How to Actually Enjoy Eating at a Restaurant When You Have a Food Allergy

A food allergy doesn't have to keep you from going out to eat. Follow these simple steps for a stress-free restaurant adventure.

Group Of Young Friends Enjoying Meal In Outdoor RestaurantPhoto: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

Ordering meals at restaurants usually triggers PTSD for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love restaurants. Specifically, I love restaurant menus—they are my favorite works of non-fiction. Dealing with my food allergy is what stresses me out. I’m a vegetarian who has a severe seafood allergy. (I don’t mean just shellfish, I mean all fish!) My husband, who typically shares my restaurant adventures, is lactose-intolerant. The stress that I feel almost makes me want to avoid restaurants altogether. And I can only imagine that it stresses out our servers as well.

After over two decades of ordering in restaurants all over the world, we’ve figured out some strategies to help lessen our stress, both before we go and while we’re there.

Before You Go

Pick the Right Restaurant

Some cuisines are naturally risky for certain food allergies. Asian restaurants are especially hard for me—lots of Asian dishes contain fish sauce. My husband, however, loves Asian restaurants since most Asian cuisines use very little dairy. Large chains like Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee’s use standardized recipes in all of their restaurants, and they usually have detailed allergy information on hand. And some independently owned local restaurants may be easy to navigate as they may be closer to their ingredient sources.

Call Ahead

I’ve found that it’s smart to inform a restaurant of my food allergy when I call and make a reservation. This will alert the kitchen staff and give them enough notice to be prepared to respect any food allergy.

Know Your Triggers

Ingredients that cause food allergies can be well-hidden in recipes. Even the most informed waiter or cook may not know if a dish might trigger an allergic reaction. I visited one large chain restaurant not long after I was diagnosed with my fish allergy. Even after I was really clear about my needs, I still got sick with a minor reaction. After some Hardy Boy-level detective work, we figured out that my dish was seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, which, as it turns out, is made with anchovies. It helps to know specifically what to avoid.

Be Prepared

If you have a food allergy that can cause serious health problems, know what signs to look for and what to do if you have a reaction. If you have a food allergy that can cause anaphylaxis (a full-body allergic reaction in which your airway tightens), carry an EpiPen and know how to use it.

When You’re at the Restaurant

Communicate

When you arrive at the restaurant, inform the host or hostess of your allergies. If you made a reservation in advance, just kindly remind them that you explained your needs when you called. When your server greets your table, discuss your allergies and don’t hesitate to be clear about the potential risks. Your server will let the kitchen staff know and ask questions.

Don’t Be Ashamed

Having a food allergy or sensitivity (such as a gluten intolerance) is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. In fact, it’s pretty common. Just speak with confidence and restaurants will most likely be happy to accommodate your needs.

Navigate the Menu

Most chain restaurants add allergy information to their menus. Look for a symbol key or ask your server for information. Chain restaurants where you order at a counter (say, Panera Bread) will often have food allergy information available as handouts or through ordering terminals.

Investigate Your Food

If your dish arrives and you think it may have peanuts, shellfish, dairy or another trigger, get your server’s attention and ask questions. If you suspect your food may include something that may cause a reaction, politely send it back.

Don’t Risk It

If you have a serious food allergy and you don’t trust the food you’ve been served at a restaurant, simply don’t eat it. It isn’t worth the risk.

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