Eating Out with Food Allergies
By Michele Carrick
Eating away from home is sometimes a luxury, sometimes a necessity. This everyday event becomes a challenge when you or your child has food allergies. Restaurants, caterers, and neighbors’ and relatives’ homes all present a certain level of risk unless you bring your own food. Here are some tips for those of you with food allergies or food-allergic children so that you, too, can enjoy the pleasures of dining out safely.
Assess the risk.
Choose a restaurant wisely. If you have an allergy to fish, avoid restaurants that are predominantly fish restaurants. If you have allergies to nuts and peanuts, consider avoiding Asian restaurants. If you have a serious allergy to milk or soy and you react to contaminated equipment, then eating out may not be a wise choice at this point.
Pick good meal times.
Be aware that restaurants have very busy times. If you want to ask questions and discuss food allergies with the manager, then think about eating at a time that will not be too busy, for example, 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. on a weekday rather than 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday night. You might consider stopping in and speaking with the manager earlier in the day when they have more time.
Identify yourself to the manager.
Once you have chosen a restaurant, call ahead and ask questions. This may not always be possible, especially if you are traveling. If you are not able to call ahead, ask for a menu and look it over carefully. If a restaurant offers peanut butter and jelly pizzas, for instance, it’s important to realize that the ovens would be contaminated with peanuts.
Be clear about what you need to avoid in a specific meal.
When asking about potential allergen content, look at the menu and pick one item, say, a hamburger. It is much easier to identify potential problems with a specific meal than it is to try to find out the ingredients of all the items on the menu. Consider this a partnership with the manager, and try to make it as easy for them to work with you as possible.
Ask if the establishment is familiar with food allergies and if they have managed them in the past.
It is more helpful to ask what their experience is in managing food allergies than it is to assess their reactions to determine if they “get it.” This is also a good time to ask about cross contamination: whether utensils or surfaces that touch the offending foods could also come in contact with other foods.
Make sure there is communication between the manager and the kitchen and server.
The manager is responsible for knowing the establishment and how it works. Ask the manager to speak with the cook or have the chef come out to speak with you. However, when you are seated, be sure to tell your server about your food allergies, even if you have already spoken with the manager, to make sure the message is conveyed through every channel. “Chef cards” or laminated cards that tell the kitchen staff what you are allergic to are helpful aids but should not be used alone: you need to have a conversation with the restaurant staff.
“We don’t know.”
Consider an answer of “we don’t know” to be a red flag and do not take the chance of eating something when you don’t know its ingredients. If you think you are being told that simply because you are not welcome, then you may choose to leave the restaurant and take the matter up at a later date. I have written to corporate headquarters and gone back to speak to the manager at a time when I was more composed. It can often be an opportunity for education!
Always have a back-up plan.
If for some reason you are uncertain about the meal or the restaurant, be sure to have a back-up plan, such as another restaurant, another meal, etc. You may be tempted to accept an increased risk and stay if you don’t have another plan in place.
Always carry your epinephrine.
Never, ever take the risk of eating in a restaurant without your epinephrine injector.
Return to restaurants that have been helpful.
If you have had a good experience at a restaurant, let them know. They will remember you next time. Be generous with the tip if the server has done a good job. It is well worth it. Although you may well wish to frequent the same restaurants again and again, never assume that what worked one time will work again without the dialogue that goes with having food allergies. For example, upon returning to a favorite place, you might want to say, “We have eaten here many times in the past and had a very good experience, but we just wanted to check to make sure you have not changed any of your food products that may affect us.”
When traveling, chain restaurants can be a good choice.
If you frequent a chain or franchised restaurant locally, you have a good chance of finding that same restaurant in your travels. If it is a franchise, then often they are required to use the same products in all their restaurants, which can be an advantage. However, do not assume anything; always ask!
Eating out successfully opens a world of opportunity and freedom to you and your family. However, never take it for granted. It is work and needs time and attention. And some things may just not be possible: for example, eating desserts in restaurants may always be far too risky for people with nut/peanut/dairy allergies. It is a small price to pay for safety.
Michele Carrick, LICSW, became involved in the restaurant business at the age of 12. Her family owned fast food and full service establishments, and Michele was managing the business by age 16. Her knowledge of restaurants became invaluable to her when her son developed life-threatening allergies to foods including peanuts, fish, soy, wheat, oats, dairy, eggs, chicken, peas, and coconut. Michele is a member of the board of directors of both the national Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America and AAFA New England Chapter. She is the founder and former volunteer leader of the AAFA New England Northwest Suburban Boston Asthma & Allergy Educational Support Group, which meets in Lexington, Mass.