When it’s time to dine out, every parent with a child who suffers from food allergies has a hard time letting go of kitchen control. This is because allergen avoidance is always the most necessary form of prevention and this is often easily accomplished in the comfort of your home. However, a late soccer practice, meeting, or simply just wanting to enjoy the cuisine of a favorite local restaurant can make allergen avoidance difficult. Eating out puts the responsibility of allergen on both the diner and the restaurant staff.
Research shows that there is ample opportunity for restaurants to improve their food allergy safety practices. According to the Food and Drug Administration Food Code, the person in charge at an establishment (i.e., the manager) should be knowledgeable about food allergies. We cannot guarantee that all staff will be knowledgeable, but that shouldn't discourage families from eating out. We want our children to be able to enjoy the typical and “normal” parts of everyday life, and there are a number of steps that we can take to be safe.
Fortunately, many large restaurant chains have picked up on how important it is to make sure they offer options and service to families managing food allergies. Many have standardized menus, which often include ingredient information, which can provide you and your family with safe, allergy-friendly food options.
Do Your Research
A great place to start is to research the restaurants you are interested in! Most major chain establishments have websites where you can view their menus before you visit. This gives you a chance to identify safe options for your little ones with food allergies before you go.
Keep in mind that websites may not be updated frequently and ingredients may change, so it’s always a good idea to speak to a manager at the location where you're interested in dining before you go. This will help you ensure that the restaurant really is food allergy-friendly and cross-contamination won’t be a problem.
Another great resource when doing research is AllergyEats, which describes itself as "the leading guide to allergy-friendly restaurants in the United States."
AllergyEats is a free, peer-based website and app (for both Apple and Android devices) where people find and rate restaurants based solely on their ability to accommodate food allergies. The site, app and related social media forums allow families with food allergies to help each other reduce guesswork and limit some of the anxiety surrounding dining out with food allergies. We're all about free, and you can't beat social support systems where you can get input from families like your own!
As always, it's still important for you to ask questions of restaurant staff and make requests to make sure you're comfortable. Another family managing a less-severe food allergy or an allergy to a different food might report that the restaurant met their needs, but their needs may not be the same as yours.
Always Double Check
As parents, we always want to make sure our kids are safe, so I recommend always checking to make sure the restaurant is still food allergy-friendly even if it’s a restaurant you dine at frequently. Always be sure to tell your server about all food allergies to ensure that you have a happy and healthy dining experience. Many times, they'll be happy to send the chef out to speak with you personally about your dietary restrictions!
Once you’ve identified a restaurant with potential, call them during non-peak dining hours (Fridays and Saturday afternoons are generally super-busy, so try a weeknight, which is typically slower). Ask to speak with the manager or a chef and find out if they can prepare a safe meal for your child. If they say "yes" don't be afraid to ask them what steps they'll take so that you can feel confident. 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.
In the meantime, you may want to prepare an allergy card for the chef that specifically lists your child’s allergies. Having a list of foods that aren’t safe for your child, and possibly a list of suitable substitutes for common ingredients, can make it easier for the chef to keep track of. This adds an additional reminder, particularly if you are dealing with multiple food allergies.
Go Prepared to Eat
Before you leave for the restaurant, bring a few staples in case the restaurant does not have everything you need. For some parents, bringing a safe food in a thermos or a safe sandwich is an excellent alternative. It's easy to bring a little dairy-free margarine and some vinegar and oil for salads, too! (Dressings often contain dairy, soy, wheat, nuts and/or seeds). Lastly, if your child has been prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, make sure you have it with you before you leave for the restaurant.
Do you have any additional tips for eating out? Comment below!