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Risky (Gluten) Business

{GF Dad Disclaimer: I am gluten free by choice.  I have not been diagnosed as either celiac or gluten intolerant.  I feel better now that I am not eating gluten so I try very hard to avoid it, but as far as I know, I do not have a medical condition that requires it.}

I am going to state the obvious here: life is about risk. All kinds of risks. In fact, I think that risk is so pervasive in our modern life, that there are many risks we manage through routines and rules of thumb so well that we forget they even exist (like driving to work or school). For those of us following a restricted diet, we face risks that the rest of the population never considers; not because those risks may not exist for them as well, but because they are simply unaware of the potential.

How fortunate for all of us that we are so enlightened! :-)

One of the distinctions that I constantly try to reinforce in my business is that there is a fundamental difference between the concepts of “safe” and “low-risk.”. They are most definitely not the same thing, and although we sometimes use the two interchangeably, I believe that there are times when the failure to recognize the difference can be dangerous, unhealthy, and cause tremendous anxiety.

With regard to a food-restricted diet, I think it is absolutely critical that we all understand the ONLY place where you can feel SAFE is inside your own home. This is why I would encourage those families who are still operating a “split” household to seriously consider converting to GF at home/eat freely away from home at the very least. I know this may sound unreasonable to some, but consider the fact that the GF members of your family have no place in their lives where they can feel SAFE. The anxiety and pressure this creates, even subtly, cannot be underestimated. This is not the same as keeping a jug of milk in the back of the fridge for the dairy eaters: gluten is naturally airborne and crumbs cannot be managed, regardless of precaution.

But nonetheless, the only place we are ENTITLED to feel safe is in our own home, no where else.

Out in the world, the best we can hope for is to minimize the risk inherent in any environment that includes food we need to avoid. Social gatherings, family, school, and eating out will never be completely safe environments; we can take steps to significantly reduce our risk, but it can never be eliminated.

I liken this concept to driving a car. There is so much risk inherent in moving a 2,000 lb. mass of steel and glass at 70mph down the road that if we really stopped to think about it, none of us would ever drive again. The physics alone are terrifying: anyone who has been in a bad accident can testify to this.  And so we have developed over time some basic “rules of the road” if you will that are designed to keep us all as safe as possible.  Traffic lights, turn signals, speed limits, policemen, etc., not to mention the unspoken rules and norms, like inching out at a four way stop, letting someone in during a traffic jam and so on and so forth.  Observing many of these rules and norms is almost instinct at this point for many of us, as witnessed by the reflex reaction you have in slamming on your breaks when the light turns yellow (or slamming on the gas for Heidi some of you!).

Innumerable risks abound!  There is a risk that you will throw out your back bending over to take out the garbage (Heidi did this once, that’s how I know).  There is a risk that you will trip over the dog in the middle of the night and break your tooth (I did this once, that’s how I know).  Heck, a meteor could crash into my house tonight turning me into a smoldering pile of cosmic goo.  But we don’t let the trash pile up (unless you are a bachelor), we don’t lock the dogs in the laundry room (unless you want to clean up the mess in the morning) and we don’t armor plate our roof so that it is meteorite proof (unless you’re just really into that sort of thing).  It’s all about taking reasonable risks to avoid unreasonable burdens.

“Reasonable” is a loaded word, especially when found in Acts of Congress.  I’m not sure exactly what a “reasonable” effort is, or what “reasonable” safety precautions entail.  It’s a bit like handicapping works of art; one man’s trash is another man’s masterpiece.  One man’s “unreasonably excessive” precautions are another man’s “lax standards.”  So what do I mean by taking reasonable risks to avoid unreasonable burdens?

A most poignant illustration of this principle at work for those of us similarly situated is the social ritual known as dining out.  I will not belabor the point that our society (most societies) seem to include food at practically every gathering outside of the immediate family.  And no where is this more prevalent in modern American society than in the business community.  While the golf course is the preferred venue for some, the business meal remains the cornerstone of modern American deal-making (even long meetings in the conference room will include having food brought in).  Navigating this treacherous terrain can cause anxiety, not only because everyone else at the table will be hurling bread/crackers/croutons around in close proximity to your plate of food, but with this also comes the anxiety of having to tactfully place your order with a server who may be tired, recently single, hungover, of abnormally low intelligence, or all of the above.  Sometimes I think my wife worked for the CIA in a prior life, because all that would be necessary to extract information from a bad guy would be to put an apron on him and tell her that he is now her server; under her withering interrogation, I’m sure he would crack like an egg!  Many of you can relate.

