Tips for Eating Out with Food Allergies or Restricted Diets
A recent study revealed that restaurants are the second most common location for a food allergic reaction to occur1. Considering that allergic reactions in restaurants are quite common and can be severe, it is not surprising that parents and their children living with food allergies may be nervous about dining out in restaurants.
Common concerns regarding dining out may be related to lack of labeling regulations in restaurants, the possibility of cross-contact with allergens, inconsistencies in the training of staff, and the perception by restaurant staff that special requests are not related to medical conditions but rather personal preference or elective diets.
This hesitation with dining out may impact people besides those with IgE-mediated food allergies and often applies to anyone following a restricted diet for medical reasons. This impact often reaches beyond safety concerns and can have a negative effect on the quality of life for the child and the entire family.
In fact, 60% of parents of children with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) reported they have left a restaurant in the middle of dining2. Another study showed that about one-fifth of patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refused to dine out due to fear of a relapse3 in their condition and this number likely increases with a higher number of food restrictions.
Although the type of diet restrictions may vary, the strategies for dining out are the same and require planning ahead. By following a few tips and tricks, risks can be minimized, and dining out can be a safer and more enjoyable experience for the entire family.
Choosing a Restaurant
Many families find it beneficial to ask around through local support groups, specialized social media groups, or friends and rely on the experiences of others when choosing a restaurant. Even your allergist or medical team may have suggestions for places that cater to those following restricted diets.
Chain restaurants often have more menu items to choose from, may be more likely to consistently use the same ingredients and preparation methods, and may even have training protocols for teaching their staff about food allergies and restrictions. While chain restaurants may have the same protocols in place, it is important to note that all restaurants may not be following the protocols correctly and children and families would need to confirm this before assuming a restaurant or meal is safe.
Finally, it may be helpful to consider the type of restaurant and its relationship to your particular allergen(s) or avoided foods. For example, avoiding seafood restaurants is usually a good idea for those allergic to fish and/or shellfish. Another example is the common use of peanuts and tree nuts in Asian and African cuisine or bakeries. If you are avoiding only milk and eggs, choosing a vegan restaurant might be a good choice since they would not use these ingredients in their restaurant.
Considerations for People Who Have IBD
For those with IBD, make sure you understand your triggers and which foods you need to avoid. For example, you may need to avoid certain foods such as high-fat foods or spicy foods that may trigger uncomfortable GI symptoms. Many restaurants will add high-fat sauces or fried foods without indicating this on the menu so it is important to ask about specific ingredients that may trigger your symptoms.
Know Before You Go
Gathering information prior to heading to the restaurant can be another key to success. Researching online menus, ingredient lists, and allergen protocols ahead of time can be helpful in minimizing stress during the actual dining experience.
In some instances, calling ahead to speak with the manager may empower you with more information about how the restaurant handles special diet requests. Choosing a time where the restaurant is not busy or rushed allows the staff more time to take measures to keep you safe.
Planning for an early meal and avoiding the popular mealtimes often allows for a cleaner kitchen and more alert staff. Consider using one of the chef cards provided by FARE to communicate with the restaurant staff about your allergens. It also may be helpful to make a list of menu items that might work and include questions you would like to ask when you arrive.
Making Decisions In The Moment
Once you arrive at the restaurant, communication is vital. Do not be afraid to repeat yourself or tell multiple staff members about your specific needs or concerns.
It is often reassuring when the staff writes down your allergy or special food request and ensures there will be further communication with the chef. Ask questions about the ingredients in your menu item, how it is prepared, and possible ways the food might be contaminated with your allergen.
Ask for the manager or chef for clarification or additional details if possible and always ask the staff to review your allergens or restrictions to ensure nothing is overlooked. Being grateful when things go well can ensure a good experience and may help with building a relationship for future encounters.
Most importantly, trust your gut. If you do not feel comfortable or get the sense that the staff is not understanding or taking your concerns seriously, be prepared to skip the meal or leave the restaurant.
Often, when you are dining out in larger groups or for special events, it may not be simple to get up and leave. For example, attending a birthday dinner or sports gathering at a specific restaurant that may not have appropriate options for your child.
Being prepared by bringing along safe snacks or foods can create a safety net in the event your diet restriction requirements cannot be met, or you find that the food you receive is not what you had expected.
Additional Factors to Consider
Other points to consider that may affect your decisions are:
- Avoiding certain types of restaurants such as buffets or salad bars which may pose a greater risk of cross-contact with allergens.
- Ordering simple menu items may reduce the risk of errors or mistakes. Sometimes it is best to order your meal plan and bring special sauces or seasonings from home to add flavor.
- Some cooking surfaces or methods may pose a greater risk. For example, fried foods or those cooked on a grill/griddle may come in contact with your allergens or avoided foods and would not be safe.
- Pay attention to the little things and even inquire about beverages and desserts to make sure they are compliant with your restrictions.
Always Be Prepared
If the reasons for your diet restrictions are life-threatening, then make sure you are following all precautions to be prepared for an allergic reaction. Know the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, understand the steps to treat it, and always have the necessary emergency medications available with you at all times. In addition, make sure someone dining with you knows and understands how to treat an allergic reaction in the event that the parent or child cannot do so for themselves. Even in medical conditions where food triggers are not life-threatening, it is important to have medications on hand for treating symptoms.
How Cambrooke Formulas Can Help
When following a restricted diet, having a formula available to fill in the gaps or replace a meal can be a lifesaver. EquaCare Jr. and Essential Care Jr. are amino acid-based formulas for children over one year of age that provide complete nutrition or supplementation for restricted diets. EquaCare Jr. is available at a lower cost than the competition and Essential Care Jr. is free of corn, soy, and artificial ingredients and contains low FODMAP carbohydrates for easier digestion. Learn more about our unique formulas today.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2019). My Life With Food Allergy: Parent Survey Report. Retrieved from aafa.org/foodallergylife