There I was again, reeling off the list of foods which my son, Julian, had to avoid because of his allergies to peanuts, nuts, shellfish, chickpeas, split peas and soy. He was 6 years old at the time and we were dining at a restaurant, one of many during a week-long vacation in Florida. As the waiter strode back and forth to the kitchen, double-checking ingredients, Julian’s disappointment rose as his menu choices were ruled out. Fed up with this scene, I struggled to maintain composure.
My “oh woe is me” voice kicked in: “What a pain this is to deal with. Why does he have so many food allergies? And, why am I always the one asking about his food?” It was the last question that really hit home. I realized that, similar to reading ingredient labels, Julian had to learn how to ask questions himself about restaurant meals.
Kids learn best when you involve them, so my husband and I encouraged Julian to ask basic questions – “Are there peanuts in this?” We graduated to the more complicated questions as he matured: “Do you use the same grill to cook shellfish and steak?” “Do you make the French fries in the same fryer used for foods such as deep-fried shrimp?”’
We found that by taking precautionary steps, we could go to restaurants together safely. Following are the main points we found helpful when dining out with a food-allergic child:
Plan ahead. When possible, call the restaurant at a time that is convenient to speak to the chef or manager. They can point you to the safe meals on the menu. (Stick with simple items with fewer ingredients and fewer coatings, sauces and dips.) Try to dine at off-peak hours as staff will have more time (and patience) to check on menu items. The highlight of the meal – the dessert tray – will be off-limits for most food-allergic children. So to avoid disappointment, let your child take a special dessert or treat to the restaurant so he feels included.
Teach your child what to watch for. Many large restaurants have websites that allow you to review the menu in advance with your child. Scan the menu looking for items that may have hidden ingredients or increase the risk for cross-contamination.
Rather than tell him, ask your child: “What would you ask the waiter?”
Mind your words. Parents, worried that food-service staff don’t understand the severity of their child’s food allergy, sometimes resort to scare tactics. “This could kill him” might get their attention, but is not a helpful message for your child and does not make staff feel empowered. Ask to speak with a manager or the chef if your waiter seems uneducated about food allergies. And, remember, while most restaurants will try their best to accommodate special meal requirements, they cannot provide a guarantee. So don’t ask for one.
Be prepared for an emergency. Make sure that your child has his epinephrine auto-injector with him when dining out. Accidents are never planned and you want to be prepared for an emergency. If you don’t have an auto-injector with you, don’t eat out.
Trust your instincts. There were times when we left a restaurant as we were not confident a safe meal could be provided. Julian learned that it was better to be safe than sorry and find another restaurant that could accommodate him.
Say thank you, tip well, and tell the boss. If you’re pleased with the service, have your child thank the staff personally. Julian’s standard “thanks for keeping me safe” when he was little always brought a smile to their faces. An unusually large tip for outstanding service didn’t hurt either. In several cases, we spoke with the restaurant manager to express appreciation for the efforts of the staff who took Julian’s allergies seriously.
Looking back now, I’m glad that we made Julian part of the process as he has eaten out often with other families and friends without us. I was surprised to learn that two years ago (when he was 14), he had gone to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet at the invitation of school friends. Julian reassured me that he just had a Coke, that he didn’t eat. While this would not have been my restaurant of choice, I was pleased that Julian felt confident about his ability to fend for himself and comfortable in an environment where allergens were around him.
But even more than that, I admired his attitude. Rather than focus on what he could not have this one time (the food), he chose to enjoy a special moment with friends.
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.