Expert Tips for Dining Out With Food Allergies
“I would love to live like a hermit and never eat or socialize again because of food allergies/sensitivities.” – Said no one, ever.
Know Before You Go
Always, always, always review the menu before you dine out. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Even if it is your favorite restaurant of all time and you eat there often, it is still in your best interest to glance at the menu before you arrive. The food industry is constantly evolving and chefs are working harder than ever to stay on top of the latest trends all while supporting local farmers. What does this mean for you? Menu items and their key ingredients often change as a result.
It is even more important to preview the menu before dining if you are unfamiliar with the restaurant. If you are gluten intolerant, the last thing you will want to do is walk into an Italian restaurant without gluten-free options. Or, if soy is your biggest trigger, Asian Cuisine cuisine can be a challenge. To make things easier when looking at menus, you could also try one of the expanding options of websites and apps available to help such as findmeglutenfree.com.
Showing genuine appreciation for their staff’s efforts will pay off when making requests to accommodate food allergies or food sensitivities. Plus, these issues are more prevalent than ever before. So, what once seemed like an embarrassing and rare diagnosis is now a commonplace.
Pick and Choose Wisely
My favorite piece of advice: be ready and willing to pick and choose items off of the menu. Every single week of my life I hear this line, “Well, I can’t eat anywhere because each dish on the menu has at least one of the top 8 allergens in it.” Yes, you certainly won’t be eating anywhere if that is your mindset! A pile of lint and a side of ice cubes is about all you are going to get if you don’t learn how to pick and choose menu items.
Trust me, just about every restaurant on the planet has some form of vegetable, protein, and fat to offer you. If they didn’t, how could they call themselves a restaurant?
Just because a menu does not have allergen-free foods listed all in one meal does not mean that the kitchen staff cannot piece together a meal for you upon request. Yes, I realize some kitchens out there still cannot accommodate those who are severely allergic. But, this is not as much of an issue as it used to be.
Everything seems to be covered in cheese and or corn on most menus at Mexican restaurants. Fine! Ask your server for a bed of lettuce topped with beans, rice, salsa, guac, sautéed veggies and your favorite protein. You may notice most meals at your favorite steakhouse are laced with butter and wheat as well. No big deal. Ask for grilled chicken or fish drizzled in olive oil with a side of roasted veggies and a plain baked potato. Once you start to feel more comfortable asking for what you need, your social life and overall dining experience will improve.
I work with many executives and high-level athletes who absolutely do not feel comfortable telling their server that they have specific dietary requests. Especially when surrounded by colleagues or teammates, they prefer to not make a fuss. I completely understand. In fact, in some situations, I even feel a little self-conscious making unique requests so I do not blame them or you, one bit.
The best way to avoid this situation is to call the restaurant ahead of time (maybe even several days in advance). When you reach out to them, inquire if they are familiar with your food allergy or sensitivity and able to prepare specific menu items safely. This is critical for those of you who are truly allergic or highly sensitive to certain foods.
A food that is normally free of allergens at the grocery store, may not be completely allergen-free at a restaurant. For example, potatoes are naturally an allergen-free food, however, if that potato is chopped and sautéed in corn or peanut oil at a restaurant, we have a problem. Salad dressings at restaurants often contain some form of soy as a binding agent, milk powder can be found in a sauce that does not appear creamy, and so on and so forth. Calling ahead will allow you to order confidently without experiencing contamination and those dining with you will not even think twice.
Busy is not Always Better
One of my current athletes has a theory that the freshest food in a restaurant is always served at peak meal times because of the high turn over rate. I’m sure in certain situations that may be the case but not all. Many restaurants today spend several days preparing fresh food for their customers so that even at peak service time, they are able to provide awesome quality.
Regardless, I always tell my athletes with food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances to AVOID dining out at peak meal times. During peak hours, the kitchen staff is typically scrambling to complete orders on time and when scrambling is at an all-time high, your chances of receiving allergen-free food is typically at an all-time low. Trust me, if you can help it, it’s not worth the risk.
You may also want to consider calling ahead to find out when your favorite establishment experiences “rush hour” as this tends to vary. For example, family friendly restaurants usually have an influx of customers between 4:30 and 6:30 pm for dinner vs. a high-end steakhouse may experience their largest batch of customers dining between 7:00 and 9:00 pm.
Hopefully, after reading this article you now see that dining out with food allergies isn’t as challenging as we sometimes make it out to be. Do you have any tips for navigating the restaurant world with food allergies or food sensitivities? Please share your comments below!