This article is contributed by Jenny Finke of Good For You Gluten Free. Jenny is a certified integrative nutrition health coach and gluten-free blogger. This article was created for informational and entertainment purposes only. You should do your own research and due diligence before eating at any of the restaurants listed in this article as restaurant policies and menus can change at any time.
Eating out is a way of life for me. It’s how I socialize with my friends, and celebrate happy occasions with my family. It’s also how I explore the wonderful flavors the world has to offer.
I would never tell someone to stay home if they have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. It makes my blood boil when people judge me (and others) for eating out.
While there are inherent dangers to eating out gluten-free, if you pick the right restaurants, order smartly, and convey the seriousness of your “allergy,” you can almost always get a safe, gluten-free meal wherever you go.
Plus, eating out is good for the soul! It has helped me feel normal and not have to miss out on precious time with family and friends because of my “disability.”
If you love eating out with your family, have no fear. I have selected what I think are the BEST family-friendly chain restaurants for eating out gluten-free. Of course, when eating out, always:
- Discuss your “allergy” with your server. Don’t just order a gluten-free dish; rather, tell your server that you eat gluten-free because it causes a serious reaction in your body and makes you sick. Have an open and honest discussion and always convey the seriousness of your request.
- Order wisely. Avoid foods that could be potentially exposed to cross contamination with gluten, like pancakes, waffles, pasta and pizza, and instead opt for grilled foods, salads and baked entrees. (You can always eat pizza at home.)
- Test your food with your Nima Sensor every time. Just because something is gluten-free one time at one restaurant doesn’t mean it will always be gluten-free when you go back. And just because I had a good experience with a restaurant in Denver doesn’t mean that same restaurant will be as amicable to serving you a safe, gluten-free meal in your hometown. This is why you must test your food with your Nima Sensor each and every time.
5 Best Nima-Tested Family Friendly Chain Restaurants
Below I share the five most family-friendly gluten-free chain restaurants based on my personal experiences. I based this list on several factors:
- Is the staff knowledgeable about and trained to handle food allergies (and gluten specifically)?
- Does the restaurant have a good-sized selection of gluten-free foods?
- Is the restaurant family-friendly?
- Is the restaurant widely accessible across the U.S.?
- How did the restaurant fare when put to the Nima Sensor test?
Of course, all experiences and opinions detailed in this article are my own.
You may have had completely different experiences (good or bad) at each restaurant. It’s okay if my selections don’t work for you. Just don’t eat there.
I always feel like my gluten-free requests are taken seriously and handled appropriately by Red Robin’s well-trained staff.
When ordering gluten-free, choose from a plethora of salads, burgers and entrees. Most excitedly, you can eat the French fries at Red Robin! Ask for the fries to be prepared gluten-free, and the staff will cook your gluten-free fries in a dedicated gluten-free fryer just for you. The fries are bottomless, so you can eat fries until your heart’s content.
Anything prepared gluten-free (including the fries) will come out of the kitchen with a purple toothpick stuck into it. This signals to the staff and diner that the dish is gluten-free.
How did Red Robin stand up to the Nima Sensor test? I’ve received a smiley face on each and every menu item I’ve tested. Bravo, Red Robin!
Read more about my Nima Sensor tests at Red Robin, and watch me test the restaurant Live in this article.
Chick-fil-a makes family-friendly fast food that our entire family enjoys. As a bonus, most Chick-fil-a’s are fitted with a fun play area to keep the kiddos thoroughly entertained.
When ordering, tell your server you have a “gluten allergy.” He will push a button on the register to alert the staff to change gloves and prepare your food separately.
You can eat a few things at Chick-fil-a. For starters, the waffle fries are gluten-free, cooked in a dedicated fryer that only cooks French fries (always inquire at your local Chick-fil-a to ensure the same). Also enjoy grilled nuggets or a grilled chicken sandwich with gluten-free bun, all made without gluten ingredients. The gluten-free sandwich will come out in a clearly marked, special container too, giving you assurance that your sandwich and bun are indeed gluten-free.
I’ve tested the fries, grilled chicken sandwich, gluten-free bun and grilled nuggets for gluten with my Nima Sensor. Nima came out all smiles!
