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Handling food allergies at restaurants

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Keeping kids safe

Most children with food allergies should be able to enjoy eating out at a restaurant if you follow some basic safety tips. With the rising prevalence of food allergies, more and more restaurants are becoming allergy-aware. That's a great thing! But it's no reason to reduce your vigilance if you have a food allergic family member. However, with research, care and caution, you and your family can still eat meals out (but keep the EpiPen handy).

Keeping kids safe

When my son was diagnosed with an allergy to crustaceans last summer, we were shocked. We thought we were beyond the food allergy worry stage at age 12. The truth is, allergies can develop at any age. While we manage this allergy at home almost without thought, it has turned out to be a more pervasive problem in restaurants than we ever imagined. For example, my son now can rarely have French fries in restaurants; if there's only one vat of oil for frying and it's used for both potatoes and the fried shrimp appetizer, there's a cross-contamination risk. As fried potatoes is one of my son's favorite things, this became our big testing point.

For a while, this meant that we didn't go out to dinner as a family at all. Sure, it was money-saving, but the occasional meal out is still something we want to enjoy as a family. A few months ago, we started to make more of an effort to find (relatively) allergy safe restaurants. We've have disappointments (though no crises of ingesting the allergen, thankfully) and a couple of real successes.

Research and trial runs

The first thing we did was to identify restaurants in a reasonable distance from us that had cuisine that would appeal to the whole family. Most had websites, and most had menus online. We were able to identify several that might (MIGHT!) be safer based on menu items and other clues on the menu. For example, if a menu stated, "Please let your sever know if you have any food allergies," it was a clue that maybe someone there had a clue.

We'd then email the restaurants and ask if they could accommodate this allergy and, specifically, did they fry the French fries in the same oil as the shrimp. Some responded promptly, and some not at all. Guess which ones made the next cut?

After that, my husband and I tried a few restaurants on our own. We'd ask the staff during our visit how they handed allergies, was the chef sensitive to the issue, and so on. If the staff was responsive and understanding in real life, then we'd evaluate whether the food even worth going back for.

Another way to locate allergy-sensitive restaurants is to ask friends who also deal with food allergies. In those cases, the research is (mostly) done!

Establishing relationships

Finally, we were able to identify three restaurants we could try with the whole family. We did, and we did fine. One restaurant was great about saying, "Call ahead and let us know you're coming and we'll be ready with whatever you need!" But there was one that seemed more responsive overall than the rest. And that is where we have established a relationship. We don't eat out often, but we do go in enough that the manager and assistant manager know us, and we can be confident that the cooking staff is using established safety procedures to avoid cross-contamination. We have fun, and the fact of our continuing relationship with the staff enhances that fun. And the most amusing thing? It's a seafood restaurant. Seriously.

There will be failures (relatively speaking)

In this whole process we had one very negative experience. During our process, our son said he'd love it if we could find a safe Japanese sushi restaurant. He loves sushi and can have fish - just not shrimp and crab and lobster. Admittedly this was the most challenging. But I did find a place that was responsive, and when I went in to test it, the manager said, sure, no a problem, ask to see me when you come and I will make sure myself. I was so excited for our son.

So we went. I asked to see the manager when we arrived, just as he requested. And he completely shot us down. I'm busy, he said, come back on a weekday between 2 and 3PM, he said. Which was so not the point of enjoying a meal as a family. For some reason, even after that, we stayed and found things on the menu our son could eat; our server said she'd make sure his items were prepared separately. After a bit, the restaurant was less "busy" and the manager wandered around the restaurant greeting customers - and avoiding eye contact with us. He just did not get it - and that restaurant has lost a ton of potential business.

Stay vigilant - and spread the word

Even if you do all these things in the effort to eat out safely, you still have to be vigilant. Always carry your EpiPen, and always communicate, communicate, communicate. Then recommend, recommend, recommend!

Sadly, there are people who will never "get" the food allergy thing. A food allergy is not something anyone acquires on purpose, though others might act as though you do. With caution and awareness, even the food allergic can enjoy the regular everyday - not special event - of eating out in a restaurant.

For more tips on dealing with food allergies:

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