Having food sensitivities does not mean an end to dining out (depending on the severity). Even though your selections may be limited, you can still enjoy delicious food and a meal away from your kitchen. All it takes is a little extra time with your waitperson and knowing the right things to ask.
While it may seem difficult at first, it will become second nature. By dining out, you not only are adding spice to your own life, you are also increasing awareness of food allergies. Hopefully this will result in more food choices for everyone in the future.
- Call ahead. If you know where you will be dining, try finding a website for the restaurant. Often the restaurant will have their menu available to view online. Look over the menu and then call the restaurant ahead of time and ask to speak to someone who is knowledgable about food allergies and the ingredients in the dishes they serve. If you can narrow down your choices or even decide what you will order before you even get to the restaurant, you can relax and enjoy yourself.
- Narrow down the menu. At the restaurant, find 2 or 3 dishes on the menu that seem “safe” (no obvious allergens) and that you would like to eat. Don’t expect the waitperson to spend time going over the entire menu with you.
- Get the waitperson’s attention. Try to spend a few minutes with the waitperson before everyone else is asked for their order. A good time might be when the waitperson comes to take drink orders or to tell about the specials. Motion for the waitperson to come close to you — trying to explain things over a table of people can be difficult and embarrassing.
- Communicate. When you have the waitperson’s undivided attention, say something like: “Hi, I need to ask you some questions about menu. I am (severely) allergic to _________. That means I cannot have anything with _________ in it, or any other ingredient that has _________ in it.” Give examples of common foods that contain the allergen. If you are allergic to wheat, you would say “No wheat, no bread, no flour, no soy sauce because it has wheat in it.” Point out your first and second choices and say, “I was thinking of having this. Would you mind checking with the chef to see if these are okay for me to eat?” If you are not comfortable talking to the waitperson, try using an allergy card instead, especially if there is a language barrier.
- Be skeptical. Watch out for the waitperson that gives you quick answers (fake confidence!) or seems unsure of the ingredients. Again, encourage him/her to check with the chef before placing your order. “Would you mind double-checking with the chef? I just need to be really careful. Thank you so much.” Most people are very nice if you are very nice.
- Substitute. Don’t be afraid to ask for modifications to your selections. If they know it is an allergy, the restaurants are usually fine with making substitutions. For example, ask for a plain baked potato or french fries instead of mashed potatoes (for a milk allergy), a vegetable in place of a side pasta (for a gluten allergy), or a different stir-fry sauce (for a fish or shellfish allergy).
- Check your food. When the food comes, check everything out – mistakes will be made! If there is something you feel might not be safe, ask the waiter again. Politely say, “I’m so sorry, but are you sure there is no _______ in here? I just need to be so careful.”
- Eat! When you are confident that your food is okay, eat up and enjoy!
- Say thank you. Before you leave, thank the waitperson for accommodating you. That will make them be more willing to help you again or any other diners with food allergies.
Please take into account the severity of your food allergy before dining out. Even when the above steps are taken, there is risk of cross-contamination and mistakes.