Allergic Living’s Guide to Smart Dining with Food Allergies

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in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining

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See related: Step-by-step guide to dining out safely with food allergies and celiac disease.

In a few short years, there have been huge strides in restaurant awareness of allergies and intolerances. Welcome to the brand new era of dining out safely.

One day in my early 20s, I went to brunch with friends at a new restaurant in a tony section of New York City. I didn’t call ahead to alert the manager to my food allergies, nor did I tell the server of my severe allergies to nuts and fish. My purse held a few antihistamines and my asthma rescue inhaler, but no emergency epinephrine auto-injector. It was the roll of the dice approach to food allergy management – and it didn’t pay off.

I ordered the plain pancakes. An inviting triple stack arrived, dusted with powdered sugar and a sprinkle of something quite unexpected. Pistachios had been artfully arranged on the plate and tucked between each layer. Immediately I flagged down the server, telling him I was allergic to nuts and couldn’t eat the pancakes. He whisked the plate away, returning it seconds later.

Groundhog Day Order

How did they remake an order of pancakes that fast? They didn’t. Peering under the top pancake, the pistachios were still there. The server had just scraped off the garnish and top layer.

I flagged him down again: “I cannot eat this. No pistachios – anywhere,” I intoned, as my friends happily ate.

The same pancakes arrived a third time; between the second and third pancakes was still a sprinkle of pistachios. It was like the movie Groundhog Day: I kept getting the same wrong order over and over. The scene ended when the server stopped approaching our table. Instead, he glared at me, the “crazy” customer, from the safety of the bar.

I hailed the manager, who halfheartedly offered to make a fresh batch of nut-free pancakes. I declined. By now I didn’t trust the management, staff or kitchen to serve me anything safe. I left feeling demoralized, distrusting, upset with them, upset with myself and hungry. I never went back.

Finding Accommodation

That was then, thankfully this is now. Recently, out with friends, we settled on a restaurant that I know takes the needs of the allergic diner seriously. The online menu had at least three dishes that appeared safe; this was easy to confirm by phone with the restaurant manager. The manager assured me the chef would gladly handle my food allergic needs, and they would be happy to welcome me.

Entering the restaurant, I asked to speak with the manager again. She had told my server and had made notes in their computer system. Not only was the chef aware of my needs, she was happy to make the necessary adjustments to any dish on the menu. When we sat down, our server confirmed my allergies and let me know that the chef and kitchen staff were ready for me.

Unlike the 1990s, when auto-injectors weren’t readily prescribed, my purse contained (as it always does) two epinephrine auto-injectors, an asthma inhaler, antihistamines and cortisone pills as per my doctor’s recommendation and my personal emergency plan.

I asked about ordering the steak taco. The server told me the dish’s ingredients and how the chef would make adjustments for me, such as cooking the steak in a clean pan instead of on the grill with the fish, and that she would substitute baked soft corn tortillas for the fried tortillas. When our dishes arrived, the manager and server bussed our plates to the table. I double-checked the ingredients in my dish with the manager and tucked in.

The chef brought a complimentary sorbet dessert, personally dished with a clean scoop, to our table. I thanked her for a lovely dinner. She gave me her card, and thanked me for letting them know ahead of time about my needs. The next day, I e-mailed her a thank you note; she replied, saying next time she’d like to make me a special off-menu dish free of all of my allergens. Yes, really.

Communication, Instincts

So what changed? Is it how I approached the restaurant or how the restaurant approached me? In truth, it’s a combination – great news for all of us living with serious food restrictions.

In the last five years alone, there has been a palpable difference in how food allergies, intolerances and celiac disease, have entered into the zeitgeist. There are up to 34 million Americans and Canadians with diagnosed food allergies, while at least one in 133 has been diagnosed with celiac disease. Sheer numbers have prompted forward movement in our schools, in the labeling of packaged foods, in the media’s attention and, increasingly, among those who serve us food.

Consider that the National Restaurant Association, which trains food-service professionals in food safety regulations and allergen awareness in the U.S., now issues 350,000 food protection certifications a year through its ServSafe program.

The surge in our ranks has also grabbed the attention of state legislators. States such as Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia have passed laws requiring food allergy management and training in restaurants. At the local level, Nassau County in New York State has a wide-ranging food allergy law, while New York City and St. Paul, Minn. require food allergy awareness posters in the kitchen. Awareness of food allergy and celiac disease accommodations is growing; positive change is on the menu.

Yet for all the progress, many people with food allergies remain too unnerved by restaurant kitchens to dine out. In my work as an allergy coach, I often counsel those who have been shunning restaurants altogether because of paralyzing fear or past scary experiences. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Finding Restaurant Ease

Here’s the way in: Recognize that your fear is real and valid. Part of dining out is entrusting your health to someone else, and that is daunting. Mistakes can happen – so arrive prepared. The fact is, you can decrease your overall risk and increase your dining out fun.

Most of the tools you’ll need you already have in some form: communication, common sense, preparation and trusting your instincts. Read my best nuanced strategies here, and you’ll be dining out safely and often.

Sloane Miller is a New York psychotherapist who specializes in food-allergy management. Miller, who has had food allergies since childhood, is the author of Allergic Girl: Living Well with Food Allergies. Learn more about her work at Allergicgirl.com.

Related:
What Restaurants are Getting Right and Wrong on Food Allergies
Bakery Tour: Allergy-Friendly and Gluten-Free Finds