Can being gluten free affect you professionally? The answer may surprise you! The importance of networking is lost on few careers. From working your way up from server to management to making partner at a law firm, networking with colleagues and others in the biz, can play a big part in your professional success. Where does networking happen? Where do most social encounters happen…while eating! Food is social to the point where its purpose is probably more about connecting with others than it is about nutrition. Come on, birthday cake has very low nutritional value yet has great cultural value. The role of food is social and, when you take that into the workplace, it becomes professional.
Let’s go through a few of the potentially problematic gluten free scenarios you may face in your professional life:
The most common place you may find yourself in an awkward GF situation is during regular meetings or conferences at work. Of course, it depends on where you work and how meetings are run, but I am picturing a conference room with a big oval table and chairs squished really close together so all of your coworkers can fit. Instead of a vase of flowers as a centerpiece you will see a box of donuts, a plate of danishes, or a stack of half-sandwiches from a local deli. What should you do in these situations?
If you have been with the same job for a while most of your coworkers probably know that you are gluten free (why the lack of GF options then, I don’t know. Baby-steps, people!). You have a few options:
Option 1: Bring a snack
This is my favorite of the three options for several reasons. It is a happy medium between not drawing too much unwanted attention with a big outside lunch while also not feeling deprived or left out. Keep snack bars or chips in your desk drawer and bring them to the meeting. Simple solution to what sometimes feels like a huge problem.
Option 2: Abstain
Plenty of people in your office will probably not partake in the provided refreshments. Maybe you had a late or large breakfast. Maybe you don’t like whatever is provided. Maybe you have dinner plans later and don’t want to spoil your appetite. Maybe you are on a diet. There are plenty of reasons that people don’t eat food that has been set out before them, not just because it has gluten in it. Don’t feel pressured to partake but also don’t feel pressured to explain yourself. You don’t have to justify not eating the food! It is not outside the realm of normal to abstain, so don’t stress about it.
Option 3: Bring lunch
There is nothing wrong with bringing lunch from the outside world into a meeting if everyone is going to be eating anyways. This is my least favorite of the three options, though, mainly because of convenience. You may not have time to run out of the office and get food before the meeting. Another issue is that bringing a big outside lunch draws a lot of attention to you and your food. It will smell different, look different and be packaged differently. I get plenty of attention from being GF and, in a setting like this, I do not want that attention.
The benefits of bringing in your own lunch are that you won’t be hungry and you get to eat with your coworkers! If you do choose this option, do so with pride (OWN IT!). You don’t have to feel victimized because you can’t eat the deli sandwiches provided. Your lunch is probably fresher and more delicious anyways! Instead of focusing on what you cannot have, focus on the fact that your lunch is something that you chose and enjoy it.
This situation may be a little trickier than a conference room full of donuts. If your job requires networking with clients, prospective employees, getting to know your executive team or your boss then you will likely find yourself in the position of dining out! There are some steps you can take to reduce the GF stress you may feel building in you as you think about giving the gluten speech in front of your boss or prospective client!
Strategy 1: Control the Environment
Try suggesting a restaurant that you know is safe or a restaurant that you frequent (maybe the wait-staff knows you and your GF needs already). I like to suggest a few diverse options in the hopes that the person in question will choose from my provided list! If this fails, then move to Strategy 2.
Strategy 2: Benign Deception
Whenever I really don’t want to be a spectacle while ordering I engage in benign deception. I know this may seem over-the-top but sometimes (often, actually) I just don’t feel like putting myself on display while ordering! I will excuse myself from the table and say that I am going to wash up or use the restroom. In actuality, I am tracking down the hostess or server to discus GF options BEFORE she/he comes to take our order. If I can’t find the server assigned to my table I ask the hostess for help. I explain that I am gluten free and really don’t want to have to ask questions and put on a show in front of the person I am eating with. In my experience, the hostess usually gets it. Make sure you are transparent and honest though otherwise it comes off as really odd that you are going so far out of your way to put in an order!
Here are some potential questions you can ask:
- Can you ask the chef which items are gluten free on the menu?
