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5 Tips for Eating out on a Restricted Diet

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When you are on a restricted diet for an allergy, diagnosis, or medical procedure, eating out can be tricky. But life doesn’t stop around you. There will be times you will need or want to eat out.

No problem. Today I’m sharing 5 tips for dining out on any restricted diet, including the low iodine diet for radioactive iodine treatment.

Look at Menus Before You Go

Most restaurants have a website with their menu listed. If it is a large chain restaurant, the nutrition information will be available online. Any restaurant with more than 20 locations is required to provide nutrition information, such as calories, etc. Since food allergies are quite common, most of those restaurants also provide the ingredient information as well. (Look for ingredients or allergen information).

By looking at the menu, you can see what you can eat a specific restaurant. Generally, this will still require some planning, which I’ll discuss more later. But maybe you don’t find anything. Then you can look for a different place to eat before you get there and everyone is hungry.

This isn’t fool proof but is a step. You can check if there are menu items you could customize – such as a salad with no cheese. Or maybe leave condiments off of a sandwich.

For the low iodine diet, it is tricky. Often the menu will just list “salt” as an ingredient, and you have no idea what kind of salt they use. Maybe you will get lucky and the site is like Chipotle, which states they only use kosher salt. But most do not. This leads us to our next tip.

Call Ahead

If the menu online isn’t clear, you can try calling the restaurant. Most sit-down restaurants will be able to tell you what ingredients they use. Fast food restaurants, may or may not provide you more information. Here are two conflicting examples.

Example 1: Chik-Fil-A lists “salt” as an ingredient for the chicken on their market salad. However, this chicken is not seasoned and prepared at the individual restaurant – it comes ready for them to heat. So your local Chik-Fil-A will not have more information than what is online.

Example 2: Five Guys lists “salt” as an ingredient for their french fries. That is something they add on location – they fresh cut the potatoes and season them in house. When I was on the low iodine diet in 2011, I called my local Five Guys. . When I asked at that time, they said, “We use regular iodized salt.” (Don’t take this as definitive for right now or your location.)

It never hurts to call ahead. Some restaurants may be able to make changes for a medically necessary diet and do no list it on their website. Especially if you need to go somewhere for an event, they will likely be able to work with you if you call ahead but may not be able to make something special on the fly.

Ask the Restaurant for a Special Order

This is a bit trickier with fast food. Many things come prepackaged or preseasoned for them. But you can always ask. Here are some examples:

  • salad with no cheese or meat
  • fries with no salt added
  • burger with only veggies, no bun

They may or may not be able to accommodate you. But it never hurts to ask.

This tip works even better at a sit down restaurant. They will be much more able and willing to accommodate your needs. But you should probably follow the previous two tips first.

My example for this happened in 2010. I was in graduate school, and my thesis advisor took all of her students out for a nice dinner at Christmas time. I had brought my own bread and salad dressing and planned to order a plain salad. However, our server was very nice and talked with the chef. They were able to cook me some pasta (they used kosher salt in the cooking water) and toss it with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and some basil. It may not sound super delicious, but at the time, it was heavenly to me.

BYO…lots of things

It may seem weird to bring your own food to a restaurant, but it will likely be necessary when on the low iodine diet or other restrictive diets. I never had a problem with any restaurants since I was a paying customer and explained my dietary restrictions. If you are nervous, you can call ahead.

What should you bring? For the low iodine diet, homemade bread, salad dressing, and plastic silverware were the most common items for me.

Again, I was a paying customer. I would buy a salad from the menu (with high iodine ingredients removed), then use my own dressing and eat my own bread if I brought it to supplement the salad.

Eat Before, Drink and Snack There

If you need to dine out for work or social reasons but can’t control the location, you may not find much on the menu. Maybe the restaurant won’t work with you. Never fear.

I suggest you eat a more sustaining meal before hand. Then order a drink and a small item on the menu that you can eat – most places have fresh fruit or a side salad. You can still be present and participating in the “activity” of dining out, with less stress on actually finding food to eat to fill you up.

I hope these tips and tricks help you feel more confident about eating fast food on the low iodine diet or any restricted diet. Eating out is part of our everyday lives, so you have to find the best way to make it work for you.

Check out my review of fast food menus for specific items at 11 different fast food restaurants.

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