How to choose a restaurant when you are on a special diet
Let’s face it, eating healthy is not always easy when dining out in restaurants, especially when a special diet, food intolerance or allergies are involved!
I have always had difficulties finding suitable food, especially when I travel, far from home. But the same is true at home, when I don’t know the place.
Many restaurants have the bad habit of serving food that is too greasy, and making sensitive stomachs easily sick and so not ideal for a special diet. But thankfully, awareness is growing and things are slowly changing!
There could be many reasons why restaurants owners care more about offering healthy food and accommodating their guests’ special diets.
Some restaurants owners care about the environment, others about enhancing local communities, and others about their customers’ sensitivity. The best ones care about these 3 things!
Thanks to us – a community of people who care about our health as well as our environmental impact – many restaurants are also realizing the importance of responding to their clients’ requirements.
Special diet: when it is a choice
There are many reasons why people may need to follow a special diet. Some people choose to have a different diet because of :
an increasing concern for the environment.
a concern for animal welfare
to optimize their health (physical capabilities and/or wellbeing)
While these requirements came from a minority in the past, today more and more people are waking up to these different topics and therefore requiring something specific that responds to their special dietary requirements.
Special diet: when it is a necessity
There are so many surprising food intolerances, or even worse: food allergies.
I get it, it’s not easy for restaurants to always bear this in mind. But actually, it is mandatory for restaurants to provide you with information about the allergens in their menu if you request it, at least it is here in Spain.
So if you have a food allergy or intolerance, you should be able to ask the restaurant you are dining in what allergens are on their menu.
Obviously, it is important to respect everyone’s diet requirements, no matter if it is a choice or a necessity. But I just separated the two because when one gets sick, it can be a matter of good health or illness, and sometimes it can even lead to worse scenarios. So it’s vital to those people to find a place they can trust.
There are so many people we don’t think of when we cook:
Celiacs can’t eat gluten, like wheat-based products.
Some people have a fructose intolerance and can’t have any fruits or vegetables high in fructose.
Some are allergic to nuts, fish, or even certain fruits like peaches or strawberries!
Diabetics can’t have any kind of sugar.
People suffering from high cholesterol need to eat a low-fat diet.
More and more people have a lactose intolerance.
And there are many more!
I have talked recently about the FODMAP diet, a special diet based on low fermentable sugars, that can be useful for the 10 to 15% of the global population suffering from IBS and digestive issues.
How is it possible that such a widespread pathology gets no attention in the hospitality industry?
The reason might be that such diets seem difficult to follow. But basically, it’s a question of quality of service and flexibility.
Hints to find places serving healthy food
Here are some hints that will help you discern great places serving healthy food and caring for people with special diets or food intolerances:
They should easily be able to provide you with an allergen menu
If they don’t, they clearly state that you can ask for any special requirements
They offer a menu of the day, depending on what was available at the market that day
Their food is provided locally, possibly talking about “zero kilometre”
Organic food is available
The menu contains options not only for vegetarians but also for vegans
They use different cooking methods like boiled, steamed or grilled, and not only fried
Their food is cooked once it has been ordered, so they won’t serve you straight away: that means it hasn’t been reheated in the microwave!
Plastics are avoided at all costs, especially with takeaway services
They avoid food waste, one of the worst causes of CO2 emissions, by offering doggy bags, avoiding gigantic plates, or collaborating with entities to collect food like Barcelona Comparteix or Too Good to Go
They treat their employees well and take their social responsibility seriously
Their bathroom is spotless: that’s a great indicator that my dad taught me about!
These are only examples, and no restaurant is perfect and will do all of the above. But you can rest assured those who do some of these actions are usually the best restaurants in terms of food quality and service. And a restaurant with great service will always try to accommodate your special dietary needs.
And a restaurant with great service will always try to meet your dietary restrictions.
10 tips to make sure you find the right restaurant
The hints I gave above are generic and come from your observation of the place. However, there are some actions you can take that involve a bit of planning. That way, you will actually make sure the place you go to is suitable to your special diet.
1. Search online
There are review sites that can help you decide, with filters that allow you to rule out anything that doesn’t offer your type of food.
2. Download a special app for special diets
If you are in France, I would recommend you download the Shoku app, a new project helping people find restaurants suitable to their diet.
Depending where you are located, you could search for a similar app available in your region to help you find the right restaurant.
3. Give them a call
Nothing better than actually giving the restaurant a quick call to ensure that your dietary options are available there.
4. Make a reservation requesting your special diet
Many restaurants offer the possibility of online booking, using their own website if you can. You can add any comment related to your food intolerance and allergies.
5. Check their menu
As mentioned before, the best is if they have an allergen menu. But if they don’t, have a look at the dishes before you get in. Many have a QR code nowadays, that you can quickly scan to check. Or look at their menu online.
6. The atmosphere
Pay attention to the music: if they play music very hard, it’ll probably be somewhere where they want you to just eat and leave. And you can expect fast food, quickly done, and usually of bad quality. Also, a hectic place is unlikely to take the time to care for special dietary needs. I’d rather look for a cosy and relaxed atmosphere.
7. Family business versus chains
A family business usually takes better care of their guests and will do their best to accommodate your needs. There are exceptions, obviously, and I know some great chains too. But in my experience, it was easier to get what I needed from a small structure than a giant.
8. Tell them as soon as you arrive
The earlier you say it, the better it is. Tell them you have a food allergy or intolerance before they even give you the menu. That way, they can make sure to advise the kitchen straight away and find alternatives that suit your dietary requirements.
9. Ask locals for recommendations
I love to ask locals, after all they are the ones living in that place and most likely to know what they are talking about. Even if they don’t have themselves a special diet, just ask them for the ones that have the best service and quality, and who offer local and seasonal foods. Restaurants who care for the health of the environment usually care for the health of their guests, too.
It can be the tourist office, the concierge of the hotel you are staying at, your hosts if you’re staying in a B&B or if you visit friends and family, ask them directly.
10. Follow food, travel or local blogs
I am preparing a blog post about some of those restaurants and cafés in my hometown, Barcelona. So if you happen to live here or if you are planning to travel here, stay tuned!