I wanted to share these thoughts with you about risk before I give you my ideas for dealing with the business meal.  We have to keep in mind that as many precautions as we might possibly take, nothing is going to protect us from a cynical line cook who is tired of everyone jumping on the gluten-free “fad.”  Just as I can take all of the precautions possible when driving, nothing is going to protect me from a half-drunk aggressive driver who decides that the red light is a mere suggestion to stop.  At that point, the physics just takes over; it is a remote yet unmanageable risk.  When you ingest gluten from a careless restaurant, your immune system just takes over; it is not possible to manage other people’s carelessness.

So how do I handle the inevitable business meal?  It’s a multi-step process and there is no instruction manual (real men don’t need instruction manuals, that’s why every bookcase in our home is crooked), so here is the best I can do:

1) I try to avoid it. This is pretty easy to do with someone whom you already have a business relationship, especially if the purpose of the meeting is actual business and not just “catching up.”  I will encourage them to come into the office in case I need to get information from the computer to answer a question they may have.  A good line for me is, “Let’s meet at the office so if we need to make any changes to (our strategy/contract/marketing piece, etc.) we can take a look at it right there.”  This is very effective for me.

2) Grab some protein beforehand. If you are meeting at noon and need to drive, have some rolled up gluten-free deli meat in a container so that you can nibble while you drive (please see above notes about SAFE driving, ultimate hypocrisy I know).  That way you can have a nice salad for lunch (more on that below) and not have to worry as much about gluten.  If your guest asks why, you can either tell them that you always have a light lunch or that you are having some folks over for a big dinner that night.  If you are within walking distance, just eat beforehand at your desk and have a salad at your meeting.  This works especially well if you can’t…

3) Go somewhere known to be lower risk. I have four places that I feel reasonably (there’s that word again) comfortable having a meal that are very nearby my office.  Two of them are fairly casual deli type places, and two of them are a bit more formal.  The two mom and pop delis know me, know my needs, and it’s not a big deal.  It also helps that I try to go to each one at least once a week to give them some incentive to accommodate me.  Again, fairly low risk but not safe.  No kitchen that contains gluten should EVER be considered completely safe.  The other two places I take clients to when necessary are not as familiar, but still pretty straightforward.  One is a restaurant called Bravo! which has gluten-free pasta on request.  I usually don’t order a pasta dish, but they are aware enough of the gluten-free lifestyle (to offer an alternative) that I can feel fairly comfortable ordering a grilled chicken caesar salad.  The other place is a steakhouse, and that is fairly straightforward as well, because I can always order something that is…

4) Keep it simple! I always try to order something VERY SIMPLE from the menu, and then inquire about the preparation.  This typically excludes anything with a sauce or gravy.  Business dinners are usually a snap because every decent restaurant will offer the basic 6 oz filet mignon, baked potato, and vegetable dish.  If this dish is available at lunch, then I will order it as well.  Remember, you want to exclude as many possibilities for error as you can to MINIMIZE your risk, and that means a simple order for your server and a simple preparation for your chef.

These are my traffic lights, my rules of thumb for minimizing the risk of dining out.  I know that it can feel awkward to “interrogate” your server about the preparation, but I see it no differently than asking a general question about a menu item.  For me, the phrases “Does that contain any flour?” and “Are those sauteed or steamed?” are interchangeable.  It is not socially unacceptable to make a few simple inquiries about your food’s preparation.  I simply tell my server that I cannot have any gluten, tell them what I have selected from the menu, and if I get a puzzled look, I ask for a manager.  The key is to not “feel” awkward as you do this for fear of embarrassing yourself in front of your client or prospect.  In many respects this is a chance to shine.

