Dining Out with Kids Who Have Food Allergies

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For the millions of families who have children with food allergies and intolerances, eating out often can be frustrating and stressful. Moms and Dads hope all restaurants will cater to food-allergic kids, but some restaurants are far more accommodating than others. And, while a growing number of restaurants have extensive food-allergy protocols in place (e.g., educating their staff about food allergies and procedures, avoiding cross-contamination and sharing detailed information about the ingredients in each dish), many eateries are still unable, or unwilling, to prepare meals without a diner’s allergy triggers, such as nuts, dairy, eggs, gluten, shellfish and more.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a completely allergy-safe restaurant. Parents still need to take 100 percent responsibility for the safety of their children. But, over the past year, AllergyEats — a free, peer-based online resource that lists more than 600,000 restaurants nationwide — has significantly improved the way food allergic and gluten-intolerant individuals find allergy-friendly restaurants. The site helps parents do some homework in advance, like checking menus and allergen information on restaurants’ websites.

Families also should try to dine at off-peak hours, when restaurant staff is less harried and better able to take the proper precautions with a special order. Once you arrive at the restaurant, inform the host/hostess and server about your child’s food allergies. Be very clear, but polite. If you do not feel completely confident after speaking with the server, ask to talk to the manager and/or chef.  Most important, if after speaking to the restaurant staff, you don’t feel comfortable, leave and find another restaurant.

Here are some questions to ask:

• What protocols do you have in place to serve food-allergic individuals?

• Which items on your menu are not safe, given my child’s specific food allergies?

• How will his/her allergies communicated to the kitchen and other staff?

• How is the kitchen set up to prevent cross-contamination?  Is separate equipment used to prepare orders?

• Can I see the list of ingredients for a given menu item?

When your orders arrive at your table, politely ask the server if he or she is certain your child’s food is safe and if there was any chance of cross-contamination. Stop and look carefully at the food to see if any of your child’s offending allergens are present (grated cheese, nuts, etc.). This may sound obvious, but I have found that some restaurants follow all the “rules” to accommodate a food allergy and then mistakenly do something as obvious as grating cheese on top of a dairy-allergic diner’s salad.

If the restaurant answered all of your questions and accommodated your special requests, be sure to thank them, leave a generous tip and let them know you’ll return thanks to your positive experience.

Whether your experience was positive or negative — or somewhere in between — do the food allergy community a great service by rating the restaurant on www.allergyeats.com.  Rating a restaurant is simple and quick (it takes less than a minute) and helps other families determine which restaurants to visit, based on the ratings and feedback.

Paul Antico is the father of three food-allergic children and the founder of AllergyEats, the fastest growing source for finding allergy-friendly restaurants.

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