My Dream for a Standardized Allergy-Friendly Menu

Cheerful couple with menu in a restaurant making order
Dining out with friends and family is always something I look forward to. Having to worry about my food allergy, however, takes some fun out of it, but it’s something I’ve become accustomed to. I always get a sense of relief when I find a restaurant that is allergy-friendly and has a detailed spreadsheet listing allergen information for their menu items across the board. I often dream about what it would be like if there was a standardized allergy-friendly menu at every restaurant I went to.  Here are a few reasons why a standardized allergy-friendly menu would benefit those of us with food allergies:

It would reduce the anxious feelings that often come with dining out. Having a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the burden I sometimes feel when discussing and planning a night out with friends. For example, I often find myself saying to them, “sorry, we can’t check out that restaurant because I think there are nuts in many dishes” or “I didn’t feel comfortable there last time.” Also, it would eliminate the constant back-and-forth of asking about ingredient info with the wait and kitchen staff. I would still notify them about my allergies so they know it’s severe, and to be cautious of cross-contamination.

It would make the planning process quicker and easier. Knowing a restaurant has a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the amount of time I spend researching restaurants before choosing or agreeing to dine there.

menuIt would make me feel more comfortable and safe when dining out. It would show me that the restaurant’s dishes have been dissected to highlight what allergens are within. My hope would be that these recipes would never change, which is another reason why it’s important to still mention your allergies. An allergy-friendly menu doesn’t necessarily mean that the food service staff are completely allergy aware, which is why I would still double check that they have strict kitchen protocols for accommodating allergic diners beyond providing ingredient information.

It would highlight safe options on the menu for my allergies. Having a detailed outline of potential allergens and ingredients for each dish served would not only give me a clear list of safe items, but it would also provide me with options I would have never thought I could have. Knowing I would find a standardized allergy-friendly menu at any restaurant I went to would also allow me to discover restaurants that I never thought I could eat at before.

Fortunately, the restaurant industry in Canada is well aware of the seriousness of food allergies, but there is much room to improve. There are a fair number of food chains that have a standardized menu and provide an allergen information sheet, but it isn’t required across restaurants nation-wide. It would be a dream to be able to check out a new restaurant knowing that when I get there, they would provide me with a menu of safe dining options to leave me worry-free.

– Michelle D.

Dining out with Food Allergies – A Step by Step Guide

Those living with food allergies understand that blindly choosing a restaurant (or a dish at any given restaurant) may not be the safest option. But there are a lot of ways of enjoying a restaurant meal while still being cautious. Since allergies are becoming more common, many restaurant managers and servers know the menu like the back of their hand, and are usually quite helpful.

Group of friends enjoying an evening meal with wine at a restaurant.

I have a severe dairy allergy and still enjoy eating out. There is always a bit of anxiety over new places, but I’ve found a few methods that can make things run smoother, and make it easier on everyone.

  1. Sticking to what you know. Yes, it can get a little boring, but I’ve found a few restaurants I really like, and stick to my ‘safe’ dishes on each visit. I also remind myself to check with the manager about my food allergy every visit, even though I go there a lot. Wild food experiences will never really be a part of dining out for me, so I save my crazy ideas for cooking at home.
  2. Check the menu online if possible. Larger chain restaurants usually have an online menu, which really helps those with allergies. I like that I can browse before hand, save time finding my “potential” meals, and think of questions to ask the chef or manager.
  3. Call ahead. Small, independent bistros or restaurants may change their menu frequently. I try to speak with the manager or chef, which can be very helpful. They can provide you with ingredients and offer substitutes. When you arrive, the server will often already know how to help with your questions.
  4. Let your server know right away that you have food allergies and that you will have some questions about the menu. It’s courteous to them and gives a heads up to the kitchen that they may have to make some substitutions. I always attempt to place my order before the rest of the table. That way my order stays unique, and there’s less chance of confusion.
  5. Don’t be shy, or presume the server and kitchen understand. Always state that you need your ENTIRE meal with NO (insert your allergens). If a server isn’t used to allergies, they may not even think about what’s on the salad, if you only asked about the main course. I will often ask about every part of the meal because some things aren’t always listed in the menu. I learned this after ordering my tacos with no dairy, no cheese, and no sour cream only to have the plate show up with refried beans covered in cheddar.
  6. Check your meal very carefully. If you’re unsure about something on the plate, double check. If something is wrong, send it back, or ask for something different. I used to feel a little embarrassed about this, but now I don’t hesitate, and it doesn’t happen that often.
  7. Thank your server/ management. If all goes well let them know you appreciate everything they did. I make it a point to leave positive online reviews whenever I can.
  • If all else fails, and you really don’t feel comfortable ordering anything, just don’t. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve just enjoyed a cocktail while everyone else eats. While it’s frustrating, it’s not a risk worth taking. Always remember to keep your allergy plan and medication with you at all times, and let people you’re dining with know as well. Hopefully these tips can become a routine to help everyone enjoy dining out and lessen the stress that goes along with it.