If you are polite but “firm” with your server, this makes you appear to be confident and in charge, willing to verify details, and not overly concerned with being patient to be sure your food is prepared correctly.  These are valuable traits in the business arena, especially if your business relationship will be ongoing and therefore require a certain degree of trust to be established.  I also find that it gives me a chance to briefly explain my family’s situation.  At the very least my guest will ask why I can’t have gluten, and off I go.  I tell them about Heidi and Sam, about how much simpler life is now that we are all gluten-free, and about how much better I feel physically because of it.  Most of the time it ends there, but what that exchange has accomplished is invaluable: it humanizes me.  It partially transforms me from a guy in a suit at a business meeting into a husband and father trying to earn a living to care for his family.  Frankly I find it to be a wonderful icebreaker.

The key is to try and relax.  You are already taking a certain degree of risk by being at the restaurant in the first place, the same as being behind the wheel of a car.  Explain your situation, be astute enough to know when it’s time to move on with the conversation, and leave it at that.  Just drive the car the best you know how and understand that you can’t control everything outside of your home.

And for goodness sake, please don’t go tilting at meteors!!

An Excellent Gluten-Free Dining Resource:

Triumph Dining (I keep a copy of the restaurant guide and the dining cards in my car, then carry the appropriate card with me into the restaurant).

-Mike

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Comments

  1. Diane says:

    hahahahaha!! Heidi has a lead foot!!!! Otherwise, my business dealings have been with a Health Food Store lately, so they understand that sort of thing and their "in-house" chef even bakes goodies for the customers/clients!!!

  2. Cocoa says:

    Brilliant post! I'm sharing it with everyone and I wish more people understand like you do!

  3. Rhonda Budge says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you

    This was a great post!

  4. Michelle Olejar says:

    Another great post by Mike! The weight of being the only safe place and food provider for your family is overwhelming. To never not make a meal or have a day off is exhausting. We all crave that safe place or easy meal just to give ourselves a day off. It is great wisdom to know the difference between safe and low risk. Thanks for the post.

    • Michelle,

      Such an eloquent way to express both the beauty and the beast of this lifestyle! It conjures up the famous quote by Thomas Edison, "Genius: one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

      Overwhelmed and exhausted is how I feel 99% of the time but the remaining 1% is pure inspiration…my family and friends who walk this path with me every single day.

      xo,
      Heidi :-D

  5. Christine says:

    Thanks for the post! I'm finishing up my law school career and was diagnosed as non-celiac gluten intolerant less than a year ago. Within a week of being diagnosed I was invited to lunch by an attorney I had applied for a summer job with, but I turned down the invite b/c I was afraid to eat out, having yet to fully figure out what I could and could not have (IBS was my primary diagnosis, so salads are out.) I'm still really hesitant to eat out, and often bring my own meal to catered events (which between school events and business lunches is nearly once a week), and that has led to its share of food-related conversations. Unfortunately all my "minimal risk" restaurants are too far from the city to be useful for lunch meetings at work, but I am fortunate that the attorneys I work with at my current job are really understanding and usually have food brought in rather than eating out. The situation can be really frustrating though, because the only social events lawyers have either involve food or drink or both, and as a "newbie" in my field and a relatively small bar, I still feel very out of place socially already, aside from the food issue which adds to the awkwardness, so I tend to avoid those events for that very reason, even though it also diminishes my networking opportunities. You should write a guide to business food events for those with dietary restrictions, since there really isn't a lot out there, and I'm one with significant GI symptoms that will show up w/in half an hour of eating contaminated food, so I have lots of motivation to only eat that which I know is safe or minimal risk.

    • GF Dad says:

      Christine,

      That's a tough one. You definitely do not want to miss out on the social events, especially if you are new and trying to climb the ladder.

      In my experience, it's pretty easy to avoid the appetizer tray that floats around, and of course you can nurse a glass of wine for some time as you make small talk.

      You might consider keeping a container of high protein foods in your desk and perhaps in your trunk as well. Maybe load it with mixed nuts, safe jerky (or make your own), etc. At least you can get a few hundred calories of solid protein to tide you over.

      We just can't have it both ways. If we want to be part of these critical business gatherings, it's up to us to adjust. It does sound like your colleagues are pretty understanding, though.