Read more about my Chick-fil-a eating experiences, and watch me test the restaurant for hidden gluten with my Nima Sensor in this article.
When I get a hankering for Asian fare, I head over to Pei Wei. The food is good and there is something for everyone in my family.
In 2018, Pei Wei expanded its gluten-free menu to include more savory options such as gluten-free kung pao chicken, gluten-free ginger broccoli, gluten-free fried rice and gluten-free Mongolian beef among other items. You can also order your meal with gluten-free cauliflower rice instead of white or brown rice – yum!
Pei Wei only uses gluten-free soy sauce in ALL of its dishes (so in case you’re worried about soy sauce confusion, don’t be), and the gluten-free items are coated with a gluten-free flour and cooked in a clean, dedicated gluten-free cooking wok and workspace.
I’ve eaten at Pei Wei dozens of times and have never been sick (can’t say the same about its sister restaurant, PF Chang’s though). And my Nima Sensor is always all smiles when I test my food for hidden gluten.
Learn more about the gluten-free options at Pei Wei, and watch me test the restaurant live in this article.
If you want a sub sandwich prepared on a gluten-free roll (made by Udi’s) in a way that minimizes risk of cross contamination with gluten, Jersey Mike’s is the place to go. Jersey Mike’s is the only sandwich shop I’m aware of that worked with the Gluten Intolerance Group to train its staff on handling gluten-free requests.
When I ordered my gluten-free sub sandwich at Jersey Mike’s, I told the server I had a “gluten allergy.” She immediately washed her hands, changed her gloves and began to prepare my sandwich in a separate area with clean, gluten-free ingredients.
If you miss eating subs outside of the home, Jersey Mike’s offers one of the safer, family friendly options around. And, of course, Jersey Mike’s passed the Nima Sensor test.
Learn more about Jersey Mike’s gluten-free menu and my experiences eating at the restaurant in this article.
Most of Chipotle’s menu is gluten-free (except for the flour tortillas) so you can almost always get a safe, family-friendly meal here. With more than 500 locations worldwide, chances are you’ll find a Chipotle to eat at when you’re looking for something quick and fast to enjoy with the kids. (I even found a Chipotle in London!)
When ordering at Chipotle, ask your server to change gloves. Your best bet is to order a bowl with rice, veggies, any of the meats, beans and sides. You can also enjoy the corn chips.
The danger at Chipotle is cross contamination. You’ll notice at the end of the line the servers use their fingers (vs. a spoon) to grab lettuce and cheese. Ask them to grab these ingredients from fresh tubs to avoid cross contamination with hands that have also handled flour tortillas.
I’ve tested several items at Chipotle with my Nima Sensor and the only item that was questionable was the queso. The queso does not contain gluten, per se, according to Chipotle’s menu, but it looks like the one I tested succumbed must have somehow come in contact with enough gluten for Nima to detect it.
Learn more about Chipotle’s gluten-free offerings, and watch me test the restaurant for hidden gluten in this article.
I also would like to mention Five Guys for having a mostly gluten-free menu (everything is GF except the bun). If your kids like burgers and fries, they will be happy here. (The menu is limited, however, so it did not officially make the list).
Also, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) is a family-friendly restaurant and offers certified gluten-free pizzas (pizzas are certified by the Gluten Intolerance Group). I have two beefs with CPK that prevented me from including them on my top list.
One, CPK’s certified gluten-free pizza comes on a cauliflower crust (which kids may not like; and I don’t personally love either), and two, if you veer in any way from the pre-set gluten-free pizza selections, by, let’s say, asking for olives or tomatoes on top of your pizza, your pizza will no longer be cooked in the gluten-free area. While the intention is there, CPK often gets the execution all wrong. Always look for the gluten-free toothpick in your pizza to identify the pizza as safe. If you don’t see the toothpick, send it back.
Eat Out and Be Merry
I love eating out, particularly with my family. Doing it safely has become a personal mission for me. Eating out allows me to spend quality time with my family without having to spend the day cooking for myself and my kids. And with a little effort and excellent communication, eating out gluten-free can be safe to do.
I hope you will give yourself permission to eat out, and not let your “disability” deter you from enjoying the world, being social, and having fun. After all, ‘tis the season to eat, drink and be merry. Cheers!