I never thought that my food allergy management skills could get “rusty,” or that I would find myself out of practice with proactively managing my allergies away from home. But as with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our expectations. For me, it has proved that managing my food allergies is a social activity, one that got very much sidelined in the long period of social distancing.
This dawned on me recently, when I was able to take a brief skiing trip – the closest thing I could get to an exotic vacation these days. Although all the restaurants in the Quebec ski village were only open for takeout, I felt some discomfort when exercising my now rusty food allergy management skills. These are the same skills I used to employ on an almost daily basis.
Having been cooped up in my small studio apartment in Toronto, I haven’t had much reason to interact with people outside of my immediate family and a few close friends. The casual social interactions that I used to have with service workers effectively disappeared; everything I do is still almost exclusively contactless, including checking out at the grocery store and even ordering food. (While an area in need of development, I find some of the food delivery apps have improved in how they flag food allergies on online menus, although I’m still wary of how effectively this information is relayed to restaurant staff.)
But on my skiing trip, aspects of normal life came rushing back, as the outside world reminded me of my food allergies. I realized that I had actually managed to “forget” about my food allergies during lockdown to a large extent. After all, food allergies are only remarkable when other people can and do eat what you can’t.
Dusting Off Food-Ordering Skills
When I called the restaurants in the ski village to order food, it was a refresher on the fact that the process can be challenging. While managing a language barrier (French), I had to inform them of my food allergies. I felt the inevitable anxiety that comes with hoping the person taking your order has indeed understood your food allergies and will inform the kitchen. It was a feeling that I hadn’t felt for more than a year, since I was mostly eating at home or ordering food from restaurants where I used to be a regular diner.
I also had to confront the issue of where to stow my auto-injector while on the ski hill. Since I hadn’t eaten away from home for many months, or gone to any events that involve food, thinking about where to keep my auto-injector wasn’t an issue. It came rushing back that figuring out how to carry your auto-injector with you at the beach, while wearing a fancy outfit (with a purse that is always too small!), or while playing sports can be a challenge.
I was shocked to find I’d forgotten about this inconvenient but vital aspect of food allergy management! Where was I going to keep my auto-injector while I was snowboarding? In the end, I chose to keep it in my jacket pocket, but wished that I had planned ahead more; it was slightly bulky and uncomfortable. It wouldn’t have been pleasant if I had fallen on it. Using an auto-injector carrying belt (or better yet, toting a compact Allerject* injector) would have made more sense.
Servers May Need a Refresher
As more and more people are vaccinated and a return to “normal” looms large, I find it important to reflect on those things we may have forgotten while we lived our daily lives in “bubbles” – social bubbles that doubled as unintended food allergy bubbles. In our bubbles, everyone has known about our food allergies, and we’ve had high levels of control over what we eat and how it is prepared. Food allergies are generally a non-issue. As we emerge from these bubbles, many of us are having to relearn how to manage our food allergies in the bigger world.
Service workers without food allergies may also need a refresher on how to manage customers with food allergies. As we have become somewhat rusty with our food allergy management skills, we should expect that others probably have as well.
It can be exhausting to remind others about our food allergies and to maintain vigilance about our food allergy management. This involves communicating our allergies and asking about every dish on the menu, visually checking all food, etc. Restaurants should be encouraged to help make the process easier – for example, by clearly labeling allergens on menu. But those of us with food allergies must remember that, post-pandemic, it’s unlikely things will have changed for the better quite yet.
There’s no way around it, managing food allergies is work. It involves having conversations with servers, friends and family and clarifying what you cannot eat. It involves planning and bringing your own food in situations where you have concerns; it means thinking about how to carry your auto-injector on you in a variety of activities. It also means having the confidence in these allergy management tools to try new things, travel, and to enjoy your life fully.
During my ski trip, I realized just how much these skills are built on practice, and the confidence that comes with successful repetition. Post-pandemic, it may feel a little uncomfortable navigating your return to “normal” food allergy life. But the better news is that these skills will return quickly. It just takes a bit of patience, practice and caution.
Hannah Lank, who is studying law in Toronto, is a regular Allergic Living contributor.
*Allerject is the Canadian equivalent of the Auvi-Q auto-injector in the U.S.
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