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Managing Food Allergies in Restaurants

In recent years restaurants on the whole have become more aware of food allergies, and more accommodating of customers’ needs in this area. That’s certainly good news if you suffer from food allergies, but you still need to do your homework and take the primary role in protecting yourself.

The first thing to do is educate yourself as much as possible about your own food allergies. Know what you are allergic to, how severely, what the consequences are of ingesting it, etc. Consult relevant books and websites to determine which common dishes tend to have as an ingredient something to which you are allergic. Obviously that won’t cover everything, since different restaurants prepare dishes differently, and one restaurant might prepare a dish with eggs that usually is prepared without eggs, while another restaurant might prepare a dish without eggs that is usually prepared with eggs. But it’s a first step.

If you’ll be eating at a chain restaurant, you may be able to get all the information you need in advance. It is fairly common now for restaurant chains to list all the ingredient and nutritional information for all their menu items on their website.

More likely, though, you’ll go to a restaurant where that level of information is not available in advance. So you’ll have to make careful choices, which in part means knowing what questions to ask.

Speaking up and discussing your food allergies with your server (or the manager, or the cook) could be the difference between an enjoyable meal and the discomfort of a bad allergic reaction.

If there is a menu item you are unsure of, don’t just ask if it contains the ingredient to which you are allergic. You’ll want to go beyond that and ask about what is spread on it, sprinkled on it, accompanies it, etc.

Furthermore, due to issues of cross-contamination, you need to know if in its preparation your meal will come into contact with completely different meals. If you have a severe enough allergy, then you might react even to the trace amounts of the allergen that would be present if your meal is cooked on the same grill or in the same deep fryer as something to which you’re allergic.

It’s important when you make your inquiries not just to listen to the substance of the responses, but the tone as well. Be aware if the person speaking to you is confident of what they’re saying and understands the gravity of food allergies enough to take this very seriously, or is a minimum wage teenage cook shrugging his way through your inquiries, not really caring or knowing what he’s talking about.

If your gut tells you these people are guessing, or surely this item has the allergen in question even if they’re saying otherwise, don’t take any chances. Order something else or go to a different restaurant entirely.

As long as you’re prudent, you should be able to avoid any food allergy problems in restaurants. But as a fallback just in case, it’s a good idea to always carry with you an antihistamine or whatever allergy treatment your doctor recommends.