      I predict that at some point, you will go to one of these gatherings and a potential client that everyone wants REALLY BAD will be floating around who has a child with a food allergy. Instant connection. With the diagnosis rate continuing to climb, it's only a matter of time before what you see as a "weakness" turns into an empathetic strength.

    • Emily says:

      It can be a challenge in the legal field (and I'm sure many other professional fields) when you are on a restricted diet. I'm a third-year attorney and was diagnosed with Celiac Disease within a week or two of starting my job. It has been tough because there are so many lunch events that just have basic boxed lunches, or fundraiser-type events that are catered, etc. I know that I have been less willing to attend these events, especially the catered dinners, because I feel like it will be awkward if I'm not eating, but I've had bad experiences even when making my requests clear. I also find that a lot of informal networking and mentoring opportunities at my own firm happen over lunch – groups of attorneys going to grab lunch is pretty common, but I don't go very often. I should take the advice of this article and eat some protein and then just order a salad. Even that can be risky, but I also don't want my career to suffer because of my food restrictions. I guess my advice, which I don't always follow, is to try to make yourself go to events even if you feel like the food situation will be awkward. People probably aren't paying attention so if you don't eat it's probably not a big deal.

  6. Cindy says:

    Gosh, you and Heidi address topics that really get to the heart of the matter. It helps SO much to realize I am not alone in my feelings. I am terrified to eat out – but I also don't want it to paralyze me and isolate me so I do eat out on occasion. For instance, last night I had the "conversation" with a new man I met. A conversation I dread because I have been rejected in the past two years specifically because of my diet. I have to eat out in the beginning of a new relationship because I don't want them to come to my house till I feel I can trust them. Dating in your 50's is hard enough without adding this in the mix! Thank you for a great posting.

    • GF Dad says:

      Cindy,

      I think you've just found a way to make your fortune. Find a web-designer right now and launch a food allergy matchmaking website.

      I'm not joking. As much as you want to find a man who understands your restricted diet, I guarantee you there are a lot of men out there who desperately want to find a woman who understands (and can cook for) theirs.

  7. Anne Sales says:

    I have heard a lot about the benefit of a gluten-free diet and coming from South East Asia, I, technically, am on GF diet (of which I am really thankful for) until I came to the UK. However, I still eat mainly rice and veg. And like you, I almost always make my own lunch to take to work for the reason that I don't trust the ready meals they sell.

  8. Kristin says:

    This is a great post. I am new to the GF diet and after yesterday realize how easily something that says no wheat from a restaurant can easily be contaminated. Happened to me yesterday and I am still paying the price today. I now know how diligent I have to be for my own safety. Company xmas party tomorrow night and I know that possibly the salad and for sure the dessert are off limits but I am going to call the manager at the restaurant today to see if they can accommodate me. Thanks for posting on these issues!

  9. Mich says:

    I don't think I can substantially convey my appreciation for this post. I always feel that the majority of posts on gluten-free blogs are so optimistic and care-free that I feel foolish for having fears of eating out, both at work or socially. I read posts about how accommodating any restaurant or caterer can be and wonder why I can't seem to have the same experience and trust the safety of the meal. I've just been too afraid to take the risk as a result of messy and frustrating past experiences. I finally found a local restaurant that was small and professional enough to communicate effectively with the chef. Before that I went almost two months without ever eating out. I'm slowly coming around to taking more calculated risks (New Years resolution) and this post was a great motivator to reach a balance between risk, trust and safety. I no longer feel so isolated!

    • GF Dad says:

      NO FEAR!

      This is just our condition. Even if you have a bad encounter at a new restaurant, they are not all the same.

      We just press on.

      You can't let the gluten win. You just flat out can't.

  10. Maggie says:

    Great post Mike. I think a GF family home is so important too. But I never thought of it as a "somewhere to feel safe" thing, so thanks for pointing that out. We've been doing it for two reasons (my 4YO and my husband are allergic to gluten). 1. I think it's easier to have kids eating the same diet, no one feels left out because they can't eat the donuts but their sister can. 2. My boys don't react violently to gluten, it all happens inside. So I worry about the long-term effect gluten is having in their bodies (if they get contaminated). And now I have a 3rd reason, thanks Mike. This was a rambling reply…sorry!

