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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Schultz

From Awkward to Amazing: Navigating Food Allergies at Restaurants with Ease

Don’t you wish you could skip the awkwardness of fumbling through conversations at restaurants about your food allergies and still eat out safely?


The unknowns of how the restaurant staff will respond can make anyone uncomfortable. Without practice and a system that you know works, it can feel impossible to relax and enjoy a safe meal.


It can even feel like you’re speaking two different languages. Getting on the same page takes the right combination of patience, tolerance and willingness to work together as a team. That’s a tall order to fill when you're already hangry and working with an inexperienced server.


Whether you’re a foodie who can pronounce ‘au jus’ correctly or a newbie who is looking to enjoy a restaurant with friends, we’ve got you covered.


Here are some foodie-approved pro tips on how to finesse ordering confidently at a restaurant when you manage those unsettling food allergies.



1. QUICK RESEARCH AHEAD OF TIME


Unless a restaurant is brand new, most places will have a track record online with past customer reviews and ratings. Larger restaurant chains often also include allergen menus online that let you scan options in advance.


To be sure of your safety, it’s always smart to call the restaurant outside of busy hours to vet a few key questions. This total process can take under five minutes if you're prepared. Ask for a general manager, get their name, and find out:

  1. Do they have experience making accommodations for food allergies?

  2. Will the chef share the ingredients of a meal if asked?

  3. How do they ensure no cross-contact of allergens? (separate cutting board / utensils?)

  4. Can you speak directly to the chef when you arrive to discuss the safety of specific menu choices? What's their name?

Pro Tip: Check Google Maps for non-peak times based on average visitors. You’ll get the most attentive care from a general manager or chef when it’s less busy.




2. ATTITUDE CAN MAKE OR BREAK THE EXPERIENCE


Start with ‘can-do’ mindset. If there are ingredients on the menu you can eat, then there are ways to cook the food safely for you to enjoy. It’s natural to be nervous or scared, but leading with fear in your voice might invite a defensive and resistant response. Your goal is to gain alignment to work on the shared goal of safety.


If you lead in a direct and compassionate way, chances are that your humanity will be seen and the staff will be extra motivated to keep you safe.



3. NARROW DOWN YOUR CHOICES


Menus can be overwhelming, but don't let too much choice add to the overwhelm. Pick 2 or 3 meals that appear safe and make sure to bring your allergy card as a visual aide for the restaurant staff. Narrowing down the menu helps guide the conversation towards specific safety questions. You help shift the focus from general worries to key concerns that can be addressed. This task-based approach allows for everyone to align on a shared goal of keeping you safe.



4. ASK FOR THE CHEF OR MANAGER


Restaurant servers have a variety of experience levels when it comes to understanding food allergies. Opt to speak to the most experienced staff member where possible. Asking for a chef or general manager at the host stand is a great way to ensure safety from the start (without drawing attention at the table if that is a concern for you). Even if your table gets seated right away, share that you are more comfortable talking one-to-one with the chef and offer to meet them at the kitchen door to save time from walking to the table. This was a great tip shared by Kayla King, a foodie with celiac disease who we interviewed on a recent podcast (scroll to bottom of page for link).


Image generated from Canva Pro AI


When you communicate with the appropriate restaurant staff about your allergies, it's important to guide the discussion without being aggressive. This script helps narrow down the important elements of safety without being open-ended and passive.



5. ORDER LIKE A PRO


Direct communication with compassion is possible. You can be assertive without being rude. When you open with the facts and disarm the fear immediately, shows compassion and places the focus on teamwork and a task, with a shared goal of safety as the outcome.


Here is a helpful script for communicating clearly to restaurant staff about food allergies.


WHAT TO SAY:

  1. “Here are my allergens: x, y, z.”

  2. “I’ve looked at the menu and these are the 2-3 choices I’m interested in.”

  3. “I’m looking forward to a nice meal with friends and realize it’s extra work for you and your staff to keep me safe. I appreciate you working with me.

  4. “Can you please check that these ingredients are safe based on my allergens?”

  5. “To avoid cross-contact, are you able to cook the food in this way?” (in an oven, on tinfoil, in a separate pan)

  6. “Here is an allergen card for your staff that lists the foods to avoid. You can bring it back to me with the bill at the end of the meal.”


Here’s how it sounds in a conversation:


“I have a severe allergy to [peanuts, sesame and eggs], and any slight cross-contact with these allergens can make me very sick. I have narrowed down the menu to two items that I am hoping are safe. I’m hoping to enjoy a nice meal with my friends and appreciate how hard you're already working. Can you please check these two meals to see if they are safe and also learn how they are prepared (to avoid cross-contact of allergens)? I have a food allergen card that lists the ingredients to avoid. You can keep this until the end of the meal and I’ll get it with the bill at the end.”


WHAT THE STAFF HEARS:

  1. I need to avoid these specific list of food allergens in the customer's meal.

  2. Instead of worrying about the entire menu, I just need to check on two menu items to make sure the ingredients don't contain the allergens.