– Morgan G.

A Forced First Impression…Food Allergy Style

As a 26 year old, I have had to inform dozens, if not hundreds of people about my allergies thus far in my lifetime. This one story definitely stood out to me ahead of the rest.

Business Team Meeting Seminar Training ConceptI was sitting in a university lecture on the first day of class. It was an elective and there was someone in the class who I didn’t know very well from a different program. She put up her hand to inform the Professor and her fellow colleagues about her allergy to citrus including oranges and bananas. She went on to say that if these food items were brought to class and peeled it would cause her a serious migraine.

I was pretty impressed by how forward she was about her allergies. I generally inform my friends, and people sitting around me should they decide to start munching on one of my allergens. Nonetheless, there was no judgement in her proclamation, but rather I noted what she said and thought the class would carry on normally.

I had a few friends in the class with me and they began to nudge me and whispered the following in my ear, “you should say something about your allergies”, “yeah, you should speak up”. Again, as I previously said, I do try to keep my allergies on a need-to-know basis, especially since we are talking about a lecture hall full of people.

Well, obviously, my professor noticed that there was a bit of a kerfuffle and asked if everything was okay. My response was the following: “Well, I just wanted to add that I also have allergies. I am severely allergic to nuts. I don’t really see it being an issue in class unless someone eats nuts and then makes out with me. So, yeah. Let’s try and avoid that at all costs.”

There was an outbreak of nervous laughter and the professor was stunned. After a brief moment, he thanked me for sharing and carried on with the program. Can you say AWKWARD!? It was quite the way to make a first impression.

– Nicole K.

Explaining my Food Allergy Through Snappy Comebacks

I have a severe allergy to cow’s milk protein and was diagnosed at a very young age. Overall, I find that life with a food allergy isn’t so bad, it’s just who I am. Occasionally, people unfamiliar with allergies have a hard time understanding how I can actually “live without cheese,” which in truth is quite an ironic statement, since eating cheese could actually threaten my life.

Explaining a serious food allergy can be tricky, especially in my case, since lactose intolerance is also common, and often referred to as an “allergy.”

woman in glasses with sensitive toothache painOccasionally, I will get some funny, annoying or just plain strange responses when I explain my allergy, or when I politely decline food. Below are a few examples with my likely response in italics.

“So, you can’t eat it, like, ever?” –As much as I’d love a day off from the threat of anaphylaxis… no I can’t eat it ever.

“How do you find anything to eat?” – There are many foods in the world, I can usually find something.

“Are you sure you can’t just try a little bit?” – Yes I’m sure.

Don’t eat anything! I don’t want to have to call 911!” – Well, me neither.

Do you love eating dairy, even though you’re allergic?” – I can’t eat dairy and considering I spend my time trying NOT to eat it, I definitely don’t love it.

Will you be mad if I eat this in front of you?” – Of course not!

“I feel SO bad for you!!” – Really, it’s fine. I’m okay with not eating a butter tart right now.

But I used organic milk/butter/cheese, maybe it won’t affect you?” – It may be fancy, but I still can’t have it.

While some of these sound a little ignorant, I believe everyone meant well.  Lots of people find my diet interesting and have a lot of questions. And I actually don’t mind discussing it. I think most people with an allergy would agree that living with a life-threatening allergy really is just a way of life. Many people don’t have allergies themselves, or deal with family members with allergies, so it’s true, they really just don’t know what it’s like. I think that in general, if we are honest and open about our allergies, people are quite accepting.

Sometimes I get asked: “Do you wish you weren’t allergic?” Well yes, I wish I could grab a menu and blindly try something new. I wish I could accept my neighbour’s baking without giving her the third degree on ingredients. I wish I could share foods with my kids more. I wish I could kiss my husband after his morning cereal. But, that’s not how it works for me, and that’s the way it is. So my answer is always “yes, I wish I didn’t have to live with allergies, but it’s okay, I’m used to it.”

