Eating At Restaurants With Severe Food Allergies
Whenever I go out to eat, I risk my life. I put my life in the hands of strangers, of a kitchen filled with people who don't know me, and trust that the food they give me will be free of the allergen that has the potential to end my life. That might sound dramatic to people who don't have allergies, but this is the reality that those of us with anaphylactic allergies face every day. I've been asked before, "If your allergy is so bad, why don't you just make all your meals at home? I don't think you should even risk going out to eat." Maybe to some of you, this sounds like a logical option, but the answer is that I would rather live my life. Food is more than just sustenance, food is social. Food is a bonding experience with others. Food is a way of sharing, connecting, and spending time together. People with severe food allergies deserve to experience food as a social occasion just as much as everyone else does. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing your own home-cooked meals to restaurants that you don't feel comfortable eating at so that you at least can enjoy the social aspect of eating out, sometimes I don't want to cook or bring my own food. It can be exhausting to live with a severe food allergy and constantly planning ahead, having to prepare all your meals and snacks. That's why I choose to eat out at restaurants that I feel comfortable at, and these will obviously vary depending on the allergy (or allergies) you may have. Since eating out at restaurants can be extremely nerve-wracking and frightening for people with allergies, I wanted to share my 6 tips on staying safe while eating out at restaurants.
TIP #1: ALWAYS BRING YOUR MEDICAL KIT WITH YOU
This is the most important thing you can do to keep yourself safe at all times. It doesn't matter if I'm at a restaurant, the mall, a bar...I always have my medical kit with me. If you do not have your medical kit with you when going out to eat, you are in a much more dangerous position. You don't want to take the risk of having no medications on hand and having to rely solely on paramedics coming quickly in an anaphylactic reaction. Carrying your medical kit with you everywhere you go is CRUCIAL--I keep mine in a ziplock bag and stuff it into my fanny pack or purse. I plan on dedicating an entire blog post to what's in my medical kit at some point in the near future, but the bottom line is you need to have TWO Epi-Pens on you at all times, especially when going out to eat. Sometimes one Epi-Pen is not enough, especially for people with severe food allergies who have been shown to need two Epi-Pens when in anaphylaxis (https://www.webmd.com/allergies/news/20100326/kids-with-food-allergies-may-need-two-epipens). Other medications I keep with me are my inhaler, Benadryl, Pepto-Bismol, and Zantac. Many people with severe allergies also have asthma or can have difficulty breathing when their allergen is nearby (like me), so carrying an inhaler is essential. In addition, Benadryl can help with more minor allergic reactions. I carry both oral and topical Benadryl so that in case I get any milk residue on my skin I can immediately spray Benadryl onto my skin and the hives will go down.
TIP #2: DO YOUR RESEARCH
Whenever I am invited out to a meal at a specific restaurant, I always check the restaurant's menu beforehand to gauge what type of cuisine they serve, how many of my allergens are on the menu, and what I could potentially order. When I look at a restaurant's menu, I also look to see if they have an allergy disclaimer or some sort of message saying, "If you have food allergies, please let us know." I find that when restaurants have some sort of statement regarding food allergies on their menu, it shows they are at least somewhat aware of the severity of food allergies, which makes me feel a little more comfortable. One of my favorite foods is sushi, which is normally dairy-free, but before I go to any sushi restaurant I look at the menu to see if they have any rolls with cream cheese in them. If the restaurant has a lot of rolls with cream cheese in them, I know the chance of cross-contamination is pretty high and I am most likely not going to eat there. However, if they only have one or two rolls with cream cheese in them, I will call them beforehand and say, "Hi, I am deathly allergic to milk. Is it possible for you to make my rolls in a separate, sanitized area away from any cream cheese and make sure you use clean gloves/have clean hands?" Sometimes, restaurants say they cannot accommodate my allergy and that's fine, I move onto finding a new restaurant. My main point is whenever you are going somewhere new to eat, if possible look their menu up beforehand and see whether this restaurant is suitable for you to eat at. If your allergen is in almost every dish and your allergy is as severe as mine, it's not worth the risk and there are plenty of other more allergy-aware restaurants out there.
