The following is a guest post from Paul Antico.
Dining out is one of America’s favorite pastimes, and should be a pleasant, fun, social experience, but for the millions of people with food allergies and intolerances, eating out at restaurants can be frustrating, stressful and potentially dangerous. As the father of three food-allergic children, I understand how nerve-wracking it can be to trust other people to prepare food that my children can safely enjoy. However, since my oldest son was first diagnosed with multiple food allergies 15 years ago – and with two of my younger children subsequently diagnosed – our family has developed strategies that allow us to much more comfortably dine out as a family.
While families with food allergies hope that every restaurant can accommodate their special dietary needs, we’ve found that there are huge discrepancies between the restaurants that can accommodate food-allergic diners and those that can’t. In other words, not all restaurants are allergy-friendly. Some restaurants prioritize allergy-friendliness, with extensive food-allergy training, education, procedures and protocols, while others simply don’t go to the same lengths.
- Conduct research in advance. Use online resources to determine which restaurants to visit - and which to avoid – based on their willingness and ability to accommodate food-allergic guests. AllergyEats, the leading guide to allergy-friendly restaurants nationwide, is a free app and website that provides peer-based ratings and feedback from the food allergy community. AllergyEats ratings are based solely on how well restaurants have accommodated diners’ food allergies, and not on any other factors like service, ambiance, etc. Also, we find it helpful to check restaurants' websites and menus in advance, and call ahead to discuss whether a particular restaurant can accommodate our specific needs.
- Inform the staff about your food allergies. Clearly communicate your food allergies to the server, manager and/or chef. They should be able to confidently and intelligently answer any questions you have (about specific menu items, ingredient lists, their food allergy policies & procedures, how they avoid cross-contact, etc.) and reassure you that they're well-equipped to handle your food allergies.
- Ask questions. My wife and I find it more helpful to 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?" Open-ended questions require restaurant staff to retrieve correct answers where they might otherwise guess. Our typical questions include: Which menu items are not safe, given my child’s specific food allergies? How are diners’ allergies communicated to the kitchen staff? Is there a separate preparation station (and separate equipment) for food allergy meals? How do you prevent cross-contamination? Can we see a list of ingredients for a particular menu item?
- Double check your food. When you receive your meal, look carefully to see if any of your allergens are present (e.g., grated cheese, pesto, nuts, etc.). This may sound obvious but, 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.
- Dine at off-peak hours. When restaurant staff is less busy and harried, they'll be better able to take the proper precautions with your order.
- Don't get emotional. Dining out with food allergies can be stressful, especially if they’re severe and/or life-threatening. It’s important to communicate your allergies in a polite but firm way, making sure the restaurant's staff take your needs seriously. Personally, I avoid 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,” thus reducing your credibility. Plus, I don’t want to frighten my young child. Instead, calmly (but firmly) explain the severity of the allergy and the need for your child to avoid even a trace of his/her allergen. By staying calm and composed – yet firm – your message will likely be better received. As an added bonus, you model great behavior for your children to emulate when they are older, teaching them how to order their own meals and communicate their allergies with restaurant staff.
- Be prepared. Even the most conscientious restaurants can make mistakes. Always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors, Benadryl or your other allergy medications. No exceptions.
Paul Antico is the CEO and Founder of AllergyEats, the leading guide to finding allergy-friendly restaurants. He is the father of five children - three of whom have food allergies. As a passionate food allergy advocate, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), both nationally and for the New England chapter, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Food Allergy Working Group, the Institute of Medicine’s Advisory Panel for the Consensus Study on Food Allergies, and the National Peanut Board Food Allergy Education Advisory Council.