Dining Out with Food Allergies: Factors Critical to a Safe Experience and Common Errors

in Food Allergy, Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Dining out with food allergies can be a safe, enjoyable experience, dependant on key factors.

I’ve been thinking a lot about dining out with food allergies lately. It’s a subject I know well – from Allergic Living’s research to my own experience. Every time I enter a restaurant, my own severe food allergies accompany me to the table.

One of the tougher topics to address is simply this: Can the food-allergic person dine out safely? The short answer is yes, depending on the menu offered. But that short answer also misleads.

The larger truth is that the safety level depends hugely on key factors, such as whether the restaurant has trained its staff about food allergies and a system to prevent cooking and plating errors, and whether the allergic diner properly communicates the allergies and is prepared to use an epinephrine auto-injector, should a mistake be made.

Leading the charge toward excellent allergy accommodations are chefs such as Boston’s Ming Tsai, an early adopter of a food-flow process and full recipe ingredients book (dubbed his ‘bible’) at his restaurants, and Joel Schaefer of Your Allergy Chefs. During his time at Walt Disney World, Chef Joel developed the food allergy program that’s used across the Disney properties. The success of that process is still a wonder, if you consider the millions of guests that Disney properties serve annually.

Both chefs are strong proponents of the need for restaurants to have controls and training, but also believers that restaurants certainly can get it right. Other accommodating chefs have told Allergic Living of a sense of a “duty of care” for their patrons, and the pride in always being able to offer good and safe food to any customer. And there are chains and individual restaurants that allergic patrons have come to count on – from Maggiano’s to Chipotle, Red Robin Burgers, Burtons Grill and plenty more.

Dining Errors Can Have Serious,
Even Tragic Results

But the trouble with food allergies are the exceptions. In a disease without scope for error, food mistakes can have devastating consequences. Such mistakes always make me think of college student Shahida Shahid. In January 2018, an inquest in Manchester, England confirmed that she suffered fatal anaphylaxis to a restaurant meal. Although a death like Shahida’s is an uncommon event, what heightens the fear factor is that the 18-year-old had communicated her needs: she had informed her server of her allergies; she had reviewed menu options with him. And yet she got a meal that contained a key allergen (dairy).

The coroner’s jury criticized the lack of communication in that kitchen. It was truly appalling. The allergies were shown on Shahida’s ticket order, but were ignored. No one even stopped to consider that the recipe for her dish – a chicken burger – meant it would be dipped in buttermilk.

As Chef Ming has often said: “If you are in the restaurant business, you must know what’s in your food.” These people either didn’t or didn’t pause to think through the ingredients. And this cost Shahida her life. The lack of care she was afforded as a diner with food allergies is inexcusable in a time of growing allergy awareness in the food services industry.

Even with more widespread awareness and training, some establishments still do not fully get what’s required to keep an allergic patron safe. In Allergic Living’s article, “What Restaurants are Getting Right and Wrong on Food Allergies,” we candidly discuss these issues.

The Diner’s Role
in a Safe Experience

Yet, there’s another side to the equation. I also think of how often I report on or hear from people with allergies (especially young adults) who are too quick to assume that almost any restaurant kitchen knows how to handle their needs. Crucial factors in dining out with allergies are: picking a knowledgeable venue; your own advance work and knowing the right questions to ask. In fact, a big step in the process is to identify and avoid those who aren’t aware enough to serve you. (See below: “Common Dining Errors”.)

While some might say: just never eat out – that is a very tough way to live your life. Never going to a restaurant when you are a city dweller and traveler would be a difficult choice. It would also deprive you of great social moments with family and friends. Far better, even if you only dine out infrequently for a celebration, is to identify even a couple of restaurants whose chefs you trust to make something simple and safe.

I get emails from parents of children with food allergies who say they don’t ever want to take their allergic child to a restaurant. I do understand the concern, but here’s the problem: nobody wants to live in that proverbial bubble. By the time your allergic little one is bigger, he or she will want to go out to a restaurant with their friends.

From the articles we’ve researched on teens and allergic risk-taking, it’s usually safer if the young person has learned to start speaking up about his/her allergies to servers as a child (even though a parent takes a lead on the questioning). This primes a child to take this as just part of the restaurant experience, lessens the embarrassment factor by the teens, and normalizes the allergic diner’s talking points by young adulthood. The words become second nature and unembarrassing, just what you do when eating out.

Another necessary safety factor becomes vetting restaurants ahead of time, to gauge their knowledge of and comfort with allergies. By adulthood, the allergic person learns to take on the RSVP task, to ensure the opportunity to speak to a manager or chef before booking.

