Laura Stonehouse, author of 'Our House for Tea', follows a low-FODMAP diet and has learnt over the years to ways to make a restricted diet not hold her back from going out and enjoying a meal. She shares here her top tips for eating out and keeping your friends at the same time ;-)
Although low-FODMAP differs from Paleo, the themes and issues she comes up against when dining out are very common to anyone who follows a cleaner living approach to food.
Recently I went away for the annual meet up of my college friends. After a terrifically busy time I was so looking forward to some relaxed time catching up with my oldest-bestests. Unfortunately, I had a last minute rush on and didn't get time to pack properly, throwing a random collection of things in a bag just before catching a train to Leeds.
I had 3 pairs of heels but no shampoo, 6 pairs of socks but no contact lenses. You get the idea. The clothes I could get over but it was only when we were about to go out for dinner my friend asked ‘You did call ahead didn't you?'
I had forgotten my cardinal rule – always call ahead.
There is nothing more tedious for your dining companions than listening to you cross-examining the waiting staff about every aspect of the ingredients in a dish.
You also need to ask how each dish will be prepared to know whether substitutions or omissions can be made.
The staff will need to check whether it's possible with the kitchen by which time, out of embarrassment and hunger, your friends will be gnawing at the napkins.
So my top tips would be:
1. When choosing your restaurant look to see if there is a menu online. Have a look through and see if there's anything you can eat.
2. Call the restaurant, try to speak to the manager or even better the chef. Invariably you will be asked – so what can't you eat? Ideally you would be able to say ‘gluten-free', most restaurants now offer gluten-free options as standard. However, in the case of Low-FODMAP or Paleo, the list is too exhaustive to reel out in one call. Avoid calling during busy times. If you are interrupting a hectic service they are not likely to be predisposed to helping you! I find 10.30am or 3.30pm to be good times.
3. Offer to email a list and then suggest things you could eat on the menu with one or two changes. I think this is important out of politeness more than anything else. It shows you appreciate the menu they have created and would like to try their food but in a way that isn't going to make you ill.
4. Phone and double-check the day before that they have got a note of your dietary requirements. Shifts change, staff changes – it's best to double check that those working are going to be aware. Make yourself known to staff on arrival – no song and dance routine but a polite ‘thank you for your help, I'm looking forward to the meal' will suffice.
5. If you have a good experience, do remember to either email or call a thank you afterwards. Good manners help us all: restaurants are going to be more likely to help out future diners, if the experience has been a positive one.
The most impressive case of customer service I encountered was at a hotel. The manager met me on arrival and introduced me to those who would cook during my stay. They had all read my lengthy email exchanges with the manager and chef and wanted to make sure I knew who to ask if I wasn't sure about anything. Exceptional work.
There will be some establishments that will not cater for you as they have you pegged as a fussy eater – let them get on with it and don't waste your custom on them.
So what did I eat on my night out in Leeds? I could see immediately that most of the menu would be unsuitable for last minute changes. Rather than make life too tedious for my friends I didn't have a starter (unless you count a Negroni). A superlative steak, with a various sides of vegetables, all of which they kindly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice made up my main course.
To be honest I was fairly full after all my veg but I also saw the desserts were not going to be appropriate – I skipped pudding for another cocktail… Maybe not the most clean-living of evenings but I got through a special occasion dinner without losing my friends and making the restaurant staffs' night a living hell!