Enjoying restaurant meals with friends and family doesn’t have to be off limits just because you have a food allergy. With the right planning and preparation, eating out can still be an enjoyable part of your life. Here are some tips for dining out safely, whether at a local restaurant or while traveling.
Before You Go
- Search the Web for allergy-friendly restaurants in your area or where you will be traveling. Ask your allergist and other individuals and families who manage food allergies for recommendations. To see if a particular restaurant may be a good choice, check out the website and review the menu in advance.
- Call ahead and ask to speak to a manager. Ask about the dishes you might want to order. Explain your needs and ask if the restaurant can accommodate you. Call before or after the busy mealtime hours so the manager and chef will have more time to work with you.
- Ask if the person you speak with will be at the restaurant while you’re there. If not, ask for the name of the manager or staff member who is aware of the circumstances.
- If you plan to attend a catered event where the food will be prepared in advance, ask if it’s possible to provide an allergy-friendly option.
- Bring a chef card. This wallet-sized card lists your food allergies and states that your food must be cooked in a clean and safe area to avoid cross-contamination. You can find online sources for cards in multiple languages, or make your own.
- Be prepared. No matter how carefully you’ve planned or how safe you feel at a particular restaurant, never leave home without your emergency medications, and be sure to wear your medical identification (e.g., bracelet, other jewelry).
- Consider chain restaurants, especially when you’re traveling. Each restaurant is likely to use the same ingredients and prepare foods the same way, and a growing number are allergy-aware.
- Avoid the riskiest restaurants:
- Buffets: With a wide variety of foods so close to one another, the risk for accidental exposure and cross-contact is high.
- Bakeries: There is a high risk of airborne allergens and cross-contact, since many items are not packaged.
- Restaurants that serve pre-made foods: The staff may not have an accurate list of the ingredients in a pre-made item. Since the dishes are not prepared from scratch, you can’t ask the chef to remove the problem ingredient from an item that would otherwise be safe to eat.
- Restaurants that are known to use allergenic ingredients in many dishes. For instance, peanuts and other nuts are used frequently in Asian cuisines. In ice cream parlors, shared scoops increase the risk of cross-contact. If you have a fish allergy, it’s a good idea to avoid seafood restaurants.
- Bring a bag of pasta or other safe food from home, just in case. Most restaurants should be willing to make an accommodation such as boiling water and cooking pasta, or heating a safe meal.
At the Restaurant
- Ask to be seated far from the kitchen. This will help you to avoid airborne allergens from cooking and preparing food.
- Talk to everyone. The restaurant manager and wait staff should know about your food allergy. Remind a manager or the head waiter about your allergies before you are seated. Present your chef card and ask that it be shown to the chef.
- Ask what is in your dish and how it’s prepared. Make sure your server understands what you are allergic to, and explain that cross-contact must be avoided. You may want to speak to the manager and the chef, just to be sure. Know what procedures a restaurant should follow to keep your food safe.
- Never be embarrassed if you feel you’re not communicating effectively. It can happen with or without a language barrier. If the wait staff doesn’t seem to understand your situation, always trust your gut and seek out another staff member or manager. Sometimes, the safest choice is to avoid eating, enjoy the company of your friends, and seek out a supermarket after the meal ends.
- Keep it simple. If you have to ask a lot of complicated questions about the items on a menu, ordering more simple fare—like a baked potato or steamed vegetables—may be the safest way to go.
- Avoid fried foods. Both the grill and the frying oil are ripe for cross-contact; it’s best to avoid fried foods unless you know for sure that they are prepared properly.
- Be especially careful when ordering desserts, which are often a source of hidden allergens. Since many restaurants order their desserts from specialty shops, the staff may not be able to provide a complete list of ingredients. If in doubt, wait and have a safe dessert at home.
- If you have a good experience at a restaurant, go back. Reward excellent service and build a relationship.