This article is written by Paul Antico, the CEO and Founder of AllergyEats, the leading guide to finding allergy-friendly restaurants. He is the father of five children – three of whom have food allergies. As a mom of ONE severely allergic child, I cannot imagine what it is like to have 3. As a passionate food allergy advocate, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), both nationally and for the New England chapter, and the National Peanut Board Food Allergy Education Advisory Council. He is sharing with us all his tips to dining out with food allergies and intolerances. Despite being a nurse myself, I am still terrified with every meal we dine outside of our home. With Paul’s tips, we slowly getting more comfortable with enjoyable meals outside our home.
Dining out is one of America’s favorite pastimes, but for the millions of people with food allergies and intolerances, the experience can often be frustrating and stressful. As the parent of five children – three of whom have food allergies – I understand these challenges first-hand.
I created AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com), the leading guide to allergy-friendly restaurants, to help reduce the guesswork and the anxiety surrounding dining out with food allergies. AllergyEats is a free, peer-based website, app and online community where people find and rate restaurants based solely on their ability to accommodate diners with food allergies. AllergyEats lists more than 650,000 restaurants nationwide, as well as restaurant menus, web links, dining tips, etc. The easy-to-use ratings and comment system allows users to share feedback about their restaurant experiences, helping other diners make more informed choices about where to dine – and which restaurants to avoid.
Families with food allergies hope that all restaurants will cater to food-allergic diners, but the truth is that some restaurants are far more accommodating than others. A growing number of restaurants have extensive food-allergy protocols in place, educating their staff about food allergies and procedures, avoiding cross-contamination, and sharing detailed information about the ingredients in each dish (see our list of the Most Allergy-Friendly Chains). Other establishments are unable – or unwilling – to prepare meals without diners’ allergy triggers, such as peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, gluten, shellfish, and more.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a completely allergy-safe restaurant. While many restaurants have gone to great lengths to be as allergy-friendly as possible, food-allergic individuals – or their caretakers – still need to take 100% responsibility for their own safety. Therefore, here are my tips for dining out with food allergies:
- Do your homework in advance. Find dining recommendations from others within the food allergy community through an online resource like AllergyEats, which offers a free website and app. Check restaurants’ menus and allergen information on their websites and call them with any questions before you leave the house.
- Try to dine at off-peak hours when restaurant staff is less harried and better able to take the proper precautions with your order.
- Once you arrive at the restaurant, inform the host/hostess and server about your food allergies. Be very clear, but polite. Ask them how they will be able to accommodate your specific needs. If you do not feel completely confident after speaking to the server, ask to talk to the manager and/or chef. Most importantly, if after speaking to the restaurant staff, you don’t feel comfortable, leave and find another restaurant.
- When you speak with the restaurant staff, you should receive confident answers to any of the following questions: What protocols do you have in place to serve food-allergic individuals? Which items on your menu are not safe, given my specific food allergies? How are diners’ allergies communicated to the kitchen and other staff? How is the kitchen set up to prevent cross-contamination? Is separate equipment used to prepare orders for food-allergic individuals? What kind of oil will be used in the preparation of my order and is it safe, given my allergies? Can I see the list of ingredients for a given menu item?
- When you receive your meal, politely ask the server if he or she is sure that this food is safe for you and if there was any chance of cross-contamination.
- Stop and look carefully at your meal to see if any of your offending allergens are present (i.e. grated cheese, pesto, nuts, etc.). This may sound obvious, but I’ve found, unfortunately, that some restaurants follow all of the “rules” to accommodate a food allergy, and then mistakenly do something as obvious as grating cheese on top of a dairy-allergic diner’s salad.
- If the restaurant answered all of your questions and accommodated your special requests, be sure to thank them, leave a generous tip and let them know you’ll return thanks to your positive experience.
- Whether your experience was positive or negative – or somewhere in between – do the food allergy community a great service and rate the restaurant on AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com). Rating a restaurant is simple and quick (it takes less than a minute) and helps other food-allergic individuals determine which restaurants to visit and which to avoid, based on the peer ratings and feedback.