  11. Hello all! Fear is so very real to anyone who has chosen to go gluten-free (whether for health reasons or personal choice). Prior to my daughter being diagnosed with Celiac and food allergies I knew many friends that had Celiac, just never truly appreciated the depth of the diet until I actually experienced it with my own daughter. Not all experiences eating out will be negative, nor will they be all positive. Usually before we eat out at any restaurant that offers a gluten free menu, I call ahead and talk to the manager that will be there when we go to eat. I discuss the menu, make sure that the waiter/waitress we have will be educated on cross-contamination issues as well as the chef and any other person that is handling my daughter’s meal. Our whole family eats gluten free although there is no one else in the immediate family that has been diagnosed with any GI disorders, so cross contamination is not an issue for us. And even with all of that said, I have had them bring my daughter a salad with croutons on it. As highly sensitive she is to anything with even a hint of gluten, I found myself reaching across the table and grabbing the bowl of salad before it even got to the table! Very nicely, I looked at the waitress and reminded her that she could not have gluten, which meant no bread products i.e. ‘croutons’!
    It’s going to happen, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. The best that you can do is to continuously be aware of your surroundings and keep your eyes and ears open at all times, because they do not feel the pain or suffering that you do so how could they ever possibly understand where you are coming from?

  12. Terri says:

    I don't do any business lunches, but if we as a family are going to eat out or even to friends places for lunch or dinner, I either eat before I go, or take something I've made. We have friends of different nationalities (living in Australia, there are lots of different cultures) so sometimes they "don't get it" about being GI. Even if they tell me that they made sure it's GF, i can always tell by the time I get home if it was or not, usually because of cross contamination.

    I work in a high school canteen, and we had a Celiac boy that finished last year, and he would either bring something from home to reheat, or would specifically ask me to make his lunch, as he knew that I understood his dietary needs. The only things that are non GF in our canteen is usually the processed foods and the bread. So when he ordered his lunch I would always make his first before any gluten full products touched our benches. But I know how difficult it is to try and convey to others that you can't eat things with gluten in them as I work in the food industry and some people don't understand and others just couldn't care. My sister came to visit at Christmas and when she was at the airport, she went to a food place and asked what they had that was gluten free, and the man just said, "Go away, I don't have anything, just go away!!" She thought he was very rude!!! The suburb where I live have 3 advertised places that have a gluten free menu, we've tried one of them. It was pretty good. But like you said Mike, you just have to be confident and ask the questions, and explain that you can get very sick if you eat gluten and if the restaurant want to continue to get business they should cater to your needs.

  13. Nika says:

    I love all your ideas about places to eat. I always keep a few gluten free energy type bars around in my purse, kind of like your protein idea.

    While nothing is better than knowing a chef/waitstaff at a place, I have found several styles of cuisine tend to work better for me. Thai, Sushi (if you forego most of the sauces and tempura pieces) anyplace that serves breakfast (eggs and potatoes). You'd be surprised at how many places will let you mix and match sides if you agree to pay extra! And sometimes they don't even charge for substitutions.

    I always try to remember that once upon a time, I had no clue about gluten free/compound allergies. And I always try to approach it from "when I was like that, how would I have wanted to be approached?" It helps I work in customer service and being upbeat and proactive solves many issues before they even start.

    As far as dining-I always try to remember it is about the experience with the person and less about the food. I'm there to connect-whether it is with the well meaning co-worker who offers me something I can't eat, my family, friends or someone whom I have yet to get to know well. It really is the thought that counts. For potlucks at work I always make something I can eat-since I am a fairly skilled cook,the other non-gluten folks can eat as well as everyone else. And no one feels deprived.

    • GF Dad says:

      "You’d be surprised at how many places will let you mix and match sides if you agree to pay extra! And sometimes they don’t even charge for substitutions."

      You are absolutely right, Nika…that has been my experience as well.

      And I always tip an attentive server 25-30%. It sounds like a lot, but I don't want them to remember how much of a "pain" their last gluten-free customer was as well as cheap when the next person who needs help comes in.

      What's an extra $10 to help the next person in line?

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