Eating out with allergies: the ‘rules’

IMG_1611THERE I WAS, poised to press ‘publish’ on my next post: our top 10 allergy friendly places to eat from 2014. Finding safe spots is never easy, but over the past year we’ve clocked up a few favourites.

Then I realised I should probably preface this post with The Rules. They are the steps we take, and the key things we consider, whenever we eat out. I’m sure others will have more to add, but this is simply how we go about things. Here goes:

* I always ring and email in advance to check the manager and chef are aware, and in some cases we pre-order our meal. It starts as a sussing-out call – do they sound as if they know what they’re doing? If not, forget it. If they do, I’ll go into greater detail, stress that we need the food to be prepped free from cross-contamination, and find out what dishes are likely to be safe for Sidney to eat. I’ll usually summarise the allergies and what we’ve mutually agreed in an email before our booking date. If nothing else, it’s only fair to give a place advance warning where possible and to explain fully what we’re after.

Check every ingredient – however obvious

* I go through every ingredient – flour, oil, gravy stock, even cheese – to ensure none is a ‘may contain’ product and we won’t unwittingly be fed, for instance, Grana Padano (contains egg) instead of Parmesan. The new EU regulations, requiring catering businesses to inform customers of the ‘Big 14’ allergens in their dishes, is a help, but only the start of a longer conversation to be had. It doesn’t require anyone to reveal risks of cross contamination, or even to guard against cross contamination, and, of course, if you’re dealing with an allergy outside the top 14 you’ll have more questions to ask.

* Upon arrival I always reiterate the ‘can you prep Sidney’s meal without cross contamination?’ spiel and make sure whoever is serving us is fully briefed.

* I prefer it if the manager on duty serves us directly and if we can at some point – either in advance or on arrival – have a conversation with the chef, too.

Even ‘safe’ chains need reminding

* If you find a safe chain, don’t automatically assume every branch is equally sussed – you’ll have to go through the same rigmarole in every branch, as standards can vary enormously.

* Similarly, if you find a safe place to eat, remind them of your needs every time you visit. Staff change, recipes change: you can never be complacent.

We always go for off-peak times – a midday lunch, for example, or a 5pm tea. Easy when the kids are small and it fits their routine, but it’s probably always best to aim for the quieter periods where possible: the start of a lunch or evening service is a good slot.

Keep small hands busy

* Factor in a longer wait as allergy friendly food will often have to be prepped from scratch. I take sticker books. That may not work when he’s 15.

* Try to help a restaurant by spelling out what you can have, not just what you can’t. We’ve found some brilliantly accommodating places but eating out with allergies is about communication between you and the chef/manager. If meat and two veg is generally a safe option, or a simple tomato pasta dish, let them know so they can think up something that works for their kitchen. Make it easier for them – it’s not their job to guess what we need.

* Don’t feel pressurised into eating out. This one’s a biggie: it took me until Sidney was three to take the plunge. I needed to get to a stage where I was feeling more confident about managing Sidney’s allergies, and had a grip on exactly which foods he was allergic to. Other allergy parents can sometimes be a bit (well-meaningly) pushy about eating out – they do it, and are understandably keen to encourage others to do it, too,  but it has to be a step taken when you feel the time is right. Personally, I think it’s important to get there at some point: I wanted us as a family to be able to go out to eat, for Sidney to enjoy great food (I’m an OK cook but there’s a limit to my culinary capabilities), have a future with a full social life and, vitally, to hear us asking all the questions he will need to ask, and taking all the precautions he will need to take, as he gets older. I started out tentatively at one or two places on the recommendations of a fellow allergy Mum, whose opinion I trusted, and built my confidence from there.

Decide whether nuts are a no-no

* Draw your own parameters. For me, the existence of nuts or eggs on a restaurant menu does not necessarily signify an automatic no-no. There’s been a lot of concern recently within the allergy community over Pizza Express’s decision to serve loose nuts. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I will always ask how a restaurant manages cross contamination, and specifically in relation to dishes that give cause for concern. But don’t be swayed by others’ opinions – stay within your personal comfort zone. Ask all the right questions and expect all the right answers, otherwise…

* …my absolute rule of thumb is: if I’ve got any doubts, I don’t do it.

Expect fruit for dessert

Other than all of that, puddings are generally fruit salad but that’s fine by me. Bread and breadsticks are usually a no-no (risk of cross contamination with nuts and sesame) so I bring some if I think they might be asked for. And if the rest of us might want to order dessert I bring a safe cake or chocolate treat for Sidney to have, too.

If that bumper list doesn’t make it obvious, going out for a meal these days is far from spontaneous. And if, like me, you favour skulking anonymously into a restaurant to hunker down without fuss, get used to never being able to do this ever again. You might as well amble in with egg cups in place of your bazinkas and a small entourage of limping otters for all the anonymity you’ll retain when eating out with allergies.

But it’s worth it.

Coming up next: Top 10 allergy friendly places to eat out 

2 thoughts on “Eating out with allergies: the ‘rules’

  1. mark

    We went to Wagamama’s last week (in Stratford, London), and were impressed to find that the branch had a designated ‘allergy waiter’ who served anybody that came in and declared an allergy. He took great care and insisted on double checking every dish even after we’d checked it ourselves.

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