Top gluten-free menu items you can get from fast food restaurants

Unless you've been living under a rock, chances are you've heard of gluten — even if you're not really sure what it is. Essentially, gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye (and sometimes co-mingled with oats) that help make dough elastic and stick together (like glue). The primary reason a person would avoid gluten is if they have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the body in response to gluten being consumed. 

According to the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago, one in 133 otherwise healthy people in the United States has celiac disease — that's at least 3 million Americans. On top of those 3 million, research reported by Beyond Celiac estimates that as many as 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity. This means that traditional breads, other baked goods, pasta, and lots of sauces and soups, plus things you'd never imagine, are off-limits to a large proportion of the population. 

Now consider that almost 40 percent of Americans eat fast food on a given day and you're probably wondering what people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can eat when they order fast food. Here are the best options.

Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A is known for their chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. Somewhat surprisingly, there's a way to get both of those things gluten-free. In 2017, Chick-fil-A added an individually packaged gluten-free bun to their nationwide menu, suddenly making those (grilled) chicken sandwiches a possibility for those who are gluten-free. Leslie Neslage, senior consultant of menu development at Chick-fil-A, said in the press release, "We know our customers are looking for more gluten-sensitive alternatives. They asked, and we listened... Our hope is that the Gluten-Free Bun addition opens up options for gluten-sensitive customers to enjoy more of our menu."

But what about the waffle fries? You may be wondering how the waffle fries can be safe considering the fried chicken at Chick-fil-A is not. The answer lies in the cooking oil. While fried chicken is cooked in peanut oil, the waffle fries are cooked separately, in canola oil. Another perk? Chick-fil-A serves grilled chicken nuggets that are cooked separately from the fried chicken, and all of their dipping sauces (except Sweet and Spicy Sriracha Sauce) are also gluten-free.

Five Guys

If it's a burger you're craving rather than a chicken sandwich, look no further than Five Guys. While there isn't a gluten-free bun option at Five Guys, there is a way to get your burger gluten-free and that's with a lettuce wrap. No, it isn't quite the same as having a juicy burger on a bun, but it's the next best thing and sure beats having a burger patty just hanging out on a plate (though if you prefer it that way, you can also get your burger in a bowl). 

One of the things that makes Five Guys so great is the number of toppings available, like jalapeño peppers, green peppers, or grilled onions and mushrooms, to name just a few. Lucky for the gluten-free among us, all of the burger toppings are also gluten-free. And because Five Guys only serves burgers and fries as far as food goes, and because their fries are just potatoes and nothing more, the fries are gluten-free as well. In fact, the only sources of gluten at Five Guys are malt vinegar, fry sauce (available only in Utah), hamburger buns, and some of the milkshake mix-ins. Otherwise, go nuts!

Boston Market

Given the type of food sold by Boston Market (comfort food at its finest), you may not immediately consider it fast food, but it technically is. With offerings like chicken pot pie, you may assume that there aren't many good options if you're gluten-free, but you'd be very wrong. 

Boston Market makes it easy to see which items on its menu are gluten-free, and there are a surprising number of safe options ranging from brisket to certain flavors of their half and quarter chickens, plus tons of really delicious sides. From creamed spinach and cheddar broccoli to mashed potatoes and sweet corn, there are plenty of options to choose from. 

What many a gluten-free person no doubt knows, but which may fly under the radar for those who don't have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, is that most gravy is off the table when it comes to being gluten-free. But if you're eating at Boston Market, you're in luck. Both the poultry gravy and the beef au jus are gluten-free, so go ahead and lay it on thick. Your mashed potatoes will thank you. Just be careful not to get the beef gravy — it is unfortunately not gluten-free.  

Chipotle

If it's Mexican-inspired food you crave, you can certainly get your fill at Chipotle Mexican Grill. While the flour tortillas at Chipotle have gluten, meaning that burritos and certain tacos are off the menu, everything else at the chain is gluten-free. That means you've got the all clear on crunchy corn tacos, burrito bowls with any meat (or non-meat) topping you can imagine, chips and guacamole, and salad (with the dressing). 

Assuming carnitas or sofritas with rice and beans are what you crave, Chipotle may just be the next best thing to making all your food at home, at least where allergens are concerned. Just be sure to ask the Chipotle employee to change gloves before you order your gluten-free smorgasbord since cross contact with gluten is possible. Chipotle also offers a disclaimer that's true of anything made with corn: "You should be aware items containing corn, including corn tortillas (chips and crispy corn tortillas) and corn salsa, may have trace amounts of gluten from potentially co-mingling with gluten-containing grains in the field."  

