Dining Gluten-Free at Writer Conferences

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A few weeks ago a writer said to me that she was nervous about having to deal with eating gluten-free at an upcoming writer conference. Oh, my, did that bring back memories.

Navigating three to five days of eating out for a person with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance can be a nerve-wracking proposition. One slip, and a person can spend three days to several weeks recovering from the digestive and body ache effects of a gluten hit, as we call them. Double the stress if you are a writer and introvert, and stepping out of the comfort zone of your little cubby hole where you write and live a great deal in your mind.

Learning to navigate eating at a conference was not easy for me, but if I can do it, you can. Here are a few guidelines I follow to minimize my chance of getting ‘glutened’:

1. Ask for what you need.

You can’t receive, if you don’t ask. “People want to help you. Let them,” was one of the greatest things I heard in the beginning of my celiac journey. We all are tickled to death to help. Saying, “I need your help…I have food allergy,” gets wonderful results. Ask the waiter things like: “Do you marinate your meat?” “What spices do you use?” “Can you please check to see if there is wheat listed in the spice ingredients?” Conferences are the time to splurge on a fine, pricey restaurant, too. Chefs at the fine restaurants have had training and are able to adapt easily to your needs.

Ask for help when you register for a conference, too. If there is no place on the registration form to ask for a special meal at the luncheon or dinner banquet, contact the coordinator and explain your food needs. Most conferences will accommodate. I also recommend booking a room on the concierge floor, if possible, which usually provides a continental breakfast with a variety of fresh fruit.

2. Keep it simple.

Choose plain foods that are naturally gluten-free and say, “I have a severe allergy to wheat and must avoid eating it,” when questioning the waiter. Yes, I just say wheat. I’ve never encountered barley or rye at a restaurant, unless it is bread that I already know I cannot eat. And yes, I know celiac disease is not a simple allergy, but do not go into great detail about the condition. Eyes will glaze over.

3. Eat before you go to the banquet.

I know, a contradiction of the above about asking for help. I use this tactic if I have not made prior arrangements for special food, or if the conference cannot accommodate me, or I don’t have confidence that the food can be safe, or I just don’t feel like bothering with any of it. How do you do this? I find something at a cafe or nearby deli, or see below.

4. Pack food to take with you.

Whenever I travel, I take favorite comforts: my own favorite tea, mug, electric tea kettle, even metal utensils and cloth napkins. I also take packets of instant quinoa hot cereal, plastic containers of gluten-free cookies and muffins, jam, and even little containers of canned fruit. For an emergency, a tin of Vienna sausage. (When attending my very first conference banquet after being diagnosed, not at all knowing how to deal with the situation, I actually pulled a tin of Vienna sausage from my purse and ate it at the table, totally supported by a helpful writer friend.

Small matters:
Avoid scrambled eggs on breakfast buffets; they often have flour added. Remember restaurants can use soy sauce in their steak marinates. Rice pilaf in a restaurant can have wheat or barley added.

Have a great time!


May is National Celiac Awareness Month. You can find out more info by visiting the links listed at the bottom of the page.