When you live with serious food allergies — or even severe intolerances — eating out can be a challenge. However, sometimes eating at a restaurant is unavoidable, and many people find that they want to eat out for fun.
If you’re concerned about eating out because of your own or your loved one’s food allergies, read on. It is possible to have a positive experience at a restaurant. Here’s how to eat out and stay safe at the same time.
Talk to other people with food allergies to find out which restaurants in the area are safe for people with life-threatening food allergies or are likely to be able to handle your allergies. You can join groups on Facebook or through other sites. You also can ask around in person for recommendations.
Around 6 percent of people in the U.S. have some kind of food allergy, so you should be able to find someone who can tell you where you can eat safely. You can also talk to your allergist to see if they have local recommendations that have come from others they work with. Some restaurants’ websites offer a full list of ingredients online, so you can look there, too.
Before you go to a restaurant, call and speak with the manager about your dietary restrictions. This gives you a chance to ask not only what is in their food but also:
If they know who you are and when you are coming in, they can prepare their kitchen ahead of time to give you a better experience.
MyFoodAllergyTeam members use these strategies. One said, “I enjoy eating out but have to be very careful when I order my food. I have to warn them of my allergies.” Another added, “I need to read labels and ask a bunch of questions when dining out.”
One of the best ways to ensure your or your loved one’s safety is to call ahead.
If you’re concerned about not getting to talk to someone about your or your loved one’s allergies, or if you want the best chance of avoiding cross contamination, try visiting the restaurant outside of their busiest hours — ideally during their first hour of service. This might be 5 p.m. on a weekday rather than 7 p.m. on Friday or Saturday night. If you can’t do this, let them know ahead of time when you’ll be coming.
Get a wallet-sized card that lists your allergies and what you need from the restaurant to be able to eat there safely. This is often called a chef card. You can present this to the server, who should show it to the chef. It might be a good idea to have several of these, so you don’t have to try to get them back every time. If you are traveling somewhere where you don’t speak the language, get one printed in that language so everything will be clear.
Identify yourself and you or your loved one’s allergies when you first speak to your server or other restaurant staff. If they aren’t expecting you, you may need to speak to a manager to let them know what you need. Continue the dialogue through your time ordering and working with your server. Ask questions about what is in your food, how it will be prepared, and more. Don’t be shy about articulating exactly what you need, want, and expect.
Simpler meals are less likely to be contaminated and cause reactions or even anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction that puts a person into shock). If you can, choose a roasted piece of meat with a basic vegetable and carbohydrate. These are less likely to come into contact with other food, and it’s easier for the kitchen to know exactly what’s in these types of food.
Eating at a buffet, on the other hand, can be a bad idea because all kinds of cross contamination can occur. Fried food is often a poor choice because the fryer can be a source of cross contamination, too. Lastly, be cautious when ordering desserts, as they can also be a source of hidden food allergens.
Know what you’ll do if your restaurant of choice can’t accommodate you or if you don’t feel safe eating there, even if they try to do so. There may be a safer restaurant nearby, or you can bring something to eat while everyone else orders from the menu. If you don’t have a good backup plan, you may be more likely to eat food that you’re unsure about. If you double-check your meal and you don’t feel safe eating it, you need to know you can get food somewhere else.
If you have specific concerns, you need to air them. For instance, some restaurants don’t have a thorough understanding of cross contamination. You can explain that all pans and utensils used to cook your food need to be washed beforehand, then used only on your food before they touch anything else.
You can also send food back if it has ingredients you can’t eat, and you can specifically tell them that it needs to be cooked again because simply removing the food allergen isn’t enough. This can feel uncomfortable, but it’s better than having an allergic reaction later.
Some cuisines tend to use certain ingredients known to cause allergies. Even if you ask to have your dish prepared without a particular ingredient, it could still contaminate other ingredients in the kitchen. Avoid these types of cuisine if they are pertinent to your allergy.
If you have peanut allergies, for example, you may need to be particularly vigilant when eating certain Asian cuisines. Seafood restaurants will have fish and other sea creatures around even if you plan to order something else, so you should avoid them if you or your loved one has a fish or shellfish allergy.
Chain restaurants may be the safest places to eat, especially if you are not in your hometown or with someone who knows about allergy-friendly restaurants. With chains, food tends to be prepared the same way at each restaurant. Thus, if you’ve found a safe chain in your area, chances are better that you will be safe at other restaurants in the chain.
There are a number of smartphone apps available that try to help people with food allergies eat safely. You may need to try several of these before you find one that caters to your allergy or has the information you need.
One member of MyFoodAllergyTeam has found these useful: “There is an app for your smartphone called iCanEat that has many (39) of the chain restaurants and the main food allergies listed. … It is helpful when eating out.”
However, you should never trust an app completely. Recipes can change over time or ingredients can be substituted as they become available. An app can be part of your preparation for eating out but should never be the only source you consult.
If you have an anaphylactic reaction to your allergen, make sure you carry your epinephrine auto-injector with you, along with a food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency-care plan. There are many brands of epinephrine auto-injector, including Adrenaclick, Adrenalin, Auvi-Q, Epipen, Epipen Jr., and Twinject.
Make sure your prescription is up to date and that at least one other person who’ll be dining with you knows how to use your injector in case you’re exposed to an allergen. If you’re dining with people who aren’t familiar with your food allergies, you can also let them know what your symptoms are, how long they last, and other things to look out for should you be exposed.
On MyFoodAllergyTeam — the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones — more than 39,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with food allergies.
What experiences have you had with food allergies when dining out? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.