Wendy's

When it comes to standard burger-and-fries fast food, Wendy's has always been a standout thanks to their "fresh, never frozen" beef patties and of course the deliciousness that is the Frosty, but Wendy's also has some really great options that extend beyond your typical burger joint, and they're great if you're gluten-free. 

Specifically we're talking about Wendy's chili and baked potato options. Both are fantastic on a cold day and, paired together, make quite the satisfying meal. And don't think you have to stick to the plain baked potato, or even the Sour Cream and Chive version. Both the Bacon Cheese Baked Potato and Cheese Baked Potato are also gluten-free. So is the Chili & Cheese Baked Potato, for that matter, if you'd rather have your chili and baked potato all in one bite. 

If baked potatoes and chili aren't your thing, you still have some other gluten-free options at Wendy's, but you'll have to work with the menu a little bit. Several of their burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches served without the bun would be safe bets as are most of their salads (just look out for croutons). And while you can enjoy a delicious Frosty without worry, don't go dipping fries in it, at least not without confirmation that there's a dedicated fryer for them. Otherwise they're cooked in the same fryer as the battered chicken, so gluten is sadly a concern.

Popeye's

When you think of gluten-free food, you probably don't think of fried chicken, and for good reason. So you're probably surprised to see Popeye's on this list. Sadly, the chicken at Popeye's is still off-limits like you'd expect, but luckily there are some things you can eat if your whole crew has decided Popeye's is the choice of the day. 

Unfortunately, the only gluten-free options at Popeye's are sides, so you'll need to cobble together a meal from them. Your best bet is the Red Beans and Rice. Ask any Louisianan and they'll tell you that red beans and rice are easily a meal unto themselves, and while Popeye's version may not compare to what you'll get at a restaurant in New Orleans, they're still great in a pinch. Plus, you can increase the size of your meal by adding a few of the other gluten-free sides, including applesauce, corn on the cob, and coleslaw. Who knows, maybe you won't even miss the fried chicken.

Subway

Although there aren't as many Subway restaurants in the United States as there used to be, there are still over 25,000 locations in the US, and that's a lot of sandwiches. Unfortunately the standard Subway sandwich isn't a great option if you're gluten-free, but you can get pretty much any of your favorite subs in the form of a salad. There are, however, still some ingredients you'll need to avoid like the Teriyaki Glazed Chicken Strips, Meatballs, Chicken Enchilada, Orchard Chicken Salad, Falafel, Seafood Sensation, and the Veggie Patty. Luckily though, all the cheeses, veggies, and condiments are gluten-free. 

Not feeling a salad? You may be in luck. There's always soup, at least a few of them. Of the 10 soups Subway offers, four of them are listed as not containing gluten: Black Bean, Broccoli & Cheddar, Spicy Chicken Tortilla, and Tomato Basil. The other six are off the table. 

But if it's really a sandwich you crave, some Subway restaurants also offer gluten-free bread that is baked off-site in a gluten-free facility. That said, it isn't available at all stores and you still need to be careful of cross-contact with the other foods, so make sure the Subway employee making your sandwich knows to change their gloves and be careful of cross contact on surfaces.

Jersey Mike's

If Subway isn't your thing, but you're still in the mood for a submarine sandwich, check to see if there's a Jersey Mike's in your neck of the woods. With over 1,500 locations across the United States, there's a pretty decent chance there's one near you. Like Subway, there are a few things you can't get gluten-free, like meatballs, traditional chicken Parmesan (though there is a grilled version that's safe), and the Teriyaki Chicken Cheesesteak, but pretty much everything else is safe to have "in a tub," which is really just their version of a bowl, but "sub in a tub" sounds cooler. 

Luckily, Jersey Mike's also has a gluten-free roll that they introduced nationwide at the end of 2017, just in case you aren't in the mood to eat your sub with a fork. So if you have a Jersey Mike's nearby, you have plenty of gluten-free subs at your fingertips.

Captain D's

Since 1969, Captain D's has been serving up all kinds of seafood at what is now more than 500 stores in the United States. While their batter-dipped fish might be what they're famous for, the Captain also serves up some delicious gluten-free options that won't leave you feeling like you've been fed to the fishes. 

