You Can Be a ‘Foodie’ with Allergies, But Also Be a Food Detective

in College Corner, Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining

Hannah Lank
Lately my friends have started labeling me a ‘foodie,’ so as you can imagine, I like to dine out. Trying new restaurants and visiting old favorites is something I love, but as someone with food allergies, it’s not always the easiest thing to do.

Although I’m always careful about my order and the restaurants I visit, there’s inevitably a small risk associated with dining out when you’re an allergic person.

In my 20 years of life, I’ve had my share of close calls at restaurants. Even in places I’m quite comfortable at, things can unexpectedly happen. And of course, the risk is increased when I’m in a new setting.

I’ve been interning in New York for the summer at a non-profit after-school program for students, and living in a women’s residence that provides two meals a day. For New York, the residence is a great deal (read: somewhat affordable), and it’s super close to my office.

Don’t Get Too Confident

But just the other day, I was hit with a reminder that it can be dangerous to get too confident. The residence dining service is pretty good about not using nuts, but from time to time they’ll pop up in entrées or a dessert. I’m usually pretty good about explicitly asking if something has nuts, but this time I had a craving for dessert, so I merely asked: “What is that?” The response was that the dessert was a pound cake with raisins.

As I was about to take a bite, I did something I always do: gave my food a visual examination. Something caught my eye: a sliver of almond. I was, as the colloquial saying goes, thoroughly ‘shook.’

I was seconds away from consuming my allergen – me, the most diligent allergic person I know. It was a reminder to never let my guard down.

Reflecting on this situation brought me to a general reflection of my dining-out-with-food-allergies skills, one of which I neglected to implement in this situation: explicitly stating my food allergies and asking about my allergens.

Ask and Look at Food

Although I did ask what the dessert was, I did so in a round-about way that doesn’t guarantee a statement of all ingredients. That was sloppy of me. One thing I did do well: the visual examination of my food.

This doesn’t have to be a Nancy Drew-style investigation; merely an up-and-down look at your food before you shovel it in, because mistakes happen. Doing this saved me a trip to the hospital – and maybe even my life.

When dining out, I love when my server is super attentive towards my food allergies. It happens very rarely, but sometimes when I order my entrée and tell the server about my food allergies, they’ll come back with the bread or when it’s time to order dessert and let me know what (if anything) is safe for me to eat, without me even having to ask. They’ll have checked with the kitchen, and are very thoughtful. It’s awesome.

Not long ago, I wanted to order a savory crepe at a New York restaurant, but my waiter informed me that it wasn’t safe for me. Even if the crepe didn’t explicitly contain any nuts, the oil from pesto used for some crepes could leak onto the grill and cause cross-contamination.

I had no idea this was even a thing, but was super appreciative of the training and knowledge the server had received. Cross-contamination is always a major risk and the top thing on my mind when I’m dining out, but it’s something a lot of non-allergic people are not aware of.

Server Precautions

Other times, servers can be too confident. Waitstaff usually don’t know every single ingredient in every single dish. The teaspoon of almond extract in that cake? Yeah, your server probably doesn’t know about it – depending on their training.

That’s why I always feel more comfortable when my server checks with the kitchen before placing my order. Once I had a server who seemed over-confident and, to test him, I asked if any of the desserts were safe for me to eat. The menu described the key lime pie as having a crust made with macadamia nuts, yet here was the server assuring me this pie was safe to eat. I immediately lost confidence in him, and therefore the restaurant in general.

On the bright side, having food allergies has made me a better chef at home. If there’s something that looks delicious at a restaurant, but unfortunately contains my allergens, I love going home and altering the recipe so that it’s safe for me to eat.

But I also make sure my allergens don’t hold me back from dining out and exploring the culinary scene of my hometown and the cities I visit.

Being smart, cautious, and alert when dining out is a must, but so is enjoying your food. Don’t let your food allergies stop you from releasing your inner foodie!

Read more from Hannah Lank:
The Consequences of Faking a Food Allergy
College Lessons: When a Roommate Resists Your Allergy Rules
College Year One: Success With a Side of Food Allergy ‘Jokes’
College and Cross-Contact: Navigating Food Allergy On Campus