Dining out can be a stressful experience for individuals with food allergies, particularly to those newly-diagnosed. Adding to that stress can be the knowledge that eating at a restaurant with family, friends, co-workers and others is part of the social fabric of our country. Fortunately, just about all food-allergic individuals can (and do) dine out regularly. The key is being prepared and knowing what to do. We have compiled these tips to help you in your efforts and wish you many happy restaurant experiences.
- Conduct advanced research. Use AllergyEats and other resources to determine which restaurants to visit and which to avoid. The restaurant search feature on the AllergyEats app and website provides peer-based ratings and feedback from the food allergy community about the “allergy-friendliness” of individual restaurants. Also, check restaurants’ websites and menus before visiting, and call ahead to discuss your specific needs.
- Be prepared. Even the most conscientious and well-trained restaurants can make mistakes. There are no guarantees. Always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors, Benadryl or your other allergy medications. No exceptions.
- Inform the staff about your food allergies and watch their reactions closely. At the restaurant, speak with the server, manager, and/or chef about your food allergies (whoever it takes to help make you feel comfortable dining there). When you speak with them, make eye contact and watch their facial expressions. Do they freeze? Do they have that deer-in-the-deadlights look? Those are danger signs that the restaurant might not be allergy-friendly. We’ve found that the most accommodating restaurants are actually proud of their ability to serve food-allergic guests, with staff members often enthusiastic about explaining their food allergy policies and confident in answering your questions. If you get concerned looks, a lot of stammering, or answers that shatter your confidence, strongly consider leaving and finding another restaurant.
- Ask questions. Ask open-ended instead of “yes/no” questions, such as: “What kind of oil do you use to cook the French fries?” vs. “Are the French fries cooked in peanut oil?” With yes/no questions, staff members may guess at the answers, but with open-ended questions, they’re more inclined to seek out the correct answers if they’re unsure. Don’t be embarrassed to ask about ingredient lists, food preparation, how cross-contact is prevented (e.g., “do you use designated equipment and prep areas for food-allergic diners’ meals?”), how allergies are communicated to the kitchen, or anything else. And of course, ask which meals can be prepared without your specific food allergies.
- Dine at off-peak hours. When restaurant staff is less busy and harried, they’re better able to take proper precautions with your order.
- Be aware of aliases. Make sure the restaurant’s staff is aware of hidden names for your allergens. For instance, casein and whey are dairy, and semolina is wheat. Explain that your allergens could be in surprising places – dairy in some hot dogs, nuts in some barbeque sauces, fish in Worcestershire sauce, and gluten in certain soy sauces. Allergy-friendly restaurants often have detailed ingredient lists and can determine whether your allergens (and their aliases) are in any component of any meal. (If you need help in determining these aliases, consider purchasing a chef card or printing a free one online.)
- Consider restaurants with very “basic” food. Recognize that “basic” food doesn’t mean bland food. There are some great restaurants that have menus starting with the most basic food items (e.g. steak, pork, chicken, fish), allowing diners to customize their choices with sauces, toppings, etc. By starting with just the basics and no hidden ingredients yet involved, the odds of a meal free of your allergens increases.
- Don’t make assumptions. There’s a common belief that certain food allergies preclude people from eating at certain types of restaurants. Yet, some specialty restaurants are surprisingly accommodating (like an Asian restaurant that is trained and experienced serving diners with peanut and soy allergies or a seafood restaurant that is a favorite even amongst people with shellfish allergies). While we would never suggest dining outside of your personal comfort zone, there are many hidden gems that can help food-allergic diners enjoy food they never believed they could. Keep an open mind and see what others with your allergies say on AllergyEats.
- Don’t get emotional. It can be stressful when a restaurant’s staff doesn’t seem to understand your food allergy needs, especially if you (or your child) have severe, life-threatening allergies. Be polite but firm, making sure you communicate your needs clearly. We avoid dramatic statements like “My son can die from this!” Although it may be true, it sounds overly dramatic and can (unfairly) tag you as a “crazy parent,” and reduce your credibility. Plus, this approach could frighten your child. Instead, calmly (but firmly) say that this is a very severe allergy and you (or your child) can’t eat this specific food. Stay calm and composed and your message is more likely to be heard and respected. As an added bonus, you’ll be teaching your food-allergic child how to (appropriately) approach this issue, as well.
- Double check your food. When you receive your meal, look carefully to see if any of your allergens are present (e.g., grated cheese, nuts, etc.). Unfortunately, some restaurants follow all of the “rules” to accommodate food allergies, and then make a simple but critical mistake like grating cheese on top of a dairy-allergic diner’s salad or garnishing a nut-allergic guest’s meal with a drizzle of pesto.
Dining out should be a fun, social experience, shared by all. With these tips, we hope to help food-allergic families and individuals feel more prepared, and thus more comfortable, enjoying their restaurant experiences.