While there isn't an option for a gluten-free fry batter, there are plenty of grilled options to satisfy your fish craving, including Blackened Tilapia, Grilled White Fish, Shrimp Skewers, and Wild Alaskan Salmon. You won't have to skimp on sides either, as many of their options are also gluten-free, including the baked potato, coleslaw, green beans, broccoli, corn, seasoned rice, and side salad. Just avoid the fries and hush puppies because there's plenty of gluten in/on those. As always, don't forget to mention your food restriction to the employees preparing your food so you can be sure to avoid cross contact.

Pizza Hut

Don't adjust your screen, you really are seeing Pizza Hut as an option for gluten-free food. Unlike some fast casual pizza restaurants like Domino's, which notes that its gluten-free crust is not appropriate for customers with celiac disease, Pizza Hut apparently goes above and beyond with their gluten-free crust. 

Offered in over 2,100 locations (and counting), the gluten-free crust Pizza Hut uses is actually made by Udi's, a gluten-free brand you've probably heard of once or twice. From there, Pizza Hut employees are very careful when preparing the pizza, according to the company website. Not only is the crust stored in a separate container on a separate shelf of the fridge, the marinara sauce, cheese, and pepperoni used for gluten-free pizzas are also stored in a gluten-free designated kit, plus the gluten-free pizzas are baked on specially designated parchment paper to avoid cross contact with regular, gluten-filled pizzas. Finally, Pizza Hut notes that team members who make the gluten-free pizzas wear clean gloves and use a designated pizza cutter that is only used on gluten-free pizzas. 

The main drawback is that you can only get a cheese or pepperoni pizza prepared gluten-free, but given all the precautions taken, you can rest fairly easily that you'll be safe. If your Pizza Hut isn't one of the locations that offers gluten-free pizza, you can request to have it added to the local menu.

Panera Bread

Yes, it may have the word "bread" in its name, but Panera Bread actually offers a few gluten-free options that are worth a visit. All that said, this does come with a warning. Panera bakes their bread and other baked goods fresh in their stores, so the chances that there's gluten flying around at any given time may be high. While that means Panera may not be a good option for those with celiac disease, others who are eating gluten-free may have no problem with the gluten-free options. Talk to you doctor and choose wisely. 

If you do choose to eat at Panera, there are several menu items that are already prepared gluten-free, including the Greek Salad, Fuji Apple Salad, Greek Goddess Cobb Salad, Turkey Chili, Baked Potato Soup, and oatmeal, to name a few. There are also items, like the Caesar Salad and Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup, which can be made gluten-free simply by asking for no croutons. Panera Bread may not be the number one spot for eating gluten-free, but it can certainly be done.

Burger King

Like Panera Bread, Burger King offers several items that are not prepared with gluten or gluten-containing ingredients, but which may not really be suitable for people with celiac disease. Still, if Burger King is your only choice, you have a few options. Unfortunately, there's no gluten-free bun to speak of, but if you don't mind eating your burger and toppings out of a salad container, you could always go for a Whopper without the bun. 

Not only is the Whopper patty gluten-free (as is the standard hamburger patty), all of the other ingredients in a Whopper are gluten-free as well. If you're feeling chicken instead of beef, the Tendergrill Chicken Filet is also gluten-free and you can even add a slice of bacon or ham if you'd like. Several of the salad dressings at Burger King are also gluten-free, including the apple cider vinaigrette, lite honey balsamic, and avocado ranch, so that's always a good option. Just don't try the fries — they're fried in the same oil as the breaded chicken and other gluten-containing items.

Arby's

If there's one thing we all know about Arby's, it's that they "have the meats." Luckily, meat is typically gluten-free, as long as there aren't any grain-based fillers in there. It's for this very reason that Arby's can be a pretty decent place to grab some gluten-free fast food. 

The Angus Beef, Corned Beef, Pepper Bacon, Roast Beef, Pit-Smoked Ham, Roast Turkey, and Smoked Brisket are all gluten-free, but the catch is that you'll need to eat them without a bun or any kind of bread accompaniment, as Arby's doesn't offer a gluten-free option for bread. Still, you could get all the meats on top of a salad, just make sure it's a gluten-free option like the Chopped Farmhouse Salad or the Chopped Side Salad. Whether you get a typical salad dressing with that or you go for one of the dipping sauces or other condiments is up to you — there are multiple of each that are gluten-free. Sadly, you'll have to skip the curly fries because they aren't gluten-free.