According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), there are more than 15 million people in the United States with food allergies. Many of these folks will be eating out in their lifetime. Dining out with a food allergy doesn’t have to be daunting if the right steps are followed. These days many restaurants are sensitive to patrons who have a food allergy, making it easier than ever to keep your allergies in check.
Keeping Safer When Dining Out
Although you can’t be 100 percent sure cross-contamination doesn’t occur, there are steps you can take to ensure your food is safe when dining out.
Choosing a restaurant: Ask around for recommendations from friends who have allergies, or from your allergist. It’s best to avoid buffets, which have a higher chance of cross-contamination; bakeries that tend to use the top eight allergens in many foods; or cuisines known to have many dishes containing the allergen (for example, Asian food often contains nuts, and seafood restaurants have lots of shellfish and fin fish). If possible, make your reservations during a less busy hour so the back of the house is more attentive.
Call ahead: Call the restaurant beforehand to give them a heads-up on the allergies in your party. Discuss menu choices with the manager so you know what your options are.
Communicate: On arrival, remind the host and server of your food allergy. Ask lots of questions about how the dish is prepared and the ingredients. If a server doesn’t know the answer, don’t be embarrassed to ask to speak with the chef or manager. When ordering, keep selections simple, and avoid fried foods, which have a higher chance of cross-contact, and desserts, which usually contain hidden allergens (like nuts and flour).
One of the most-allergy-friendly restaurants I’ve dined in is Ming Tsai’s restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass. One of Tsai’s missions is to serve those with food allergies safely. His commitment to serving people safely has made Blue Ginger a destination restaurant for those with food allergies and sensitivities. Tsai is proud to have developed the Food Allergy Reference Book, a pioneering system that creates safeguards to help food-allergic people dine safely.
There are also establishments throughout the country that cater to specific allergies. Jules Pizza in Newtown, Pa., has gluten-free pizza crust and uses certified gluten-free sauces that are baked in their brick oven on a specific surface designated for those who are gluten-free. The salad chain Chopt also does a nice job catering to those with a variety of food allergies like nuts and gluten.
Although you can find some restaurants that are much better than others at protecting those with food allergies, it’s still not a 100 percent safe environment. If you have a more severe food allergy, your best bet is to dine at establishments that are completely free of that allergen.
Erin McKenna’s Bakery (formerly known as BabyCakes) is a bake shop with locations in New York, California and Florida whose products are completely free of gluten, wheat, soy, eggs and dairy. If you have any of these allergies, you can be certain it’s not in any product sold here.
A lesser known restaurant is WildFlour, a bakery and cafe located in Lawrenceville, N.J. It is a 100 percent gluten-free establishment, so those with celiac disease (or gluten allergy) can feel very comfortable dining there.
Bottom Line: If you have a food allergy, do your homework before dining out. If you want to be 100 percent certain a restaurant’s food is safe to eat, then find one that completely excludes the food you’re allergic to.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.