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Six steps to great gluten-free service

Great gluten-free foodservice goes beyond providing substitutions; it incorporates conscientious forethought from meal planning through service.  

Gluten-free has become an everyday word in foodservice, but does that mean we are getting it right? We've started to, and many foodservice providers are doing extraordinary things, but we still have some work to do.  

A two-month survey conducted by the New England Celiac Organization (NECO) showed that 60 percent of students with gluten-related disorders were dissatisfied with their campus eating experience and would not recommend their university to others requiring a gluten-free diet. 

Great gluten-free service goes beyond offering substitutions; it requires careful attention through every step of the foodservice process—from meal planning all the way to front-of-house service.

Step 1: Invest in a Training Program

Great gluten-free service starts with good training, and it is best to get that training from the experts.

Beckee Moreland, director of GREAT Kitchens, the gluten-free foodservice training program offered by Beyond Celiac, recommends third-party training programs because we don't know what we don't know. (Disclosure: The author is an advisory council member for Beyond Celiac.)

Using a third-party foodservice training program instead of undertaking training in house can help operators to really 'get it,’” Moreland says. Choosing a program developed by experts provides the operations team with a solid foundation of basic knowledge specific to the gluten-free consumer. Whether it be understanding the seriousness of celiac disease and other related conditions, identifying gluten in ingredients, pinpointing preparation concerns or improving service communication, using a standardized program will help them speak a common language to create and implement their program successfully.

According to Moreland, many of the foodservice associates that have gone through the GREAT Kitchens program say they thought they knew a lot about gluten-free, but after going through training realized they didn't. They learned much more than expected and felt more confident serving gluten-free customers.

Step 2: Start with Meal Planning and Recipe Development

When you start with a meal plan that keeps all customers in mind, it's easier for your associates to safely prepare and serve gluten-free foods, and is much more enjoyable for your guests.

Christopher Galarza, chef manager at Chatham University Eden Hall in Gibsonia, Pa., recommends creating gluten-free dishes that taste good and can be enjoyed by all.

We at Eden Hall promote an environment of inclusion, Galarza says. This way none of our guests feels alienated by getting a dish that isn't available for anyone else. Some people may think special treatment is a good thing, but I don't think people want to be singled out or made to be different.

Instead of a wheat flour roux to thicken soups, use a gluten-free flour or pulse purée. Your gluten-eating guests won't know the difference. Soy sauce, which often contains wheat, is used regularly in Asian dishes, making cross-contact with gluten a real problem. Using a gluten-free soy sauce is a simple fix across so many dining options. Oats are inherently gluten-free but are often contaminated with gluten during harvest, transportation and processing, making them off-limits for people with celiac disease. Purchasing certified gluten-free oats makes oatmeal available to all. Grind the oats to a flour for use in baking, breading and so much more.  

Amanda Kruse, RD, CD, wellness nutritionist at Ball State University Dining in Muncie, Ind., says standardized recipes allow for food allergen information to be at the fingertips of students at all times, in addition to keeping point-of-sale calorie and dietary labeling accurate.

JP Krause, executive chef at the Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora, likes to keep menus and recipes simple.

The fewer ingredients you need to verify, the easier it is, Krause says. I always suggest starting off with comfort food items since the regular diet customers will enjoy these servings as well.

Step 3: Become a Savvy Purchaser

There is an abundance of gluten-free products across all food categories available for foodservice. Choose them wisely.

When it comes to purchasing, Kruse recommends working smarter, not harder.  

You don't need to carry a specialty item for each dietary need, she says. Look for products that are free from gluten and other allergens your guests need to avoid. 

She also recommends relying on foods naturally free from allergens and gluten: They cost less and are more versatile.

Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS, supervisor, school nutrition services for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, asks students and parents about which gluten-free foods they do and don't like.  

It is important that parents and school nutrition staff partner to ensure that children get optimal nourishment, Domokos-Bays says. We learned from parents that most of their children do not like gluten-free bread, so we don't buy it. We are getting ready to test gluten-free pasta; if our students like it, we will consider [it].

