Dos and Don’ts of a Gluten-Free Menu

Advice to establishments for creating a safe, no-fuss gluten-free menu.

Whether it is by choice or for medical reasons, the number of people dining gluten free continues to grow. Those with a wheat allergy, celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity will be dining this way for life, so care should be taken to not only accommodate but also make these diners feel included and welcomed. When it comes to communicating your gluten-free options, there are two paths to consider: offering a separate gluten-free menu or “marking up” the regular menu.

I am a fan of creating a separate gluten-free menu for several reasons. A dedicated menu instills a level of confidence that no amount of lip-service can establish. This dedicated menu says “these are the gluten-free options we prepare consistently and safely, so order away.” Having a dedicated menu allows the back of the house to get familiar by preparing these dishes following a set of established safe-handling procedures. It also speeds up the ordering process considerably, which is paramount in any restaurant.

Marking up a menu can lead to confusion during ordering. I have seen menus marked with “GFA” for gluten-free available and “MFG,” meaning an item can be prepared gluten friendly with modification. Well, what does that mean? What changes are you making and/or what ingredients are being substituted? These designations are confusing and require further explanation, which slows down ordering.  

Once you decide what type of gluten-free menu works for your business, you also need to know what information should be included on it.

Here are my top tips for creating a separate gluten-free menu.

  • Only include items made by following safe-handling procedures: Seasonal dishes or specials can be addressed separately, but the core items on the menu should always be gluten free without any replacements necessary.
  • Provide item descriptions: I can’t tell you how many times I have run across a gluten-free menu that only lists dish names, omitting a thorough description of what is included with the dish. This omission forces customers to cross-reference the regular menu, which prolongs the decision-making process.
  • Include pricing: Include pricing for each item so customers don’t have to cross-reference the regular menu. And include upcharges for gluten-free bread, bun, pizza crust, pasta, etc.
  • Include the manufacturer of gluten-free substitute products: If you are providing gluten-free buns for burgers, list the name of the manufacturer on the menu. People who avoid gluten often avoid other allergens like dairy and soy. If you list the name of the manufacturer, such as Udi’s Gluten Free, that consumer now knows the buns are free of dairy, soy and nuts.
  • Include a disclaimer: Unless you have a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, a disclaimer needs to inform the diner that their gluten-free meal is prepared in a shared kitchen and cross-contact with gluten-containing ingredients can occur.
  • Post the menu online: Diners with food allergies/intolerance research a restaurant before deciding to head over for a meal. Why? Because they need to see what gluten-free options are available. Simplify the process by showing them what you can safely provide.

Here are some do’s/don’ts for marking up the regular menu.

  • Don’t use a wheat shaft to denote gluten-free items: Using a wheat shaft is like saying these dishes contain wheat, instead of saying these dishes are gluten free.
  • Do use a “gf” or “GF” symbol next to each qualifying dish: These symbols are commonly used by many restaurants and help guide consumers through the menu quickly.
  • Don’t include fried items unless they are prepared in a dedicated fryer: Residue from the wheat-based products can attach to gluten-free ingredients cooked in a shared fryer, rendering them unsafe.
  • Do including ordering instructions if any part of the dish needs to be modified: List ordering instructions in parentheses next to an item (i.e., “vegetables should be ordered without seasoning”).
  • Do include upcharges: If you are providing gluten-free bread, bun or pizza crust, then disclose the upcharge next to the item (i.e., “gluten-free hamburger bun $1.50 extra”).
  • Don’t be vague: If an item can be modified to be gluten free, then tell the diner how this will occur. If the dish is normally served over pasta, indicate if it will come with gluten-free pasta, or if you are substituting another grain (i.e., “gluten-free pasta, or substitute rice”).
  • Do include a disclaimer: The disclaimer should inform the diner that their gluten-free meal is prepared in a shared kitchen and cross-contamination could occur despite following safe handling protocols.

Creating gluten-free menus by following a process that includes the needs of gluten-free diners will keep the ordering process seamless and ensure them that gluten-free orders are taken seriously and prepared safely.

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