See related: Step-by-step guide to eating out safely with food allergies and celiac disease. [Read more]
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.
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.
That was then; 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 always it now 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.
Learning to Communicate
and Trust 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 17.5 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 (NRA), 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. That means, over the past decade, almost four million food-service professionals have learned how to handle food allergens in the kitchen!
Working with the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN, now known as FARE), in 2008 NRA made a free training guide available for restaurant staff. Also in 2008, with guidance from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, NRA created a celiac disease webinar.
The surge in our ranks has also grabbed the attention of state legislators. In 2008, Massachusetts passed a groundbreaking law for food allergy management in restaurants, the second phase of which came into effect in February 2011. The state’s restaurants are now required to: display a food allergy awareness poster in the employees’ area; add a notice on menus requesting that patrons “inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy”; and have an NRA-certified food protection manager on site who has watched an allergy training video produced by FARE. Now some other states have followed suit with laws to accommodate allergic guests. Awareness within the industry is growing; positive change is on the menu.
Yet for all the progress, many people with food allergies or celiac disease 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.
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.
First published in Allergic Living magazine. To subscribe, click here.
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