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Can I eat out with food allergies?
Be informed and enjoy yourself!
The quick answer is yes. You can eat out with food allergies as long as you do your research, take precautions, and above all talk to your doctor.
First – talk to your doctor. You don’t need the doctor’s permission to eat out but you do need to understand what you’re dealing with when it comes to the food allergy/allergies in question. He or she may advise against it from the start and you should always follow the doctor’s safety advice.
Our case, for instance, involves our oldest son. He is allergic to several items, big and small. Dairy, eggs, wheat, fish, peanuts, coconuts and several more items are on the ‘no’ list. Looking at the numbers alone it’s easy to just decide to keep him inside in a bubble but it is important to understand the individual reactions and the reality – not the hype – of what he faces.
After your doctor has helped you understand what factors are important, then you need to do your own research. Doctors speak in very broad terms but you have to figure out how to live with the day-to-day aspects of food allergies, such as figuring out what foods harbor hidden components of the allergen(s) in question.
Once you are well-versed in the ins and outs of the allergy, or allergies, then and only then can you consider eating out at restaurants. For some with highly sensitive, life-threatening allergies this is never possible. The chance of cross-contamination is too high and the sensitivity and reaction too great to risk it.
But for many of those living with food allergies it is completely possible to eat out with some simple guidelines.
You can take a look at many restaurant menus online but that isn’t always helpful and is really just a cursory step. The menu will only tell you if there is something that might be safe on the menu. It won’t tell you anything about the preparation, ingredients, or handling practices in the kitchen.
It is vital that you call ahead if at all possible. Sacrifice a little spontaneity and be prepared. Once you do this a few times you can build up a list of places and dishes that are safe but if you are dealing with food allergies and you have yet to visit a restaurant you want to go in with all the information you need lined up in advance.
You’ll want to speak to a manager when you call. The waitress, cashier, or hostess who answers the phone will know little if anything about the procedures in the kitchen and you need to go right to the top. Let them know it’s about a food allergy and you shouldn’t have any problem getting to the person you need.
Explain to the manager that you are going to visit their restaurant but you have questions pertaining to food allergies. You need to know if they have a separate allergy-free menu (Cracker Barrel, for instance, does) or allergy-free suggestions. How do they handle food? Do they have special allergy precautions in place? Do they clean cooking surfaces in between different meals? Do they have dedicated fryers?
Any one of those questions could quickly end the conversation if for instance, you are allergic to shellfish and they are all over the kitchen. But most managers and restaurants seem to be aware and supportive of food allergies so you will usually move past this. They may not have a specific menu, however, so be prepared to explain the allergies in question and ask for suggestions.
Sometimes spontaneity wins out and you find yourself in an untested restaurant. Once you are seated (or while you’re on the way to the table) be sure to ask to speak with a manager. Just like on a call-in, you will want to speak with someone very familiar with their kitchen practices.
Whether you call ahead or talk about these issues once you are in the restaurant be well informed about foods and preparation techniques that involve your allergen(s). You’ll want to be able to ask intelligent questions. Some managers are very well versed on allergies and some aren’t so do not rely on them to know it all. They will try, but they are typically more concerned about pathogens rather than allergens.
Once you are seated and your choice made, make sure the waitress knows about your allergens and notes them to the kitchen staff. If you called ahead, be sure to point out that you confirmed with the manager that your selection should be safe and reiterate any precautions he/she may have given you when ordering your food. For instance, this is not a sit-down restaurant but Chick-fil-A allows you to tell the cashier that an allergy alert should be placed on the order, which means the kitchen staff should take extra precautions with your food.
When you get your food, check it over. If you ordered a salad without cheese make sure they didn’t scrape of the cheese thinking it was just another annoying request. If you are giving a side to a person with food allergies and requested a side on a separate dish, make sure they carried out your instructions. Be vigilant. Staff will care but most people don’t understand the necessary precautions involved and in the end it’s up to you to ensure you verify everything to the best of your ability.
I want to reiterate that for some people it is not advisable to eat out at all, but for most families living with food allergies you don’t have to restrict yourself that way. Be informed and enjoy yourself!
Bonus tip: Most wipes take care of food proteins but hand sanitizer does NOT. Take along some wipes for a quick table and hand clean after handling menus.