Parents of Food-Allergic Children Must Remain Vigilant
By Paul Antico
Families with food allergies hope that all restaurants will cater to food-allergic diners, but some restaurants are far more accommodating than others. A growing number of restaurants have extensive food-allergy protocols in place, providing detailed information about the ingredients in each dish, avoiding cross-contamination and educating their staff about food allergy procedures. Other establishments are unable – or unwilling – to prepare meals without diners’ allergy “triggers,” such as nuts, dairy, eggs, wheat, shellfish, and more.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a completely “allergy-safe” restaurant. While many restaurants have gone to great lengths to be as “allergy-friendly” as possible, food-allergic individuals – or their caretakers – still need to take 100% responsibility for their own safety. As the father of three food-allergic children, the founder of AllergyEats, and a proactive food allergy advocate, the following advice comes from my personal and professional experience.
Do some homework in advance. Find dining recommendations from others within the food allergy community through an online resource like AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com). Check menus and allergen information on restaurants’ websites. Call a restaurant with any questions before you leave the house.
Try to dine at off-peak hours when restaurant staff is less harried and better able to take the proper precautions with your order.
Once you arrive at the restaurant, inform the host/hostess and server about your food allergies. Ask them how they will be able to accommodate your special needs. If you do not feel completely confident after speaking to the server, ask to see the manager and/or chef. Most importantly, if after speaking to the restaurant staff you don’t feel comfortable that they’ll be able to accommodate your food allergies, leave and find another restaurant.
When you speak to the restaurant staff, you should receive confident answers to any of the following questions: What protocols do you have in place to serve food-allergic individuals? Which items on your menu are not safe, given my specific food allergies? How will my specific requirements be communicated to the kitchen and other staff? How is the kitchen set up to prevent cross-contamination? Is separate equipment used to prepare my order? What kind of oil is used in the preparation of my order and is it safe, given my allergies? Can I see the list of ingredients for a given menu item?
When you receive your meal, politely ask the server if he or she is sure that this food is safe for you and if there was any chance of cross-contamination.
Stop and look carefully at your meal to see if any of your offending allergens are present (i.e. grated cheese, pesto, nuts, etc.). This may sound obvious, but I’ve found that some restaurants follow all of the “rules” to accommodate a food allergy, and then do something as obvious as grating cheese on top of a dairy-allergic diner’s salad.
If the restaurant answered all of your questions and accommodated your special requests, be sure to thank them, leave a generous tip and let them know you’ll return thanks to your positive experience.
Whether your experience was positive or negative – or somewhere in between – do the food allergy community a great service by rating the restaurant on AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com). Rating a restaurant is simple and quick (it takes less than a minute) and helps other food-allergic individuals find accommodating restaurants – and avoid the ones that aren’t.
Paul Antico, the father of three food-allergic children, launched AllergyEats, a free, user-friendly website that provides valuable peer-based feedback about how well (or poorly) restaurants accommodate food-allergic customers. AllergyEats lists well over 600,000 restaurants nationwide, which food allergic diners can rate. The site also offers information on restaurants’ menus (including gluten-free menus), allergen lists, nutrition information, certifications, web links, directions and more. For more information, visit www.allergyeats.com.