As business in many restaurants and eating establishments picks up with the loosening of restrictions and reopenings, many of us have not eaten in a restaurant for a long time, which can cause heightened food anxiety and uncertainty, particularly with food allergies. I hope these easy steps and tips will be helpful in your future dining experiences.
DISCLAIMER: These tips are purely based on my own experiences, and they may not be the best fit for every situation with food allergies. I have had plenty of issues with food anxiety when it comes to eating out, so I understand the fears you may have. I also recently went through OIT, so I have been able to feel safer when it comes to new food. Take every tip with a grain of salt and my story in mind. Hopefully, they can give you some ideas on how to better handle your future experiences.
Whether you are eating at a fast food place or a Michelin-star restaurant, these simple steps should help make your experience safe and delicious. I have split up the guide into three sections, pre-dining, ordering, and dining. Don’t feel bad about being direct and specific about your needs; their job is to make your experience enjoyable so that you want to come back. These tips work for parties planned at restaurants, family dinners, outings with friends, and everything in between.
Do Your Research (if you have time): Check out the restaurant’s website. You can check their menu/allergy-friendly or dietary restriction options if they are available. You can also call beforehand and ask about how they could accommodate your food allergies.
You can try using allergyeats.com. AllergyEats is a helpful website that lists restaurants in your area (or any area within the US) and has reviews from people who have allergies. You can search for places to eat based on filters for your allergies. Although it doesn’t speak for everyone, it is a good reference to get an idea of which places are more allergy conscious.
I know others who use the app, Spokin, which is somewhat similar to AllergyEats. I’ve heard that it is very useful. However, I have never used it myself, but you can definitely try it out.
Types of Cuisines: When looking for restaurants, consider the types of cuisines that work better for your allergies based on ingredients in common dishes.
For example, if you have a wheat or dairy allergy, especially if it is airborne, you probably don’t want to go to an Italian or pizza place. Instead, Asian cuisine may be more fitting for you.
Specialty Restaurants: You might also want to check out restaurants that cater to other special dietary restrictions like lactose intolerances, celiac, or specific diets like being vegan, vegetarian, keto, pescatarian, paleo, etc. Oftentimes, they are more equipped, prepared, and understanding when it comes to food allergies.
Try a Test Meal: You can go to the restaurant before an event and do a practice meal. This gives you time to try out what options you can eat and see how the restaurant handles it. This will also help you not stress over your food options at the future event.
Prepare Your Own Safe Food: You can make your own food at home to bring along just in case you want to eat it if you don’t feel comfortable or can’t eat at the restaurant.
You can ask to have servers warm up your food in a microwave if needed or borrow extra plates. Having extra food as a safety net is a good tip for living with food allergies in general.
Something that I have found to be a challenge is that some restaurants have rules around bringing in outside food. You can try to negotiate and inform them of your food allergies. Some places will allow it if the others in your group are ordering from the restaurant menu. If not, don’t dine there at all. The restaurant clearly doesn’t understand the importance of food allergy safety.
Bring Your Necessary Medications: Make sure you have your medications to ensure your safety before leaving for the restaurant. i.e., Non-expired Epi-pens, Benadryl, Auvi-Qs, inhalers, other antihistamines, etc.
Arrive Early (if you can): You can get settled, and if you haven’t had a chance to research, you can look over the menu now.
Make it Clear What Your Allergies Are: Make sure your server knows your exact allergens and the rules of cross-contamination (Clean pans/grills, segregated fryers, etc.)
You can even make a card with your allergies written out (with images is a bonus!) Listing other commonly used products that have your allergens is great too. (Ex. You have a dairy allergy, make sure to put “no cheese and butter,” etc.) Then, give the card to your server.
A card is helpful, especially when eating in a different country. You can print the card in the language of your choice. A copy of a doctor’s note can also be quite helpful.
Ask for Simplified Meals: Sometimes, restaurants need an example or some suggestions of the sort of food you can have.
For example, if a restaurant serves steak, but it has butter or is cooked on shared pans, you can ask if they would be able to make a plain, salt and pepper, and oil steak on a clean pan or grill.
Seek Extra Assistance (if needed): If you don’t feel like your server understands you and your allergies, or if they are impatient or seem careless, you can ask to speak to the chef or manager. Remember, this does not make you annoying or a hassle to the restaurant. Don’t be afraid to be firm and somewhat commanding; it is necessary to ensure your safety.
Always Check the Ingredients: Even if you have eaten at a restaurant many times before with no problems, always check the ingredients. Restaurants can change recipes or add certain substitutions based on many factors like food availability per season and budget.
Don’t Feel Forced to Eat the Food: Even once it arrives, and no matter how much it costs, your life costs more. You need to feel comfortable and (as close to) 100% confident in it as you can be.
Get a Taste Tester: Have someone without allergies taste your food. This isn’t a sure method, but sometimes others can taste if something has butter or cheese, or another strong-flavored food, etc.
Have Your Medicines On Hand: Just in case! Make sure that if you are dining with others that they know how to administer epinephrine and they know the steps to take in the event that you have an allergic reaction.
Don’t Eat Too Quickly: Once you know you can eat something, only eat a little bit and wait to see how you feel before eating the entire thing. The smallest amounts can cause a reaction, but it is even worse if you eat it all at once. Even if it tastes really good! Hopefully, your food is safe for you after all of the efforts you put into getting it.
Overall, don’t let your fear and uncertainty hold you back from trying new things. There are a lot of opportunities out there, you just have to give them a chance (with all safety measures of course!) Going out to restaurants helps raise awareness about this critical accessibility issue. Eating out is tough, but you can overcome it if you handle it properly. Remember to enjoy yourself and don’t stress over what could happen, but focus on what you can do to help yourself at that moment.