– Morgan

Valentine’s Day with Food Allergies

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Valentine’s with an allergy?

Well, I got you!

Valentine’s Day is one of the most romantic days of the year. Maybe you and your long-term partner are planning a weekend getaway to relax and enjoy each other’s company or maybe you and your girlfriends are planning on celebrating ‘single ladies’ style. No matter what your relationship status is, you can’t deny that Valentine’s Day is a popular holiday. I didn’t really start celebrating Valentine’s Day until I started dating my boyfriend. I remember being very nervous the first Valentine’s Day we celebrated together because I had actually no idea what I was going to be able to eat. I was so worried that we would get to the restaurant and then be forced to leave because I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. So my advice? Don’t be like me! Be confident and take initiative! Over the last four years of dating my boyfriend, I’ve come up with some tips and tricks to master Valentine’s Day:

Valentines day hearts on wooden backgroundPlan ahead! – Going out for dinner? Think ahead. My boyfriend and I already contacted the manager of the restaurant we are thinking of trying this Valentine’s Day, two weeks in advance. Valentine’s Day itself is a very busy day/night at most restaurants, so don’t contact the restaurant the day of. Contact the restaurant maybe two, three, or even seven days in advance and speak to the manager. The majority of classier restaurants usually also do special “Valentine’s Day” menus and these menus are typically different from their usual menus. Just because you’ve been to a restaurant before does not mean it’s going to be safe for you on Valentine’s Day. The manager will be able to give you the best advice on what is going to be safest for you. Once you get to the restaurant, request to speak to the person you’ve already contacted. I’ve had amazing experiences at The KEG, Baton Rogue, and Copacabana on Valentine’s Day.

Laura Secord – If you’re allergic to peanuts and tree nuts and have never had the opportunity to try Valentine’s Day chocolate in a box because of the enormous amount of nut products in these chocolate filled boxes, Laura Secord has your back. The 100-year-old Canadian chocolate franchise has an assortment of peanut-free and tree nut-free chocolates in both bars and boxes. They even have a special Valentine’s Day nut-free chocolate assortment box. I picked up a box the other day and it was incredibly delicious. Start making hints to your date that you’re craving some delicious Laura Secord nut-free chocolate this Valentine’s Day. Go Canada!

Keep it simple! – There’s honestly no need to go out for dinner to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Keep yourself safe (and save yourself some cash) by inviting your Valentine over to your place this Valentine’s Day. Make an allergen-safe dinner at home together and watch a cool movie. You will not only have a great time, but you and your Valentine will bond by being able to share with him/her your allergen-safe secrets. You (and your wallet) will be grateful that you’re not out on arguably the busiest dining out night of the year.

Don’t make Valentine’s Day revolve around food! – Who said Valentine’s Day had to be associated with food? Celebrate the day with your loved one by doing something or going somewhere that you wouldn’t usually go to; take a trip to Niagara Falls, go skiing, or take out those skates and go to the nearest ice rink. You make your own fun!

The most important piece of advice I can give you is to enroll your loved one. Share with your Valentine your worries and come up with a game plan in advance together. Get asked out on a date and you’re told that the restaurant is a surprise? Immediately take the initiative and share with your date that you have allergies and you’d love to be a part of planning so that you two can find a suitable destination for you. My boyfriend now takes initiative even before I do! It’s not supposed to be a scary or stressful night, so find a way to have fun with it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

– Giulia C.

The Best (and Worst) Food Allergy Jokes

As with most humour, there is the potential to offend your audience. As someone who has lived with anaphylaxis my whole life, I often find comfort in my ability to laugh things off or look at the brighter side in life. I understand wholeheartedly that this is a serious condition with potentially life-threatening consequences. If any of these jokes are distasteful and offensive to you, I apologize. They are, in my opinion, the best (and worst) food allergy jokes out there!

Two happy woman friends laughingDid you hear about the Frenchman who could only count to seven?
-He had a huit allergy

What does an allergic person have in common with bees?
-They both have hives!

Did you hear about the convict who had allergies?
-He broke out

Why didn’t the child with allergies play the board game Clue?
It contained Mustard!

Why did the chicken cross the road?
-To avoid his allergen

What did the night owl say to his pal the early riser?
-I’m allergic to mornings.

Teacher: Where’s your homework?
Student: I’m allergic to homework.

1: Knock, knock.
2: Who’s there?
1: Auntie
2: Ben who?
1: Anti-Histamine

1: Knock, knock.
2: Who’s there?
1: May
2: May who?
1: May contain trace amounts of ‘nuts’

What was the cause of the tech-guru’s most recent seafood reaction?
-Her new shell-phone!

