you to safely rustle up gluten free sandwiches and salads before it all gets a bit bonkers at service time. Advertise that you offer this service.
These bullet points may seem a bit full on, but they do really matter and will just become second nature when practiced regularly.
Consider doing a monthly/weekly totally gluten free menu
If you feel concerned that your shared kitchen would struggle to safely offer up a gluten free option, how about dedicating one full service on a regular basis to only serving up gluten free food? This would give you chance to give your kitchen a good clean down and allow you to prepare gluten free meals with full confidence. You will probably still attract your regular customers too, as many foods are naturally gluten anyway and there may not be a huge difference to what you’d have on offer on your standard menu.
Train staff about dietary needs
Set up a training day dedicated to educating staff about dietary needs and diarise regular refresher meetings. Keep a diet folder with dietary information that staff can be refer to and add to it as you spot articles that are relevant. Ideally if you can, invest in getting a dietician in to do a talk. It’s so good to keep in the loop about specific dietary needs and you are investing in your staff by spending time and safeguarding your customers by covering this with them.
Some final suggestions that you could do, that will instil confidence for gluten free diners:
- When people book to make a reservation, ask if anybody within the party have any dietary needs (f the information is not already volunteered to you).
- When serving meals advise the person who requires a gluten free meal that theirs is gluten free as you serve it to them. This additional confirmation before somebody tucks in goes a long way. And don’t ever feel offended if they question further about to suitability of their meal, it’s a confidence thing when you have dietary needs to know that all will be well.
- Find your signature gluten free dish and knock it out of the park. People will come far and wide for the promise of great gluten free food.
- Shout about your great food and all the things you have in place to safely cater for dietary needs. Nothing instils confidence more, than offering up information about what safe work practices you operate without being prompted. It shows you know your stuff.
- Cater with pride and be attentive to people that have dietary needs. If you do the right things, they will be so grateful and will come back time and time again and tell others what a great place you’ve got going too.
This post has been a labour of love for me and has been on my to do list for far too long. It’s not exhaustive and I know over time I will be back adding more bits and bobs. But the main message I really want to get across, is that a gluten free diet can be easily accommodated but it’s so important that it’s not compromised. There are thousands of people like me that can’t thank you enough for all the effort you put into feeding us great food. Please do crack on and thank you for safely catering for people with coeliac/celiac disease anybody that requires a gluten free diet.
Coeliac disease is a condition where your immune system attacks your own tissues when you eat gluten. This damages your gut (small intestine) so you are unable to take in nutrients. Once diagnosed, the only treatment for coeliac disease is a strict lifelong gluten free diet. To gain an accurate test result for coeliac disease a person needs to include gluten in their diet six weeks prior to testing. A specific blood test and endoscopy is currently the testing procedure for coeliac disease.