We have been on a getaway nearly all week long. It’s been absolutely amazing. But (yep, there’s a but – even on vacation) food allergies have made it somewhat difficult.
There’s nothing like going to a new restaurant when you’re a food allergy parent. You really only have the option to trust the chefs, say a little prayer and eat your pizza with an EpiPen clutched in your hand under the table. Okay, it’s not that extreme – but sometimes it feels like it.
Here are my tips to stay safe when eating out with food allergies:
1. Come Prepared
This is simple, but it’s crucial. Do not under any circumstances test out a new restaurant without an EpiPen (or other epinephrine auto-injector). For that matter, don’t eat at a restaurant you regular without an EpiPen.
Being fully prepared means you have at least two EpiPens. If you are farther from a hospital, figure out the travel time. I try to have one EpiPen for every twenty minutes it takes to get to the hospital.
Of course, don’t forget Bendryl or Zyrtec as the first line of defense.
2. Call Ahead
This one’s basic. Try calling ahead to any restaurant you’re considering going to. This way you can cross restaurants off the list without actually wasting time going restaurant to restaurant.
3. Talk to the Right People
Typically the first person you talk to or see at a restaurant is not going to be the person who knows what’s on the menu and what’s done in the kitchen.
I will ask the host/hostess to let me talk with a chef and/or manager. If you can talk to both, even better.
If you are sitting down ordering, you can ask to speak to the chef personally. If I’m really worried I’ve asked for a kitchen tour.
4. Ask the Right Questions
Here’s a few questions to ask right off the bat when you’re in a new restaurant.
- Do you serve (allergen)?
- If it’s something like tree nuts or shellfish, remember to explain what that means. I’ve talked to many people who believe tree nuts are exclusively pine nuts, or don’t realize shrimp is a shellfish.
- Does it come into contact with other items or use the same equipment as other items?
- Do you use the same griddle for the walnut pancakes and the plain pancakes?
- Is the same scooper used to scoop almonds and cherries?
- Does the Thai peanut pizza get cooked on the same surface as a cheese pizza?
- What do you do to prevent cross contamination?
- Is there anything you think is absolutely safe?
- I ask this one because many restaurants have pre-packaged items they just throw on a plate.
5. Wipe Down the Area & Wash Your Hands
We carry wipes to clean the table and the chair. If this is for a child, I would also explain that they should keep their hands to themselves and to not put a food item directly on the table before eating it.
If you’ve been traveling around, exploring a new world – don’t forget to wash hands! Germs, yes. But also for any potential allergens that have made it on little hands. Those need to get off hands before making it into the mouth.
6. Remind Your Server
Okay, you’ve made the call. You talked to the manager. You saw the kitchen with the chef. Well, none of that means anything if you don’t remind your server you’re the family with the allergy. After ordering I usually say, “And I talked to the chef about this, but just remind them we are the ones with the (name specific allergen) allergy.”
Many chefs and cooks will wash their hands when they see an allergen warning on the ticket.
6. Have a Safe Backup
I never go on a vacation without a jar of Sunbutter. The worst case scenario is I can’t find a safe restaurant in the area. In that case, I reach for Sunbutter and whip up a quick sandwich. Let’s be honest, that worst case scenario is not so bad.
7. Assume Everyone Knows Nothing
It is so easy as a food allergy parent or person to get irritated at those around us for not understanding what food allergies mean.
Just remember, we live this day in and out. We know what can cause a reaction and what (hopefully) won’t. Yes, they work in food services, but the sad reality is, right now, they’re just not trained as they should be.
I try to stay calm, don’t talk down to the chef, server or manager (eh hem – you don’t want spit in your drink) and ask for their help.
Going back to point 4. Over explain if you have to. Our basics might as well be Chinese to many people who don’t live this everyday.
At one restaurant they told me they didn’t have any peanuts in the restaurant. Once we got there I saw they had a peanut butter burger (gross, I know!). But the hostess I spoke with had little understanding of the fact that peanut butter had peanuts in it.
8. Use Common Sense
This one is tough because common sense in food allergies takes some time. I always say it’s a learning process.
We went to one restaurant that guaranteed no nuts, but then I noticed pesto was on the menu. It’s typically made with nuts, so I specifically asked about it.
If you’re peanut-free don’t order a Cracker Jack pie or MnM sundae.
I asked my 4-year-old, his number one tip for eating out with food allergies. Here’s what he says everyone should know.
8. “Check for hives”
And yes, that’s a great idea – especially if you’re dealing with a child who may not speak up about an itchy throat. I would add, just watch for any allergic reaction as you continue throughout your day.
Happy traveling (and eating!).
What do you do to stay safe at restaurants?
Disclaimer: Everyone with food allergies seems to weigh the risks and benefits differently. We are comfortable eating at restaurants because we feel the benefits of having a somewhat normal life outweigh the risks. Not everyone feels that way and that is okay too!