Here it comes….Spring Sports season. It’s already infiltrating my days: soccer practices have started, baseball meetings are happening. Planning for this week’s meals yesterday was not as easy as last. I was out of the house 4 out of the last 5 evenings and there will be 5-6 practices thrown in each week. Yet somehow, they keep coming back to me, hungry! Can we even eat out with so many allergy concerns? Do I want to eat out after learning so much about how foods are prepared in fast food establishments?
Eating out for us as a family is difficult, to say the least, so I went in search of some professional advice on handling the eating out situation. While researching, I discovered the FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) website. (If you are looking for lots of great allergy information, I would highly recommend taking a look.) Loaded with tons of information and tips, I wanted to know what they recommend when it comes to eating out with allergies. These were just some of the tips they provided:
At the Restaurant
- Ask to be seated far from the kitchen. This will help you to avoid airborne allergens from cooking and preparing food.
- Talk to everyone. The restaurant manager and wait staff should know about your food allergy. Remind a manager or the head waiter about your allergies before you are seated. Present your chef card and ask that it be shown to the chef.
- Ask what is in your dish and how it’s prepared. Make sure your server understands what you are allergic to, and explain that cross-contact must be avoided. You may want to speak to the manager and the chef, just to be sure. Know what procedures a restaurant should follow to keep your food safe.
- Never be embarrassed if you feel you’re not communicating effectively. It can happen with or without a language barrier. If the wait staff doesn’t seem to understand your situation, always trust your gut and seek out another staff member or manager. Sometimes, the safest choice is to avoid eating, enjoy the company of your friends, and seek out a supermarket after the meal ends.
- Keep it simple. If you have to ask a lot of complicated questions about the items on a menu, ordering more simple fare—like a baked potato or steamed vegetables—may be the safest way to go.
- Avoid fried foods. Both the grill and the frying oil are ripe for cross-contact; it’s best to avoid fried foods unless you know for sure that they are prepared properly.
- Be especially careful when ordering desserts, which are often a source of hidden allergens. Since many restaurants order their desserts from specialty shops, the staff may not be able to provide a complete list of ingredients. If in doubt, wait and have a safe dessert at home.
- If you have a good experience at a restaurant, go back. Reward excellent service and build a relationship.
Is it just me, or does this make anyone else want to never, EVER eat out again??? I appreciate their detailed analysis, truly, and perhaps in a few years once I am a more seasoned “Allergy Mom” I will venture into that uncharted territory. But as of right now, I would rather pack my own meals than deal with all of that! Back to the drawing board….
Scouring the websites of a couple of my previous ‘go-to’ places, this is what I found:
Subway – This has been the only place I have felt safe eating out in the past year. They offer a gluten-free menu and train employees about cross-contamination. The practice between individual establishments, however, varies. One employee at a Subway restaurant actually wiped down the entire production counter, the handles of all of the toasting equipment, switched gloves two times during the process, had someone bring out a new vat of guacamole and got fresh utencils out to make my gluten-free sandwich. I was impressed! Since then, I have seen variations on most of those things, with some just wiping down the counter quickly and changing gloves and utencils. Their allergy and sensitivity information can be found here, so if you are interested, you could probably find some safe alternatives to deal with most any allergy. Bottom line: I like being able to watch my food being made so I am aware of the process, and training employees about cross-contamination is huge for anyone with an allergy.
Jamba Juice – Easily used to replace a meal or a perfect post-game treat, Jamba Juice had become one of our favorite places. But we haven’t been since we have been dealing with this allergy business, so what about their allergens? Reviewing their Smoothies Menu, a few things become apparent. If you stick to the All Fruit or Fruit and Veggie Smoothies, you’re safe (unless your allergy is to a particular fruit or vegetable). Once you venture beyond there, you will start to find lots of soy and dairy in the smoothies. But if you are merely a gluten-free type, like myself, these are a good bet. I found no gluten in any of the fruit smoothies, according to the menu. Bottom line: Fruit and veggies don’t contain additional allergens, in the supermarket or in a smoothie. Stick with simple ingredients and you’ll be fine!
Chipotle – I have never actually been to a Chipotle restaurant, but have heard great things about their devotion to using fresh, local ingredients. They call it “Food with Integrity“. I am all for it and would encourage anyone to eat at their establishment to support them, but what about allergens in their ingredients? Well, since they use fresh vegetables, they are allergen-free. The only dairy containing items are the sour cream and cheese, which are obvious. The tricky one for us is the soybean allergy. It seems that most of their ingredients contain highly refined soybean oil, which they say is excluded as a major food allergen. As for us, I will have to ask our dr. if she thinks that is okay to have once in awhile. Bottom line: It seems like a good option for most anyone, if you like delicious, fresh Mexican food! I will look into it with our dr.
Applebee’s – My husband LOVES Applebee’s. We have never been big on eating out, but that used to be an easy place to take kids. On the Applebee’s website, they have a detailed list of eight common allergens plus gluten, provided by their food suppliers. If you are interested in eating their, you could easily go directly to the page of your allergen and find something that doesn’t contain it. However, READ the FINE PRINT!!! “Due to (shared cooking and preparation surfaces, including using common fryer oil), we are unable to guarantee that any menu item can be completely free of allergens.” Bottom line: Once you enter the world of a restaurant kitchen with lots of ingredients, you have less control over which allergens your food will come into contact with. DO NOT eat anything fried in a restaurant if you have an allergy. I have worked in several restaurants and the oil is used for a long time. Lots of cross contamination happens there!
Overall, I am happy to know that we have a few options, in case we need to eat out. I will continue to do my best to pack meals and snacks for events and trips, but sometimes, I’m just tired. I will relish having someone else make a meal for me, for a change!