Food allergies are common, and they can be incredibly serious.
Just because you've been diagnosed with food allergies, however, 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.
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.
Below is a video produced by FARE on how to speak with your server about allergies.
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.
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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