Dining out with a sensitive stomach? Here’s what to do

If a sensitive stomach or food intolerance makes eating out a nightmare, this advice will turn your next meal from a dining fiasco into a feast.

Dining out when you have a food intolerance can be a stomach-churning experience.

Whether you have a dairy or gluten sensitivity or a chronic condition such as irritable bowel syndrome, navigating menus loaded with hidden and potentially harmful ingredients – and dealing with unhelpful wait staff and sceptical dining companions – is not exactly a recipe for a good night out.

“Eating out can be very challenging for people with a food intolerance for so many reasons,” dietitian Chelsea McCallum says.

“Having a food intolerance may not be life-threatening, but the symptoms can be extreme – you really do need to take them seriously.”

How to safely dine out with a sensitive stomach

Be prepared

Chelsea says it’s always a good idea to check the menu online before you arrive.

“Make sure you understand what’s available,” she says.

“Then look up the restaurant’s socials to get a visual of the dish to see if you can spot any hidden ingredients – garnishes are often not listed on the menu, for example.”

Call ahead

Phone the restaurant before you go, outside of busy service times, Chelsea suggests.

“A lot of people don’t want to feel like a bother on the night, so call ahead and ask any detailed questions then,” she says.

Have a snack

They say you should never shop hungry, and Chelsea says the same advice applies to eating out when you have a sensitive stomach.

“Having a small snack before heading out is a good idea because when you’re starving, you’re more likely to make choices influenced by cravings or mood,” she says.

Opt for fresh first

Chelsea recommends selecting a restaurant that cooks food to order.

“Asian-style restaurants are a great choice because they make most dishes fresh and are more likely to be able to modify them to your needs, whereas dishes such as Indian and Italian are often prepared in advance,” she says.

Keep it simple

A good rule of thumb is to stick to simple, whole foods such as vegetables, meats and salads.
“If you are going Italian, for instance, steak and veggies are a great option,” Chelsea says.

Create your own meal

Main dishes with a complex list of ingredients can be tricky, Chelsea says.

“Explore the whole menu and see if you can build your own balanced main meal from things like sides, salads and entrees,” she suggests.

Ditch gluten and dairy

If you don’t yet have a diagnosis but often experience symptoms, Chelsea says a good blanket rule is to order gluten-free and dairy-free options.

“It’s an easy-to-understand, common request that many restaurants now accommodate,” she explains.

Accept that mistakes happen

Even with the most careful preparation, an ingredient that causes a reaction can slip through, Chelsea adds.

“If you or the restaurant makes a mistake, it’s not the end of the world,” she says.

“Document your experience, learn from it, and discuss it at your next appointment with your dietitian so they can help you map out a plan for next time.”

The Free From Allergy Show is on October 21-22 at the International Convention Centre Sydney. 

More on food intolerance and special dietary needs:

Written by Dimity Barber.