On our Facebook page, I love getting our readers’ input into what solutions they’ve found to make the dining out with allergies experience palatable. But following are my own thoughts on key “errors to avoid” and the “nuances of safe dining”. I hope they prove helpful. And if you’ve had a great safe, dining experience, be sure to share that on one of the food allergy dining apps. Let’s spread the knowledge of those who are serving the food allergy community well, and thank them with our patronage.

The Nuances of Safe Dining

First, for the essentials of how to dine out safely, read our 4-Step Guide to Dining Out with Food Allergies. Following that, here are some more nuanced pointers.

1. Do your due diligence. Websites are a good place to look at menus, but also speak to the restaurant manager or chef. Is this eatery comfortable and able to handle allergies like yours? Ask whether they have an allergy ticketing process (to flag meals that must avoid specific foods) and whether the staff has received training. If they know to say the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program or the AllerTrain program, that’s great news.

2. Watch for the clues of who doesn’t get food allergies. If I tell a manager on the phone that my allergies are to soy, peanut and shellfish and I’m breathlessly told of their new vegan or gluten-free menu, my radar is up. That’s not what I asked, and the vegan is likely soy-laden. Time for another restaurant.

In person, does the manager or chef look frustrated when you mention your allergies or seem too cavalier, saying “oh yeah, we can handle that” without hearing you out? Neither bode well for a reliably safe experience. Does the manager or chef understand a term like “cross-contact”? If you say “can you avoid cross-contact in preparing my meal?” and are met with a blank stare, similarly it’s time to move on.

3. Simplicity is your friend. Don’t order the meal with the fancy sauce, or order that salad without the complicated dressing. Look for tasty but simple meals with fewer and fairly obvious ingredients that the kitchen will know. And dessert is often made off-the-premises and may have hidden ingredients. Have your dessert at home, or skip it.

4. Visualize the scene in a particular restaurant’s kitchen. Where would the food you’re ordering be cooked? When possible, it’s preferable to choose a dish that will be prepared in its own clean pan as opposed to a grill. Deep fryers, unless dedicated free of a particular food, are an invitation to cross-contact.

Speak to a manager beforehand about your allergies and the kitchen’s ability to handle. If the person thinks the stove area is very cramped and cross-contact is risky, then better to know. You can visualize problems ahead, and that’s not going to be a fit for managing allergies.

5. Dine in off-hours. Too young to join the early-bird special club? Perhaps it’s not a bad plan with your allergies. Or aim for a quieter day when a restaurant is not going to be swamped. It is harder to ensure precautions at a time when a kitchen is crushed with orders.

Common Errors When Dining Out With Food Allergies

1. Making assumptions. Assumption is the author of so many problems with food allergies. “But I thought the grill would be OK because they didn’t have dairy or peanut in the dish I ordered.” Don’t assume, ask directly, since you don’t know their procedures or their whole menu. If a cheeseburger or chicken breast in peanut sauce was grilled on the same spot just before your meal, you’ve got a problem.

2. Not minding the type of cuisine. If you’re allergic to nuts, then Indian cuisine is usually not a good choice as that’s a staple of the cuisine. Some accommodating chefs say they can feed you safely no matter what their cuisine specialty. That’s a judgment call. With a shellfish allergy, I’m on edge in a seafood house – since I’m visualizing handling of shrimp, then handling my food. That’s not in my comfort zone.

3. Treating the menu like a recipe book. A menu describes dishes, naming the key ingredients – both so you know what you’re getting and to tempt you to order. But understand: it is not a listing of every ingredient.

4. Not communicating your allergies. People who treat the menu like a recipe book often do so because they are embarrassed about informing a server of their allergies in front of their friends. Get past the unease; it’s far too risky. How can a chef know to avoid cross-contact if you don’t tell him? An excellent way to inform is with a printed food allergy chef’s card.

5. Not asking enough questions. How is that cooked? What oil is that cooked in? Can that be made without the sauce? Can you give me olive oil and vinegar instead of the house dressing? Try it. It’s not difficult to ask, and it is far safer.

6. Dining out without your epinephrine or not using it. If for some reason, you don’t have your auto-injector with you, do not eat, just have a glass of water. Better still, go home and get it. Even the most wonderfully accommodating chef is human and so is his or her staff. Errors would horrify such people but they can happen. With allergies, you simply have to be ready.

See also: Allergic Living’s Dining Out with Allergies Section