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.
Step 3: At the Restaurant
Upon entering: Ask for the manager by name. Since you’ve already spoken to him, this should be like meeting an acquaintance; approach it that way. You want to make a connection with the staff. Get them on your side, and naturally they will want to ensure you are taken care of. Remind the manager of your food requirements, give him your chef or food-allergy card, and ask to speak to the chef if available. (If it’s early, the chef can usually spare a few moments).
What you’re looking for: There are a few things I recommend watching for from the chef and manager: great eye contact, complete attention, appreciation of the seriousness of your request, transparency about ingredients (no “secret sauce”), a hospitable attitude and an understanding of allergens and cross-contamination among foods. A few places you want some extra assurance from the chef:
• The grill (Is it used for meat and fish or just meat or just fish?)
• The fryer (Just used for fries? That would be rare.)
• The salad station (Ask that they change gloves and use a clean bowl.)
Friendly but assertive: Aim for honey not vinegar with staff. An aggressive stance or righteous anger will neither make for a pleasant dining experience nor guarantee your dietary restrictions will be better met. On the assertive side, gauge the attention being paid. Are the staff listening to your diet concerns with full attention, even if it’s busy? You have some special needs; it’s OK to expect some extra attention.
At your table: Never assume the manager or chef you spoke to has relayed your needs to the server – that’s your job. Repeat your needs after every course if you need to. Remind the restaurant staff to use a clean pan or clean gloves. It is your right to know what you are eating and it is the restaurant’s obligation to know the ingredients in everything they’re serving.
Dessert and other minefields: I almost never eat dessert out. I recommend skipping it as a rule since there is a lot of potential for unknown ingredients in cakes and pies. Even sorbet can be contaminated if a communal scoops is used, or an almond cookie shows up as the garnish.
Use caution with drinks, as well. Mixed drinks have been going retro and that includes a “flip”, a frothy head that’s made from egg whites.
A final minefield: romantic lighting. You need to see your meal order. If the room is too dark, there are free downloadable flashlight apps for your smartphone – use one. Don’t eat what you can’t see.
Let them know: If the meal had problems, or if you began to get mild symptoms, let the staff know. Within 24 hours, write a note or e-mail detailing the issues. Management should respond quickly.
But in most situations and with your advance and onsite communications, the dining experience will have been a success. The only eventfulness? The great food and conversation. Be sure to thank the staff for attentive and hospitable service, and pay the ultimate compliment: tip well.
Step 4 Follow Through
Send a thank you note: It’s old-fashioned, but I often send a handwritten note for an excellent and safe meal. E-mail works fine, too. Any thank you is welcome, and encourages accommodation for others.
Review online: If you had a terrific experience, your online praise will help others to locate a gem. A review on Allegicliving.com’s Forum or on an allergy-safe or gluten-free restaurant site helps fellow community members to find a great, safe meal.
Become a regular: The best thank you is to become a loyal patron. Besides, the rewards of dining regularly at a restaurant are many. I call it creating the Cheers experience (from the 1980s TV show). Once you become a fixture, like the character Norm, all kinds of special things can happen. They may even name a drink after you. Don’t laugh, that happened to me; it’s called the Simply Sloane!
Sloane Miller is an author (Allergic Girl: Living Well with Food Allergies), blogger and advocate who coaches food-allergic individuals. Learn more about her at www.allergicgirl.com.
Related Reading: Allergic Living’s Guide to Smart Dining
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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