  3. I feel appreciated as the customer acknowledges I am already working hard.

  4. I have a specific task to follow up on and it's not vague.

  5. I can follow directions on how best to cook the meal safely to avoid accidental cross-contact.

  6. The chef card helps me have a visual aide to double check ingredients.


WHAT NOT TO SAY:


“I have food allergies to peanuts, sesame and eggs. Can you help me find a safe meal I can eat on the menu? What do you recommend? You've dealt with other customers who have food allergies before, right?"

Without clear guardrails and no alignment on the specific food allergens, menu choices, or cross-contact kitchen safety practices, this script opens up risks and creates a lot of room for errors. Don’t assume knowledge and experience are there. It’s always best to align on the facts and review the steps above from the detailed script above to cover all your bases.



6. THINK AND SPEAK LIKE A RESTAURANT


Remember to use language and terms that the kitchen staff will understand. Do not ask if they have practices in place to avoid cross-contamination. They’ll automatically say yes because in their minds, you are referring to their practices of killing food-borne illnesses with high heat. High heat does not destroy all food allergen proteins, however, which is why it is important to ask about their cross-contact practices.


Also if you cannot eat gluten, help clarify with "I cannot have anything with wheat, barley, or rye." This will help the staff understand specifics and ensure that your meal is safe to eat.



7. REMEMBER, SKILLS TAKE PRACTICE


If you have a fear of eating out safely and speaking up about your food allergies, you’re not alone. Learning new skills takes time and practice. These conversations might sound clunky at first as they push you outside your comfort zone. It feels like a lot of work initially. Once you get your system in place, and practice a few times, you will find it easier to get past the fear, allowing you to socialize with your peers and enjoy a delicious meal too.


Don't be afraid to ask questions or send your meal back if you're not comfortable with it. Remember, the restaurant wants you to have a great dining experience, and they're there to help.

Our 11-year-old son practices speaking up for himself after declaring his allergens (he approved me sharing publicly).
 

Eating out with food allergies doesn't have to be a stressful experience from end-to-end. Yes it can mean extra preparation and diligence in the beginning, but following a process helps greatly reduce the margins of error along the way.


With clear and informed communication going both ways, the dining experience can remain pleasant and positive for all. So, go ahead and make those dinner reservations!



Reminders for Individuals with Food Allergies:

  • Always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors with you and make sure that your dining companions know how to use it in case of an emergency.

  • Be upfront and honest with the staff about your food allergies. Remember that they want you to have a safe and enjoyable dining experience.

  • Call the restaurant ahead of time if possible. Ask for the chef or general manager (instead of the server) when you arrive to align on safe choices. Narrow down the menu selection to 2-3 meals to focus specific questions around. Ask to see ingredients of meals for added safety.

  • Bring a wallet sized food allergy card to the restaurant and hand it to the chef, manager and/or server when discussing your meal choices. Ask that you have it returned with the bill at the end of the meal. Equal Eats provides custom, printable cards and Allergy Force has a digital chef card for you to share.

  • Be patient and understanding. Preparing allergy-safe meals takes extra time and effort, so it may take a bit longer for your food to arrive.


Reminders for Restaurants:


Food allergies can be life-threatening, and dining out can be an anxious experience for individuals with allergies. Most people are trying to enjoy a social outing and are not always able to pick the restaurant themselves. Your customers rely on the restaurant staff to provide a safe dining experience at your establishment. It is your responsibility to ensure that your staff is informed on safety best practices.

  • Train your staff to handle food allergies properly. Ensure that they understand the severity of allergies and the importance of preventing cross-contact. ServSafe, AllerTrain® and FareCheck provide training and credentials to show customers your staff has been trained on food allergen safety.

  • Understand all potential sources of cross-contact where accidental allergen exposure may occur. Knives, cutting boards, pots, pans, fryers, buffets, dish scrubs, can openers and utensils are all potential culprits for spreading microscopic food allergens that might not be visible to the eye.

  • Offer allergy-friendly options on your menu and a note if modifications can be made. If this information is available on your menu and website, it will be easier for individuals with allergies to make informed choices ahead of time.

  • Take food allergies seriously. Allergy-related deaths are preventable, so it's crucial to take all precautions to ensure that your customers with allergies can dine safely at your restaurant.


A Special Shoutout to this Foodie!


Many of these lessons have been shared only after years of trial and error, practice, fumbles and determining what best practices stand the test of time. Our family has been navigating food allergies at restaurants for over a decade.


Similarly, our foodie friend, Kayla King, navigates a gluten-free lifestyle to safely manage her celiac disease. Her health condition inspired her to become a nutrition coach and also spend time as a restaurant manager. Her love of travel and food means that she has a lot of experience eating out at restaurants.


Kayla now uses her knowledge to empower others to eat out through her app MyMeal. MyMeal helps people with food allergies and restrictions find safe restaurants and menu items to eat. Her vision is transparent eating for all and she loves to educate others on how to use knowledge as power.


You can listen to the podcast "Think Like a Restaurant" on feedyourcan.com/podcast to hear more about Kayla's journey and pro tips.


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