Is it a fear of yours? Being the person with the questions, with the needs, who just takes up all the waiter’s time when everyone else just wants a drink (or some pizza for the four year old)? Eating out with food allergies poses certain challenges but it can be done.
First, recognize the difference between anaphylactic shock and “I’m trying a new diet to help my IBS.” Safety is the key. Both efforts are valid, but you can safely remove croutons from a salad yourself if you are trying a low FODMAPs diet while you cannot safely remove shrimp from a salad if you have a shellfish allergy. Respect your needs!
Second, practice with people you are more comfortable with– close friends, family, even just going out yourself. Practice makes it possible to just own being “that person” while also efficiently judging which questions are going to actually get answered (some don’t ever get answered and you have to move on to another item if you want food). If you still prefer to avoid asking a series of questions while others stare at you hungrily, there are ways to make sure you get food that is free of anything that might cause a problem.
Eating Out with Food Allergies (Or Dietary Restrictions)
Keys to success include preparation, preparation, and a little bit of advocacy.
- Know your cuisine. Italian-American will be tough for someone with celiac disease. Thai or Mexican? Much easier, mostly. Just don’t take someone with a shellfish allergy to a Vietnamese restaurant.
- Offer to pick the restaurant (or narrow it down to a couple). Research the menu or call ahead to find out about options that work for you.
- Show up early to clarify dietary needs or call ahead with your request. If you are making the reservation, ask then. Include specific details like no shared fryers in online forms.
- Select a few likely items from the menu. Always pick two or three possible choices to inquire about. 95% of the time the chili might be gluten-free and dairy-free but then a cook gets creative…
- Check in when your food arrives, especially if your food might look like a similar item (like steamed vegetables without butter or a crust with ground nut flour). A quick confirmation here can save a lot of fuss later.
- Inspect your food carefully and a) ask questions if there is doubt; b) don’t eat it if the questions are not answered well.
- Carry a protein bar*. Order a plain side salad, pretend to eat, and then go eat the protein bar. Sometimes eating out is a social occasion, right?
Be clear with waitstaff– if you just don’t like tomatoes, say that. If you need a clean grill surface or cannot eat out of a shared fryer, specify. Polite clarity usually goes a long way toward ensuring safe, pleasant dining experiences.
*Some people recommend bringing items like gluten-free pasta for the kitchen to cook. I don’t recommend this. First, a commercial kitchen should not accept food from a customer and take it back to the kitchen to cook. Second, it’s possible that they will contaminate items through using shared pasta water, colanders, etc.
When a Restaurant Serves the Wrong Thing
In the past year, I have seen restaurants serve meals with contaminated foods (such as shared fryers) and/or allergens to customers with clearly described allergies/conditions. Two examples come to mind:
- Peanut butter brownie dessert with ice cream
- Pork dish with fried potato wedges
These were caught by alert customers. The first contained wheat flour, a problem for someone with celiac disease. It was in a very nice, otherwise perfectly competent restaurant with a fabulous tasting menu so the diners did not know what items were coming. The second was also in a mid-range, cook to order restaurant. The cook simply didn’t think about the potatoes being fried in a shared fryer with shellfish– the allergen for that diner. In each case, the condition was severe enough the diner was unable to eat anything off the plate. After the diners asked about the items, the servers went back to the kitchen to inquire and then promptly whisked away the plates.
Each of these examples is a reminder to examine meals before eating them and carry medications as recommended. Bring the server’s attention to the error, and order a replacement meal, including clean plates, silverware, and anything else needed.
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