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How to Eat Out With Food Allergies

How to Eat Out With Food Allergies

Food allergies are common, and they can be incredibly serious. But just because you’ve been diagnosed with food allergies, doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying food. These days, even eating out at restaurants is getting easier for people with allergies, with more restaurants and food industry professionals making efforts to cater to customers with specific dietary needs.

If you or someone in your family suffers from food allergies or celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that is caused by a reaction to a gluten found in wheat and other grains), these simple tips can help you enjoy eating out without sacrificing your peace of mind.

Know your allergy
It may seem obvious, but the first step to keeping safe is understanding the allergy. What causes it? How severe are the symptoms? What should be done in the event of a reaction? It’s also important to understand hidden allergens, as many common allergens may be included in the ingredient list under a different name. Talk to your doctor about your allergy and, whenever possible, seek the advice of an allergist as well.

Do your research
Before eating out, take some time to find restaurants that are accommodating to food allergies. Fellow allergy sufferers are a good source of tips, as are allergy specialists and medical professionals. You can also check an online searchable database like AllergyEats, which features peer-to-peer restaurant reviews and ratings, and allows you to search by address and by specific allergy concerns. Perhaps surprisingly, many allergy specialists recommend chain restaurants over independent eateries — unless you have personally vetted the independents — because chains often have corporate policies in place regarding allergies, as well as a standardized set of ingredients and preparation methods for every item on their menu.

Call ahead
Restaurants are often extremely busy, so calling ahead and asking about food allergies might seem like an imposition. But this is an important topic, and you deserve to feel safe if you’re going to eat out. It’s a good idea to always call ahead and ask to speak to a manager or chef. It’s best to do so during off-peak hours (between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. is a fairly safe bet), and having a list of questions ready. First and foremost, you need to ask whether or not they are willing to accommodate your allergies and, once a positive answer is established, you need to make sure they are serious and competent in handling allergy concerns. FARE, Food Allergy Research and Education, has a helpful list of questions to ask a restaurant, including whether or not staff are trained in allergy prevention. Is the chef willing to prepare your food personally? Are procedures in place to avoid any chance of cross contamination? If your allergies are severe, it’s also a good idea to consult with the chef and plan your actual meal well in advance — writing it down and making sure that what you get matches what you discussed.

At the restaurant
It’s a good idea to hit up a restaurant during potentially quiet times, for example during the first hour of a restaurant being open. Not only will you get better service, but there is less chance of cross contamination while everything is clean, orderly and calm in the kitchen. Be sure to bring any medicines, such as an epinephrine autoinjector, with you. (It’s better to be safe than sorry.)

When you arrive, make yourself known to the staff, and ask to speak to the manager again. If you’ve already planned a specific meal with the chef, bring a copy of what was agreed so there is no room for miscommunication. You can also use pre-printed chef cards, which can be attached to your order to emphasize the seriousness of your request. (You should not rely on this as your first line of defense but rather a back up against misunderstandings.) If, at any point, you feel unsure that the restaurant is taking your allergies seriously, it’s better to go without eating than to risk an exposure.

After the meal
Once you’ve enjoyed your meal, assuming everything was to your satisfaction, it’s a good idea to let both your servers and management know that you appreciated their attentiveness. This isn’t just about being polite or showing gratitude — although these things are important — it’s about creating and reinforcing a culture in which food allergies are taken seriously. Similarly, if anything was not to your satisfaction — even if no actual exposure occurred — be sure to alert management so they can do better next time. You can also use the same searchable databases mentioned above to rate a restaurant and provide honest feedback, information that other allergy sufferers can use as a resource.

Eating out may be a little more labor-intensive for people with allergies, but that doesn’t mean it has to be less enjoyable. Once you find some attentive food establishments, you’ll most likely find yourself learning more than you would have otherwise about what goes into your food, how it’s prepared, and who prepares it. And that can only be a good thing for all of us.

Article by Jenni Grover

Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, N.C. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.

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39 comments

+ add your own
11:41AM PST on Feb 25, 2014

Thanks

1:01AM PST on Feb 24, 2014

Thank you :)

2:40PM PST on Feb 23, 2014

If you're going to ask for a custom-built meal, prepared in isolation from the meals of other customers, you should expect to pay more for it. Now almost everyone has someone with a food allergy in their family, so if a restaurant can't promise you 100% protection from your trigger, it's not personal. In my experience, the people who don't take allergies seriously are grandparents who think you're being silly about little Johnny's peanut allergy.

8:23PM PST on Feb 22, 2014

Everyone in my family has some type of food allergy, and so many restaurants still don't understand about them, or about cross contamination. I have had waiters tell me they don't know if something has gluten in it because they don't know what gluten is. Where is the training? Also, buying some gf bread but using the same knives, cutting boards, and condiments does not make it gluten-free. Plus, I have a severe airborne peanut allergy, so eating out is really hard for us. But let me say, when we find a restaurant that does take the effort to keep us safe, we are very grateful and will give that place repeat business and rave reviews.

6:26PM PST on Feb 22, 2014

I'm allergic to restaurants! Questionable food and lots of money spent for it - that's something to sneeze at, I'd say.

8:30AM PST on Feb 22, 2014

No allergies 4 me. Thanks

7:43AM PST on Feb 22, 2014

So important.

8:12PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

thanks

5:08PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

If I were a restaurateur, if someone called with food allergies.

I would try to help them select menu items that they could safely eat.

As far as preparing a special item, or changing the menu to accommodate them.

I think that's where I'd draw the line.

Say you prepared two items one for someone with allergies, & they got delivered to the wrong tables.

Sounds like a good way to get sued.

Plus even at off peak times there are lots going on in your average kitchen, & this sounds very potentially disruptive.

12:59PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

Thanks for these good tips

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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