Eating out with food allergies can be stressful. I remember feeling as though I needed to eat my meal with one hand on my daughter’s Epi-pen when I first attempted to eat at a restaurant. This is a slight exaggeration but it can feel very overwhelming if you are not 100% comfortable. Although our family does not do so frequently, I do feel that it is important to eat out. As my daughter grows, I want to empower her with tools to navigate the world outside of our home. One way to do this is to find restaurants that we feel safe eating at and to model for her the right questions to ask.
As a disclaimer, I will say that I feel more comfortable doing this because my daughter is old enough to communicate any symptoms she may feel. When she was a toddler, I preferred to bring our own food. I still do this if we are traveling outside of the country or are at an event with food. Also, comfort levels may vary depending on the number and type of allergies you are dealing with. The more allergies your child has, the more complex it becomes. My daughter is allergic to milk, sesame, peanut, tree nuts, and shellfish. I find milk to be the most difficult to avoid and the most worrisome for me.
What questions do you ask to assess if a restaurant will be safe to eat at?
Here are the 10 questions I always ask. I need to get the right answers or we find another restaurant. I also will not let my daughter eat at the restaurant unless I’ve spoken to the manager or chef and asked questions about cross-contamination and preparation. Period. This is the only way I know for sure that the proper measures are in place to keep my daughter’s meal free of her allergens. I am a strong proponent of listening to your gut. If I feel at all uncomfortable about the answers I receive, I leave. As always, these are recommendations based on my personal experience. Only you can know what will work for your family’s unique medical concerns. Please use your own judgement.
To the Host/Hostess:
1. Can you accommodate people with food allergies?
2. Do you receive training about food allergies and cross-contamination?
If the answer to these two questions is yes, I continue…
When the waiter first greets the table I say:
3. My child has food allergies. Can I speak to the chef and/or a manager about meal options for her?
To waitstaff and chef or manager:
Hi, nice to meet you. My name is Gina. This is my daughter. She is allergic to ——–. (My daughter is 8 now and she is beginning to do this step herself.) I have checked the menu and I think the (insert menu item) might work.
4. Is this made in-house? (i.e. bread, soup, pasta)
5. If not, do you have the labels available for me to read? I never rely on the staff to read labels for me. I think it is too complex. I want to read them myself. If they don’t have the labels, we don’t order the item.
6. What ingredients are in this dish?
7. Is there anything else added to this dish?
8. How is it prepared?
9. Can it be made in a separate pan with separate utensils, etc…?
10. Can it be made without her allergens?
When the food arrives, I always ask again how it was prepared before allowing my daughter to eat. Luckily, the restaurants we dine at bring my daughter’s food to the table separate from our food and state, “Here is your daughter’s dish that was prepared in a separate pan with —-. “ Another sign that the restaurant “gets it”.
*Beware of anything fried or made on the grill. If something is usually prepared on the grill, ask that it be made in a separate pan. Unless the restaurant has a dedicated fryer it will not be safe due to cross-contamination. Always ask: What kind of oil do you use? Is anything else fried in there?
What is the responsibility of the food allergic patron when eating out?
- Call or visit ahead of time to talk to the manager and ask if they have experience accommodating food allergic individuals.
- Do some homework.
- Ask for recommendations from other food allergic individuals
- Check websites such as Allergy Eats for information on food allergy friendly restaurants.
- Look at the menu ahead of time and find items that you think may work for your allergies (i.e. plain chicken breast, steamed vegetables).
- Make it easy on everyone involved by trying to dine at off-peak times.
- Inform the server of you allergies!!! This is critical as many people do not do this. This information impacts how your meal is prepared and served.
- Don’t say you have allergies when you don’t. This hurts everyone. I’ve been informed by restaurant owners and servers that people will mask a food “preference” by saying that they are allergic. Then when they are told they cannot eat another menu item due to cross-contamination they respond by saying, “It’s ok if I eat a little.” Well, it’s not ok to eat a little if you truly are allergic. This sends the message to restaurant owners/servers that food allergies are not serious and that trace amounts are ok to consume—not so! Please be truthful!
- Use common sense. Don’t go to a ice cream parlor with a dairy allergy. Don’t go to a seafood restaurant with fish/shellfish allergies. The risk of cross-contamination is too great.
- Bring a chef card to give to the server, manager and/or chef. They can be found at Allergy Free Table, and FARE. These are an excellent tool but cannot replace the questions above.
What is the responsibility of the restaurant?
- Answer all questions truthfully
- Provide ingredient lists and labels
- Provide training to all staff regarding food allergies, cross-contamination, and safe preparation and service of food
- Train staff to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction and what to do in case of an emergency (There are many stories of first-time reactions happening in a restaurant. The staff should be able to recognize the signs of a reaction and notify EMS asap.)
Stay Tuned: In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing an exciting restaurant training program that Food Allergy Education Network is piloting with our local health department.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on dining out so please be sure to comment.
Gina Mennett Lee, M.Ed.
President and Founder, Food Allergy Education Network