TIP #3: DON'T BE AFRAID TO TALK TO THE STAFF
I already touched on this, but it is so important when going out to eat with allergies that you tell the restaurant staff. In a group setting, I always make sure the waiter takes my order last and I usually say something like this, "Hi, I am deathly allergic to dairy. So, I am allergic to butter, milk, cheeses, yogurt, etc. Can you please tell the chef about my allergy and let me know if they can make my dish free of any cross-contamination?" The same goes for ordering cocktails, which a lot of people forget about. Many cocktails contain allergens, including dairy, eggs, and nuts. It's important you communicate the severity of your allergy to the bartender and ensure they make your drink with clean utensils. For me personally, if I don't feel comfortable with the waiter's response or feel like the restaurant is not understanding my allergy, I won't eat there. It's more important for me to feel safe than to try unknown food in a space where my allergy is not being taken seriously. The restaurant featured here, SoSo Food Club, took my allergies seriously and I had a delicious dinner there with my boyfriend. I emailed them before making the reservation and they assured me there would be no cross-contamination with dairy and that my meal would be safe. In addition, our server made sure to tell the kitchen again about my allergy and periodically checked on us to make sure everything was ok. I am so glad I communicated my allergy with the staff over email and in person and that they responded so well. For people who may have trouble communicating their allergy to the staff, another option is to have your allergens written down on a piece of paper stating that you are allergic to them. For example, these allergy cards can be extremely useful when traveling or for children to use when going out to eat without their parents: https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2019/06/17/these-multilingual-chef-cards-are-helping-people-food-allergies-eat-out
TIP #4: MAKE SURE THE PEOPLE YOU ARE WITH KNOW ABOUT YOUR ALLERGY
Make sure the people you're eating out with know where your medical kit is and that at least one person knows how to use an Epi-Pen besides you. I know it can be awkward to bring up your life-threatening food allergy to your friends, but if they are real friends, they will want to make you feel comfortable and will understand the severity of your allergy. It's important that everyone knows what can happen to you in case you ingest your allergen and that everyone is prepared to help. When I first become friends with someone, I usually tell them about my allergy early on and show them my medical kit, explaining how to use the Epi-Pen. I even gave a demonstration in my sorority on how to use an Epi-Pen and help someone in an allergic reaction, so all my sorority sisters are aware and able to help in case I or someone else ever needed them. Another thing to be aware of when dining in large groups is making sure your drinks don't get mixed up. For instance, if a server is doing refills of beverages and takes your cups, there's a chance they won't remember whose cup is whose. Don't take the chance of getting your friend's drink which could potentially be contaminated with your allergen depending on the food they ate--I would politely ask for a new cup and of course, tell the server about your allergy so they are aware.
TIP #5: START WITH SMALL BITES
This is something I struggle with when the food is so delicious (like the pizza at Virtuous Pie, a vegan pizza/ice cream joint with locations in Portland, Vancouver, and Toronto). I'm a fast eater and want to take huge bites out of everything I'm consuming, but when trying new foods I force myself to slow down. Everyone's allergic reaction symptoms may be different and have different reaction times, but for me, if something contains milk or is contaminated with milk, I can sense it pretty quickly. I usually take about 3-4 small bites, letting the food linger in my mouth before swallowing and then wait for about 3-5 minutes afterward to see if my tongue tingles or my throat starts to feel scratchy. While this may not be effective for everyone, I still encourage you to start with small, slow bites when trying new foods if you have allergies. Your body may give you some warning signs if the allergen is in the food you're trying and you'll be glad you only had a few bites. When I had my most severe anaphylactic reaction in March 2017, I had only taken about 4 small bites of the spaghetti when I felt my throat become itchy.
TIP #6: DON'T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
My last tip is to never let your guard down. This means that even when dining at restaurants that you've been to a million times, even when dining at restaurants that say they are "vegan" or "gluten-free" or "nut-free," BE CAUTIOUS. I'm guilty of getting comfortable and forgetting to mention my allergy to the server at a restaurant I've safely eaten at dozens of times. It can be tiring or even embarrassing to come into a restaurant you've been to so many times and still have to bring up your allergy every time. But, it's worth it. You never know if a recipe has changed, if the chefs are aware of your allergy or understand the implications of cross-contamination, or if your favorite dish has a new ingredient in it. Even if it is an established "vegan" restaurant, I still say to the server, "I have a severe milk allergy. I want to confirm that the dish I'm ordering is completely free of any dairy and if you could also let the kitchen know about my allergy?" I'm often met with eye-rolls and annoyed servers, but this is my life we are talking about and I'm not about to take any chances. Any time I have gotten comfortable in the past is where mistakes have been made, so please learn from me and make sure to always keep your guard up and speak up to the restaurant staff even if they know you on a first-name basis.
I hope this has been helpful to some of you or given you an idea of what people with severe food allergies have to deal with when going out to eat. Everyone deserves to be able to go out to eat with friends or family and people with severe food allergies are no exception.