Bravo to the restaurants that go out of their way to help us dine safely! With more restaurants catering to people with food sensitivities, dining out is definitely getting easier.
If you've got food allergies or celiac disease, you may think you are sentenced to a lifetime of slaving in a kitchen preparing all of your own meals. We want to help you get out of the kitchen and into a nice restaurant where someone can wait on you for a change! (If you have an EpiPen or other emergency medications, always take them with you.)
This page contains the following.
- How to choose a restaurant
- Deciding what to order
- Hidden allergens and cross-contamination in a restaurant
- Tips for helping you have a safe and enjoyable dining experience.
- Information and links for ordering Chef Cards.
- Information and links for ordering guides for restaurants that cater to people with food sensitivities, and
- Restaurant reviews from You!
Do Your Homework Before Visiting the Restaurant
Choosing a Restaurant
Restaurants that cook from "scratch" are often the safest because they control what ingredients are in the dish and how it is prepared. Avoid restaurants that prepare meals from pre-made components. Buffets are usually not safe because foods are stored next to each other and utensils are shared.
Certain types of restaurants pose inherent risks. For example, if you are allergic to seafood, most seafood restaurants are likely not safe due to cross-contamination in the kitchen and vaporized fish protein in the air. The same goes for Asian restaurants. Avoid them if you are allergic to tree nuts or peanuts.
It is your responsibility to make sure the restaurant understands your special needs. If possible, call the restaurant several days before you plan to eat there and ask to speak with a manager. Write down the manager’s name. Thank the manager for taking time to talk with you, then explain your allergies and the care which must be taken to ensure the food is safe.
Ask detailed questions about the kitchen setup and cooking surfaces to determine if cross-contamination might accidentally occur. Examples of good questions to ask include the following.
- Is there a dedicated cooking surface for your food?
- Are the cooking utensils shared?
- Is there a chance allergens may splash or spill onto the cooking surface or any other area of the kitchen where your food will be prepared?
- Are nuts or shredded cheese stored next to items you may be eating?
- Does the person who sprinkles diced tomatoes on a salad use the same hand or utensil to sprinkle nuts?
- Will a manager or another person walk your order through the kitchen?
Ask (politely!) if the restaurant will be able to accommodate your needs. If it will, make a reservation so the staff knows when to expect you. If possible, tell the manager what you will be ordering so the kitchen staff can be informed ahead of time.
Don’t be surprised if a restaurant says it will not be able to accommodate your special needs. Most restaurant staffs are not trained to deal with food allergies, and kitchen prep areas and cooking surfaces are often cross-contaminated. Often, it isn’t that they don’t want your business; they just can’t guarantee your safety.
What to Order
Call ahead and ask the manager or chef what dish will be safest for you to order. Consider emailing or faxing your order
before arriving along with specific instructions and the details of your allergies to help
the chef do his or her job.
When you get to the restaurant, tell the host or manager that you called ahead and spoke
with ____ , and ordered a special meal. Mention it to the waiter as well. Make sure you actually get the special meal. If the meal goes well, thank the staff and tip them well!
Order basic dishes prepared simply. For example, a plain steak and baked potato. Ask the chef for a detailed list of the ingredients used in cooking your dish. Simply asking, "does this have soy or gluten?" is risky because the server or chef may not know the hidden sources of the offending ingredient. Ask how the dish is prepared, what else is cooked on the cooking surface or using the utensils. In some cases, we ask for a clean pan and clean utensils to be used. We also ask for one person to be in charge of preparing the dish from start to finish. Avoid sauces or dressings.
Cross-Contamination and Hidden Allergens
Remember the hidden sources of allergens and gluten. Dry seasoning may contain gluten, wheat, soy, dairy, peanuts or tree nuts. A wet rub or marinade may also contain Worcestershire, which contains fish. A plain steak may be grilled or seared in the same spot as a marinated steak. Some restaurants add a pat of butter or margarine to a steak or steamed vegetables after they are cooked. Cheese may contain soy or gluten. French fries may be fried in the same vat of oil as poppers (soy, dairy, eggs) or fish.
Beware of cross-contamination. Cooking surfaces are easily cross-contaminated. While eating out, you may order a plain grilled hamburger with no seasoning to avoid a dairy or fish allergy, but it is cooked in the same spot as a cheeseburger, and egg or a piece of fish. Serving utensils are also easily cross-contaminated. If you order a salad with no walnuts, the person making the salad may use his hand or a spoon to sprinkle walnuts on someone else’s salad and then the same spoon or his unwashed hand to sprinkle peppers on yours. Some restaurants provide bowls peanuts on the tables. The shells end up crushed all over the floor and in the parking lot.
Get Informed - Ask Questions
Get used to asking lots of questions. If one person doesn’t know the answer, ask to speak with someone else. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t feel like you are being a pest or a pain in the neck. You are not being rude, or pushy. You are simply being responsible. Your life or your child’s life could be at stake.
There are a few well-informed people who will appreciate your diligence. However, most people do not understand what food allergies are and how serious they can be. Be understanding when someone does not understand the importance of your questions. Use it as an opportunity to politely and respectfully educate the person. And don’t be surprised if they still don’t take it seriously.
It is OK to ask the same question over and over again – just because a food is safe today, doesn’t mean it will be safe tomorrow. Changes in management, ingredient suppliers, kitchen setup, and preparation and/or cooking procedures do occur, and can make foods that were once safe, unsafe.
A Tale of Two Cross-Contaminations
Cross-contamination can occur anywhere, and when you least expect it.
- We used to eat the waffle fries at a popular fast food restaurant. Every time we ordered I asked what type of oil they used. The answer was always “vegetable oil.” One day, after years of asking this question and eating the fries, the answer changed to “peanut oil.” Had I not asked the question, we would have wound up in the emergency room.
- My oldest daughter can eat dairy, but not eggs, nuts, peanuts or fish. One day, I decided to take her to a local ice cream/frozen yogurt store. I called ahead and spoke to the manager who was very kind and accommodating in reading the ingredients of the rainbow swirl frozen yogurt to me over the phone. No allergens listed.
When we got to the store, we noticed the same scooper was being used for all the frozen yogurts – even the peanut butter one. Even though the employees rinsed the scoopers in a bucket of water between scoops, the water, and therefore the scoopers and all the containers of frozen yogurt contained peanut protein. The rainbow swirl did not contain peanuts as an ingredient, but it was cross-contaminated by the scooper. The manager meant well, and genuinely wanted to help me. He just was not educated on how cross-contamination of allergens can occur.
Even the Air Can Be Contaminated
Food proteins can be vaporized during cooking and inhaled. This is especially true for peanuts and fish. A friend's son who has a severe peanut allergy was standing in line at popular fast food restaurant. His father noticed that he was slurring his speech. When the child's face began to swell, his dad picked him up and rushed to the hospital, where he spent four days on life support. The restaurant used peanut oil to fry their chicken and French fries. The child had anaphylaxis simply by breathing the air in the restaurant.
More Dining Out Resources
Chef Cards A Chef Card is a personalized card that describes in detail the foods you cannot eat, alternative names for the ingredient, how your food must be prepared, and ways to avoid cross-contamination.
Restaurant Reviews from You! Read reviews from readers who have had a good experiences at restaurants. Or, submit our own review!Restaurant Guides Booklets describing restaurants catering to special dietary requirements, food sensitivities and allergies.
© 2006 Food Allergy Gourmet, All rights reserved