I went to school in a time when food allergies were quite mysterious and rare. The ‘80’s and ‘90’s just didn’t view food allergies as common place, the way that they are now.
While I grew up with a dairy allergy, a classmate had a peanut/nut allergy. We were definitely the only two in our class, and I can’t recall if there were other “allergy kids” in other grades.
It was not a nut-free school, and I don’t believe the school staff had any extra training. There were no labels at bake sales. There were no rules on not sharing snacks.
I actually had one very negative event on a class trip, when a teacher didn’t believe I couldn’t eat the lasagna that was provided. I was 13 at the time, and will never forget the rude comments. It was a very frustrating experience, and I went to a McDonald’s® across the street because I knew I could at least get some fries there without judgement. (My mother was not impressed with the situation).
Other kids really didn’t understand either. There were often a lot of questions when I told someone that I couldn’t eat ice cream. I can remember explaining over and over again, that “no really, I can’t have ANY milk.” I’m sure my parents dealt with many of the same questions from other parents.
But, there were definitely some positives to my experience as an allergic youth. I learned pretty quickly that the only person that knew what was safe for me, was ultimately just me. I had no bubble of an allergen-friendly classroom. Growing up saying “no thank you” to treats and snacks just became normal for me. Although I am so thankful for the knowledge and safety provided in today’s schools, I think it’s important to teach my own son with allergies the skill to say no to risky foods and ultimately, learn to trust himself with food allergy safety.
– Morgan G.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.