– Nicole K.

A Verbal Stream of Consciousness: My Worst Allergic Reaction

I’ve had two major allergic reactions in my life, well three if you count the initial reaction I had when we discovered my food allergy but I was three years old and I don’t remember it; So let’s rephrase: I’ve had two major reactions in my life that I remember.

My worst reaction had me on the edge of anaphylactic shock if it wasn’t for a handy auto-injector and a thoroughly prepared father. This reaction was to a previously unknown allergen: fish. Fresh water fish to be clear, perch to be precise.

Grilled pikeperch
I couldn’t in my wildest dreams fathom having this allergy. I was around perch a lot as a kid because my family had an annual reunion called “The Fish Fry” where the main dish was – you guessed it: perch. The funny thing is I never ate it, it smelled “gross” to me and I never had any interest. So fast forward a few years in the future to a lazy Saturday dinner. My family was cooking perch and with no other options I decided today was the day I was going to eat perch.

I took a thumbnail sized bite, maybe ever smaller but the second I took that bite I knew immediately something was wrong. From this point on my thought process was more sporadic then a cat chasing after a laser pointer.

Let me break it down for you best I can:

Something is wrong; I need to spit this out, ok now I have to clean out my mouth. I can’t swallow anything, and my lips are swelling. Wait so is my tongue. I need help.

It was at this point my family figured out something was wrong. As mentioned before, my dad sprung into action grabbing an auto-injector and promptly administrating it. My brother called an ambulance, and I sat in the kitchen with my thoughts.

Now those thoughts went into overdrive running off adrenaline and fear.

WHOA! Ok let’s get some medicine to keep it from returning, oh ya I can’t walk, I can’t really breathe, my lips and tongue are swollen- they hurt. I wonder when the ambulance will be here. Ohhh it’s getting better, thanks Epi-Pen®, glad I have you…and extras, oh hey the ambulance, that was quick considering we live in the countryside. Should I bring my purse? I sure hope someone grabs my coat. What are we going to do with the leftover perch?

Now this is where things get a little fuzzy. I remember getting into the ambulance and asking for my brother to come with me, but other than a brief discussion about how my parents would follow us, I don’t remember much. Here are the snippets I do remember in order of importance to me at the time:

  1. I’ve never been in an ambulance before
  2. They’re driving fast.
  3. Where is my purse and coat?
  4. Hey we’re here already.

Main Entrance Of Modern Hospital Building With SignsI’m sure I had plenty more thoughts, but at the time these felt like they were the most important.

After arriving at the hospital, I was seen right away by a doctor who gave me another shot of Epinephrine and hooked me up to some machines to monitor me and to give me medicine if needed, which spoiler alert: I did.

After one tiny piece of perch, almost 18 hours of hospital rooms and IV’s, I left the hospital with a new allergy and a new plan for how to tackle this allergy.

My thought process during my reaction was sporadic, hazy, and random looking back now. I barely had time to figure out what was wrong with me before my symptoms became more than I could bear. My thoughts regarding my reaction afterwards were crystal clear and it’s something that I still think about from time-to-time in no particular order.

 I need to get my allergies checked more often so I know my levels.

 I’m glad I always have an auto-injector with me or around me.

I should always trust my gut, if something doesn’t seem right, or is continuously gross to me or makes me sick, maybe I should stay away from it until I know.

I should continue telling/training people with an auto-injector

Thankfully I have people around me who are trained and can identify an allergic reaction.

I need to trust myself enough to know when I am comfortable and when I am not.

I need to be more comfortable listening to myself, and asking for help.

I love my family for always ensuring my safety.

Our thoughts and inner monologue can sometimes feel like a random strung together process that doesn’t make sense at times. It can seem like an avalanche of ideas ranging from funny, scary, and puzzling that come so fast we can barely keep track. It’s useless to compare your thoughts or ideas to anyone else’s because we’re all unique. However, that should never stop us from expressing ourselves or talking out our feelings and thoughts with others. The best we can do is try and find that little voice of reason and help prepare it with a predetermined list for emergencies so we don’t lose track of what’s important. We have to go with our instincts but also have a plan A, B, C, and Z in case of an accident. We need to trust, forgive, and have faith in ourselves because it is the only way we’ll be comfortable expressing our inner thought processes to others.

– Arianne. K

By Food Allergy Canada