Gina Clowes is the founder of AllergyMoms.com. We would like to thank her for guest blogging for us and sharing her family's allergy story.
When you become a parent of a child with food allergies, restaurant dining often feels like tiptoeing through a minefield. The potential dangers are usually invisible and you are relying on the vigilance of others to keep your child safe.
Still, we want our children to be able to enjoy the typical and “normal” parts of everyday life, so we venture out to restaurants as nerve-wracking as those experiences may be.
So where do you start?
Find A Restaurant
Usually, by process of elimination. Make it easy on yourself and avoid places that are cross-contamination nightmares for your child’s allergens. Places like Chinese restaurants, seafood restaurants, ice cream parlors, bakeries and buffets should be considered above-average for risk of exposure to the “big eight” food allergens and to cross-contamination in general.
Next, think of the types of foods your child can eat, keeping in mind that simple foods are usually best. A nicely grilled steak and plain baked potato can often be easily prepared without cross-contamination. Some upscale steak houses are extremely accommodating with special dietary needs, although they seem to frown upon my son using the front of his shirt as a napkin and his sleeve as a Kleenex.
Once you’ve identified a restaurant with potential, call them during non-peak dining hours (Fridays and Saturday afternoons are generally super-busy. Try an off, weeknight). Ask to speak with the manager or a chef and find out if they can prepare a safe meal for your child. Some parents prefer to “try out” the restaurant without the children to get a feel for their ability to accommodate. If you get the feeling that they are unwilling, unable or just don’t “get it,” move on.
Some of the chain restaurants, such as Outback Steakhouse, have online menus. If you find something that your child would enjoy, ask the chef exactly how it is prepared. If the chef seems willing and able to prepare a safe meal, make a reservation for a non-peak time.
In the meantime, you may want to prepare a chef’s card that specifically lists your child’s allergies. This adds as an additional reminder, particularly if you are dealing with multiple allergies.
Go Prepared to Eat
Before you leave for the restaurant, bring a few staples in case the restaurant does not have what you need or it is cross-contaminated. I always bring safe food in a thermos or a safe sandwich for my son. We often bring a little of his dairy-free margarine and some vinegar and oil for a salad. (Dressings and oils can contain potent nut or seed allergens.) Make sure you have your child’s EpiPens before you leave.
When you arrive, ask to speak with the manager or chef. Remind him or her of the allergens you are avoiding and, if possible, place your order with the manager or chef.
Do not ever use common sense to determine if a food is safe. Chili, chicken and egg rolls can contain peanuts or nuts; salad dressings can contain egg, fish, or nuts; fried foods can be cross contaminated with cheese, shrimp or fish and any other fried food, and the list goes on.
When the food arrives, ask again to make sure that it does not contain the allergen and visually inspect it. If you are served a food which appears to contain an allergen, ask for the dish to be prepared again but keep the first dish with you. You want to be sure that they prepare a new dish from scratch rather than removing the allergens leaving dangerous traces behind. One study showed that food preparers believed that simply removing nuts from a dish or cooking an allergen would make it safe. Our motto is “When in doubt, do without.”
Desserts are the trickiest part of a restaurant meal. The risk of cross contamination of dessert items is considerable and you may be safer bringing your child his own special ice cream or fancy cupcake. Although most restaurants will not allow your food into the kitchen, some will let you bring your own cake or pie to share at the table. Better yet, prepare and serve a treat for everyone at home!
- Gina Clowes