- What modifications do I need to make to make ____________________ gluten free?
- Do you know which items are gluten free off the top of your head or can you grab someone who does?
Once I figure out what I can order I go back to my table. When the server comes I can put in an order as smoothly as my non-GF lunch date!
Strategy 3: Order Simply
If you don’t want to implement Strategy 1 or 2 here is another alternative: order simply. Once you have been gluten free for a while you start to get good at deciphering menus and figuring out what is likely to be gluten free. This is risky!! Not telling your server that you are gluten free can get you into trouble sometimes so use this strategy with care. I might order a salad and specify no croutons, bread or dressing (even if croutons aren’t listed in the description on the menu, say it anyways!). The last thing you want to do is send a dish back in front of a prospective client because you forgot to mention an important detail about what you wanted eg no croutons!
Happy Hours are pretty common places for coworkers to socialize after work but can sometimes be tricky if you are gluten free. Most bar food is horrible for the gluten free diet because the menu items are usually fried in contaminated oil (wings, French fries, calamari etc). Avoid food at happy hour unless you have talked to the wait-staff or cook beforehand. Since you are not eating make sure you limit your alcohol intake! You don’t want to be that coworker. Beer is super common at Happy Hours, especially because there are great deals on pitchers. Take pride in not drinking the beer otherwise you are going to feel bummed out and excluded. You don’t have to tell people it is because you are gluten free if you don’t want to. Some people don’t like beer anyways! You can always go for a glass of wine or a mixed drink. Consult GF resources to make sure your drink of choice is gluten free. I keep things simple and order a glass of wine. Avoid any weird mixed drinks unless the bartender is willing to tell you the ingredients. Check out Triumph Dining’s list of gluten free alcoholic beverages.
The thing to remember about happy hour is that people are happy to be there! Work is over and I promise you that no one cares what you are eating or drinking so long as you are having a good time!
Holiday party/Retirement Party/Celebrations
A work party is no different than any other holiday event or dinner party you may have gone to in the past. Don’t overthink it! Use the same strategies you use for other parties. You can check out my posts on how to survive Easter dinner parties for some tips.
One bit of advice: just bring something! Again, you don’t have to make everything about gluten. You can control the narrative so that you do not feel like a victim of Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. Bring a dish to be nice/polite/for fun or to show off your cooking or baking skills. You can bake these awesome Tiramisu cupcakes or bring this savory quinoa dish that will be sure to impress! If you bring a dish you earn brownie points with the host and it guarantees that you have something to munch on during the party.
Some jobs require traveling and this can make finding GF food challenging. You will be in unfamiliar territory and may be traveling with a team from work. Download the Find Me Gluten Free application on your smartphone before you head out to your travel destination. This app takes your GPS location and gives you a list of restaurants with GF options near you. You can easily make suggestions on where to dine to your work team. Tell them there is a Chipotle about a mile down the road and they will probably be impressed how well you know your way around the area!
If traveling alone you have more flexibility and the app should be enough to help you find food options. If you are having issues because the people you are traveling with want to go out for pizza remember you can probably order a salad but more importantly, if you are traveling with these people, you should probably just explain the gluten thing! You may be surprised how understanding they can be. If a conflict arises you will have to just talk it out. Hopefully all parties involved will be professional about where to dine considering it is a work trip anyways and not a vacation!
If traveling, make sure you pack snacks to have on the road. Pack protein bars or you can always buy Kind bars at Starbucks! Here is a post on traveling gluten free by air!
Being gluten free in the professional world may be an extra challenge but, let’s be honest, being gluten free makes almost all food-related situations more challenging. Why would work be the exception? It isn’t fair but we can make the best of every situation by being prepared and having a positive attitude. Remember that you can control the narrative. A lot of people experience negative feelings like being victimized, excluded or simply anxious over situations that may arise but we can take steps to change that frame of mind. By being proactive we can turn negative situations into positive ones like bringing cupcakes to the next work function. Yes you have to put in some extra work but you get to eat cupcakes and your coworkers will enjoy them too!
Enjoy the rest of your weekend and, come Monday, get ready to be gluten free professionally!