Step-by-Step Guide to Dining Out with Food Allergies
See Related: Allergic Living’s Guide to Smart Dining [Read more]
Missing out on great restaurant evenings with friends? Learn how you, too, can indulge.
Step 1: Before You Go
Know your condition: Do your homework: learn, in detail, what you can’t eat, where an offending protein hides, the multiple names for it, and names for it in key languages. If you have shellfish allergy, the French bistro menu may refer to fruits de mer. Hint: they aren’t fruits. Nuoc mam pha? Sounds lovely but it’s Vietnamese fish sauce. Sodium caseinate? Dairy. Durum? That’s wheat. (Look up specific allergies and celiac disease at Allergicliving.com, and see left panel links for “hidden peanut”, “hidden milk”, “hidden gluten”, etc.)
Carry your meds: Allergists recommend epinephrine as the first-line medication for a food allergy reaction. Having an auto-injector with you is especially important whenever you plan to eat, since anaphylaxis can come on swiftly after consuming the wrong food. Consider that restaurant reaction horror stories almost always occur because the patron did not have an auto-injector on hand. Also have a food allergy action plan on you: in your purse, backpack or as a pdf on your smartphone. (See American and Canadian plans.)
Restaurant card: I recommend bringing a chef or food allergy card. These explain your allergies and the types of foods they are found in. Top chefs have told me that these can mean the difference between clarity and confusion in the kitchen. Find them at Selectwisely.com or Allergytranslation.com.
The right attitude: Let’s get you psychologically prepared to dine out. Your mental equipment includes: an approachable demeanor, a genuine smile and lots of pleases and thank yous. These will get you far at a restaurant. Conversely, anger or threatening language or behavior will get you nowhere fast. You will be pleasantly surprised by what a positive frame of mind will bring.
Step 2: Picking the Restaurant
It’s time to choose a restaurant. At this phase, if any information you collect doesn’t feel right, take your business elsewhere.
Preview the menu: When considering a restaurant, first look up the website; almost all restaurants post their menus. Are there dishes that appear to be safe or could be made safe with a few adjustments? Does the menu say, “Please tell your server if you have any allergies?” Is there a website tab with a description of how the kitchen handles dietary restrictions? Is there an ingredient or nutrition tab? Does the restaurant have a gluten-free menu, or a special diet menu for allergies?
Read the chef bio or “about us” section – does the restaurant pride itself on its hospitality? That’s what you are looking for: an establishment that caters to all of its guests; is clear about its allergen policy; perhaps has a special menu and indicates the staff there understand food allergies or celiac disease.
Call ahead: This is crucial, and restaurants truly appreciate it. Speak with the highest person in charge you can reach: the general manager, chef or owner. Don’t settle for a host. Introduce yourself and get the person’s name. That person represents the restaurant; you’re looking for a knowledgeable, courteous, informed representative. If you receive pushback, such as the manager promises to call you back but never does, I’d move on to another restaurant.
What to say: When you speak to a chef or manager, say you have food allergies (or celiac disease). Find two sentences that spell out your needs succinctly. Mine are: “I’m severely allergic to all nuts, fish and shellfish. Is this something the chef feels comfortable handling?” You may get a “no” here. That’s OK, it’s information too and just saved you a trip. But presuming the conversation continues, use your pleases and thank yous, be your nicest self. Ask for assistance. Most restaurants will be happy to help if they can accommodate you. However, if the restaurant representative seems confused about your needs (“Gluten is sugar, right?”), too vague (“I guess you’ll be OK”) or rude (“The chef doesn’t speak to patrons”), then move on to the next restaurant on your list.
Reserve, with reservations: If you’ve now received a green light, great. Make your reservation but remember, you still have work to do once you’re there. Book on the early side if you can, when the kitchen and staff aren’t as busy and can focus on your needs. Try to dine on a quieter night, at least for the first time at a restaurant.
Next Page: Step 3 – At the Restaurant