Allergy-Safe Dining Out

Don't let stress ruin restaurant fun

Eating out is fun for parents and kids, but when food allergies come into play, eating out can become a stressful experience. Kids with food allergies are always at risk, and for them, eating the wrong food could cause an allergic reaction or even death.

A safe place to dine

Rachel Hoffman of Elk Township, New Jersey, knows this scenario all too well. Her 11-year-old son, Caleb, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy. When the Hoffman family eats out, their biggest problem with many restaurants is something most people don’t even think about: the cooking oil. “We always ask what type of oil they cook with,” says Hoffman. “If it is peanut oil, we leave. If they use soy or vegetable oil, great.” 

Hoffman’s next question is whether or not they use separate fryers. “A lot of places will cook everything in the same big vat of oil,” she says. “They cook their fries and nuggets in the same oil they’ll cook mozzarella sticks and walnut-crusted chicken in. That is a no-no, and very dangerous for Caleb — so we have to try another place,” she says.

So far, she hasn’t found the ideal restaurant for her son’s allergies. But some that make her and her son feel more comfortable than others. Caleb feels best at places like Outback Steakhouse or a local favorite, the Pegasus Restaurant in Malaga, New Jersey.

Food allergies

One in every 13 children has a food allergy. That number is increasing, but the reasons why remain a mystery. The most common food allergies in children are eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat. Some youngsters are also allergic to shellfish, gluten, fish, sesame and MSG. There’s no known cure for food allergies, however epinephrine can treat the
symptoms of an allergic reaction. However, the drug won’t prevent a reaction from occurring.

Tips for eating out

Today, many restaurants have become more allergy-friendly. “Many families are looking for safe places to dine,” says
Lynda Mitchell, acting CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The foundation has a separate division called Kids With Food Allergies, based in Fountainville Pennsylvania, which is part of Bucks County. “When parents find places that are safe for their children, they become loyal customers,” says Mitchell. 

She offers several tips to parents to help keep an allergic youngster safe:

Always call a restaurant in advance. 

“Parents should speak with a manager or other staff member to see if safe accommodations can be made for food allergies,” says Michele Innes, Clinical Pediatric Dietitian at Nemours/Alfred l. duPont Hospital for Children. If a parent hasn’t called in advance, it’s important to speak with a manager and if possible the chef — before being seated — to ensure a restaurant is an appropriate place to eat.

Bring a food allergy card. This can alert the chef and serving staff about your child’s particular allergy and what foods should be avoided in his food.  

Talk with the restaurant manager, waiter or waitress. “Don’t be shy about asking whatever questions you need to feel comfortable,” says Paul Antico, Founder and CEO of Allergy Eats, a peer-reviewed directory of allergy-friendly restaurants throughout the U.S. Three of Antico’s family of seven have food allergies, so he’s an expert at getting the necessary information when eating away from home.

Always review the meal with your server. Do this when the food arrives at your table to ensure that the allergy requirements have been met and the meal is safe, says Antico.

Be prepared and bring your meds. Never take a bite of food when you dine out unless you have your emergency medication with you, says Antico.

Return good service with courtesy. When you have a good experience at a restaurant, he says, “thank the staff and tip the server well” to encourage the restaurant to continue their allergy-friendly efforts.  

Cheryl Lynne Potter is a freelance writer.

Categories: Food & Nutrition