And look for the gluten-free claim on packaging, as it is now a term regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers making a gluten-free claim are required to provide products that contain less than 20 parts per million gluten, the amount deemed safe for the majority of people with celiac disease.

Storage, cross-contact, follow-through

The self-serve fruit and veggie bar at Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia clearly labels gluten-containing items.

The self-serve fruit and veggie bar at Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia clearly labels gluten-containing items.

Step 4: Set up a Safe Storage System

Setting up storage space to keep gluten-free foods safe will depend on your particular setup, as no foodservice location is the same. This is where a third-party training program can be advantageous to help you create solutions for your specific needs.  

In general, keep the following in mind:

•Clearly label all gluten-free food packages;
•If possible, place gluten-free items in dedicated pantries, refrigerators and freezers. If dedicated areas are not possible, be sure to place gluten-containing foods on shelves below gluten-free items;
•Use squeeze bottles for all condiments to prevent double dipping with utensils;
•Cover and protect dedicated gluten-free utensils and equipment with lidded storage containers and other barriers;
•Keep storage areas clean, wiping up messes and spills as necessary;
•Train associates about safe storage protocols, and ensure that these protocols are being followed.

Step 5: Be Conscious of Cross-contact in the Kitchen

Similar to storage space, solutions for safe gluten-free preparation in the kitchen will vary depending on your unique setup. Again, a third-party training program can be helpful for creating customized solutions.

Strive for the following:

•Create dedicated gluten-free preparation zones with appropriate cooking, cleaning and storage protocols;
•Purchasing and labeling dedicated small kitchen utensils for gluten-free preparation—such as gloves, knives, cutting boards, rolling pins, whisks, colanders, pizza cutters, toasters and even pots and pans—is an affordable solution. Thoroughly wash, sterilize and store them immediately after use;  
•If you don't have space for dedicated cooking zones, prepare gluten-free items before regular items, but only after the area has been thoroughly cleaned and sterilized;
•Change to clean gloves and aprons whenever starting gluten-free preparation;
•If sterilizing large equipment and appliances before cannot be ensured—like ovens, grill tops and mixers—do not use them;
•Wash hands every time before preparing gluten-free foods, including before putting gloves on.

Step 6: Follow Through to the Front of House

Safe gluten-free foodservice doesn't stop in the kitchen; it is carried through to service areas, which means including all front-of-house associates in training.

The front of the house attends the same training for back of the house so they [can] speak to the processes and procedures we have to maintain safety, says the Children's Hospital Colorado’s Krause. Also, [we teach] the staff that it's OK to say they don't know. It's OK to tell the guest you will get back to them; guessing can have serious implications.

Domokos-Bays requests that cafeteria monitors, who don't work for school nutrition services, take part in their training since they are a point of contact in the cafeteria.  

Kruse identifies self-service stations as a high-risk area for cross-contact. Her team plans its self-serve stations to minimize the possibility of contamination. For salad and yogurt parfait bars, they group high-risk items away from those they can contaminate and put spillable items into canisters or pourable containers to keep them where they belong.

Galarza stresses the importance of labeling menu boards and signage so that guests know which foods contain gluten.

Other tactics that can keep your service areas safer, include:

•Offering dedicated gluten-free toasters and panini presses in an area that only can be accessed by gluten-free diners;
•Training associates on the importance of not mixing serving utensils when serving guests; 
•Training dedicated associates to serve gluten-free guests.

But perhaps the most important way to keep your gluten-free guests safe is to create a dialogue and rapport with them. Meet with them and tour the dining facilities so they understand what protocols are in place and what you can and cannot accommodate. Foster an environment of open communications so they feel comfortable asking questions and making recommendations and never take a risk.

Rachel Begun, MS, RDN is a nutrition and culinary consultant and special diets expert. She works with the food industry to create safer, healthier and more sustainable food environments and educates the public through media interviews, writing and public speaking. She is a scientific/medical advisory council member for Beyond Celiac and helped them create their GREAT Kitchens and GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps training programs.

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