Food allergies: Strategies for dining out

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Food allergies: Strategies for dining out

Food allergies? Enjoy a meal out with these strategies.

Yes! You can enjoy a meal out even if you have food allergies. But, don't rely on menu descriptions alone when ordering. Ask questions about ingredients and how the meal is prepared to lower your risk of an allergic reaction.

Eating out with food allergies

You might be uncomfortable making special requests at restaurants, especially if wait staff are overextended. Discomfort speaking up about food allergies is the most common reason people have allergic reactions when dining out. Other reasons include:

  • Meals are cooked with shared pans and utensils.
  • The restaurant makes a mistake.
  • The wait staff or chef is not educated about food allergies or hidden ingredients in food, such as those found in dressings and sauces.

Plan ahead and learn to feel comfortable speaking up about your food allergy to reduce your chances of having a problem.

Choosing a restaurant

Your best bet is to ask other people who have food allergies to recommend a good restaurant. Your allergist or dietitian might also have suggestions. You can also call ahead to restaurants to ask whether they can accommodate special requests.

Avoid restaurants that are most likely to cause problems for you such as:

  • Buffets. Foods in the buffet line are kept very close to each other. Oftentimes the serving utensils for one dish are used for another. Your allergens can easily spread from one dish to another.
  • Bakeries. Baked goods are often kept next to each other in large display cases. In such an enclosed environment, allergens can spread from one food to another. Also, tongs and utensils are often reused.
  • Restaurants that don't cook from scratch. Some restaurants don't make your meal from scratch. They assemble meals from pre-made entrees. It may not be an option to special-order meals at these restaurants. If you're not sure if a restaurant cooks from scratch, call ahead and ask.
  • Restaurants that pose obvious risks. Depending on your allergy, you can automatically cross some restaurants off your list. If you're allergic to shellfish, avoid seafood restaurants. The chances for cross-contamination are increased in these restaurants. If you're allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, avoid Asian restaurants — nuts are commonly used in Asian recipes.

Use good judgment when selecting a restaurant. Don't let temptation overrule your instincts.

Choosing an entree

Once you've decided on a restaurant, be equally as selective when choosing your entree. The key to a safe, allergy-free meal is to speak up early about your food allergy. You'll also want to:

  • Ask for advice. Let your server know right away about your food allergy by asking him or her for advice on what items on the menu are free of your allergen. If your server doesn't sound sure, ask to speak to a manager or chef. If planning allows, you can let the restaurant know about your food allergy before you arrive.
  • Ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask as many questions as you need to. Ask how the food is prepared. Ask about individual ingredients.
  • Order simple dishes. If you order a plain baked potato or steamed broccoli, you'll know what you're getting. Foods made of several ingredients present more of a mystery. Leave the gamble out of your meal by knowing exactly what you're getting.
  • Get your sauce on the side. Condiments provide excellent hiding places for allergens. You might not expect your gravy to contain peanuts or your Worcestershire sauce to contain fish. Avoid surprises by asking for your sauces and dressings on the side or pass on them altogether.

Some servers may not fully understand the seriousness of your food allergy. Speak up until you are confident that the food you ordered is safe from allergens.

Use a chef card

Despite careful planning, not all the pertinent information you provide may be accurately relayed to the chef. One way to ensure that the chef is made aware of your food allergy is to prepare a chef card.

A chef card is a personalized card on which you can communicate your allergy and request specific cooking methods or ingredients. It lists your allergen and related ingredients, as well as ways to avoid cross-contamination from utensils, surfaces and other dishes in the kitchen.

Keep in mind that using chef cards doesn't take the place of asking questions or careful planning when you're ordering at a restaurant. Chef cards can't guarantee an allergen-free dining experience, but they can help make your meal safer.

Use the following sample chef card as a guide. Make copies, fill in the blanks, and keep the chef cards in your wallet or purse. You can personalize your chef cards by using bright colored paper, designing your own cards or laminating the chef cards. When you go to a restaurant, give a chef card to your server and ask him or her to share it with the chef.

Chef Card (PDF file requiring Adobe Reader).

Trust your instincts

Don't be afraid to leave the restaurant if you think your requests can't be met. Leave if you have doubts about the food preparation. Even if you're sure your food is safe, accidents can happen so be prepared. Keep emergency epinephrine on hand and consider wearing a medical alert bracelet.

Food allergies don't have to be an eternal sentence of home-cooked meals. Plan ahead to make your dining-out experience one you'll enjoy.

Last Updated: 02/09/2006
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