I used to feel like I was missing out. I was jealous of my friends. I was jealous of complete strangers.
I would hear a friend planning a night out with her family — something simple, like dinner and a movie — and I would feel sorry for myself.
Why couldn’t we do that? Why couldn’t we say, “Gee, which restaurant do we want to eat at tonight?” And then pick our favorite and go. Or why couldn’t we casually go for a day trip without meticulously planning and packing each meal plus snacks?
Living with food allergies requires a lot. It requires patience, understanding, planning, organization, dedication, strength of character, willingness to speak up and rock hard nerves.
Evidently, it also requires the ability to look at other families enjoying activities that you used to take for granted, without falling to pieces.
The world is a very scary place for our allergic kiddos, and sometimes we just want to keep them in a bubble.
But we don’t have to.
Eating out with severe food allergies is something that not every family does. Or does often, anyway. It’s something that we rarely used to do ourselves. However, as Jillian has gotten older, and as I have gotten more and more fed up with us not being able to enjoy the same activities as our friends and family do, we’ve broadened our horizons.
Here’s how to broaden yours.
Whether you’re just dipping your toes into the world of dining out with food allergies, or you’ve been doing it for years, here are my 7 tips to make it as smooth and safe as possible.
1. Do Your Research
Many restaurants have websites, especially chain restaurants, and some of those websites even offer meal ingredients. This should give you an idea of whether the food is safe or not, but DO NOT TRUST THE WEBSITE alone! They could have incorrect or outdated information online, so only use this as a guide to point you in the direction of a meal that may be safe, and then call or ask in person for more details.
You’ll also want to find out about their familiarity with handling food allergies. In our nine years of dining out with allergies, I have been blown away by the way Jillian’s allergies were handled… both in good ways and bad. It never hurts to call ahead and ask if they often cook for severe allergies and if they have a protocol in place for handling cross-contamination in the kitchen. Some places will, some won’t. Only go if you’re comfortable with their answer. They should wash hands/change gloves, use a separate pan or clean section of the grill and use clean or new utensils as a minimum.
An excellent place to start looking for safe restaurants is AllergyEats.com. Type in your allergies and your location and see what people have said about places in your area!
2. Ask to Speak to a Manager or Chef
If you’ve deemed the restaurant suitable from your initial research, the next step is to ask for a chef or manager as soon as you’re seated. When they come out, I usually start by listing Jillian’s allergies and explaining how severe they are. Then I ask if a certain dish would be safe for her. Feel free to ask to see ingredient labels or printouts. I’ve had managers cut labels off of cardboard boxes and bring them out to me. Better safe than sorry.
Occasionally you’ll find a restaurant that will go the extra mile and offer to prepare a completely different dish if there isn’t one to suit your needs on the menu. However, this isn’t always the case, so be prepared to leave if they can’t or won’t accommodate you, or if you feel uncomfortable.
3. Offer a Chef Card
These handy little cards list your allergies along with kitchen practices for keeping you safe. A quick Google search for “chef cards” pulls up tons of options to print out for free, or you could simply write them on a post-it note. Doesn’t have to be fancy. These are especially helpful with multiple food allergies, so you don’t have to rely on the manager remembering several allergens and instructions on his way back to the kitchen.
4. Avoid Fried Foods
Not only do you have to worry about what they are fried in, but in most cases, fried foods have the biggest risk of cross contamination. Many restaurants have just one fryer, and everything goes in it. Frying oil doesn’t need to be changed often (sometimes weekly or even less often), so you’re taking a big risk. The only fried foods Jillian eats are from places with a designated fryer for certain safe items. Burger King fries are cooked in a designated fryer — did you know that? (Check your local BK to make sure, though!)
5. Trust Your Gut
If it doesn’t feel right, leave. Don’t take any chances. If the staff doesn’t seem to understand or if they’re less than thrilled to have to accommodate you, make haste and dine elsewhere. There is enough knowledge out there today about food allergies, and there are enough restaurants that will happily and safely serve you, that you don’t need to waste your time and risk your safety on the ones that won’t.
6. Carry your EpiPen!!!!!!!!!
Please, PLEASE don’t be one of those people who won’t carry their EpiPens with them. PLEASE!!!! You do not need a suitcase to carry your medicine around with you. It’s small. Put it in your purse, pocket, backpack, etc. There is no excuse. EpiPens save lives. Use them if you need to.
7. Leave Feedback
Whether you have a good experience or a bad one, we in the allergy community want to hear about it! We’re constantly looking for places to add to our “safe list,” as well as places to avoid. Write a review on AllergyEats.com and/or leave feedback on the restaurant’s website or Facebook page. If you have something negative to say, call a manager to complain before posting online. They may not be able to go back in time and make your dining experience better, but at the very least they need to know what went wrong so they can address it.
Trying new restaurants can be very scary and stressful. So much so that I limit Jillian to one new food experience every month or two… tops! And when she has a reaction, it can be a few months before either of us are comfortable enough to try something new again. Take your time, and only do what you’re comfortable with.
But I will say that I’m not so jealous anymore. Sure, the moments do come. Jillian still can’t go to a pizza party — the other kids’ cheesy fingers alone would be enough to make her break out in hives. But we do eat out a LOT more than we used to. A lot more than I ever thought we could. Allergy awareness has come a long way in the past decade, and I’m confident it’s only growing!