If you have life threatening allergies, the chances are you’ll have felt fear and anxiety at the thought of eating out, trusting staff and risking a potential reaction to your food allergen. The fear is real and I completely understand. Having struggled with panic attacks and serious anxiety myself, it’s something I take very seriously, and if i eat out I make sure I’m as sure as I can be that the establishment understands allergen catering.
Just another near miss eating out experience
I was attending a regular networking lunch club which meets at Hartwell House in Bucks for dinner and some seriously well structured and focused networking. Hartwell House have always been incredibly helpful with catering for my allergies, and you can imagine, with a large group, you end up with numerous different dietary requirements: vegetarian, vegan, someone on a special diet and me with my allergies!
I remembered to let them know in advance what I couldn’t eat, and on arrival, found a member of staff and let then know who I was and where I was sitting. My meal came out with a special cover, and was the last to arrive, but it looked alarmingly like everyone else’s, with a rich creamy sauce.
“Is this really the right one for me? If I eat dairy I’ll have an anaphylactic attack.” I asked the waitress.
“Yes she replied, it’s definitely the right one.” She replied, and busied herself rushing back to the kitchen for someone else who’s meal wasn’t quite right.
I just wasn’t having that. It just looked too similar, and too creamy. I had a sniff and it was very creamy smelling. When the waitress returned I called her over again.
“Please could you check with the chef again whether this is the right meal for me? I’m really not happy to eat it as it smells creamy.” I asked again. She took the meal and rushed off the kitchen.
She eventually returned with a meal with no sauce, and a sheepish and embarrassed look on her face, apologising profusely that she couldn’t understand how that happened etc. etc. I was a little bit cross, and very relieved that I hadn’t tried to eat the creamy sauce covered meal.
So the lesson is, don’t just believe a waitress, even if you’ve eaten somewhere regularly and they have been very obliging in the past. Trust your instincts and eat with your eyes. Mistakes do happen in busy restaurants so be safe, be careful and always, always check and ask, and ask again if you feel at all uneasy.
I’ve suggested that Hartwell House have a simple labelling system, whereby the meal for the person with a serious allergy is labelled with either their name, or what the allergy is. That way the plates won’t get mixed up along the way quite so easily. They were very apologetic but replied that I must let them know in advance of any allergies – which I did! So something went wrong that day. I am very wary there now, which is a shame as they do usually cater for allergies really well.
I find getting out my EpiPen and making it clear I might die if I eat the wrong thing usually gets waiters and waitresses moving and checking things properly for you. But it’s so annoying having to ask EVERY time you eat out, and having to make a bit of a fuss when you aren’t taken seriously. I just long to be able to stop worrying, order anything on the menu and not have to quiz the staff. For now that isn’t possible, so here are a few things I do that should help keep you safe:
30 top tips for eating out safely with allergies
My top tips for eating out safely are as follows
- PHONE: Always phone in advance and email if too if you can to let the restaurant know about your specific allergies. Make sure you speak to the right person, the manager or chef, and stress how dangerous it could be if you are given the wrong food.
- RESEARCH: Check out online reviews, look for recommendations and check the menu online before going. Many restaurants have an Allergen Menu available.
- VISIT: If you can pop in to run through the menu, even better. If you can do this in person you make yourself more real, as staff have actually met you and can ask you questions face to face. This way you also start to build up a rapport.
- PLAN: If you can go at a time when the restaurant is quiet, do this. Booking at the start of the service means the kitchen is clean and it might be easier and quieter for staff to deal with your request.
- FRIENDS: Let your friends know before the date of the meal that you have allergies and ensure they know where your EpiPen is and how to use it. This way you avoid having to discuss your allergies at the dinner table, which can be very tiresome, and helps ensure a more stress free meal.
- MEDICATION: Always, always make sure you have two adrenaline auto injectors, antihistamines and inhaler with you and don’t be scared to use them.
- MEDICAL JEWELLERY: Part of my armour and prep for eating out with my allergies is to put on my medical bracelet or necklace. It makes me feel more alert, more safe, more vigilant and prepared.
- ALERT: Alert staff when you arrive, and always make sure your waitress understands what you can and can’t eat.
- PREPARE: One friend of mine has asked the restaurant to use her own pan and utensils to avoid cross contamination. A good restaurant won’t mind doing this for you. Take things with you so you don’t miss out, such as your safe milk, dairy free spread or bread if the restaurant can’t provide a safe option, but always check that this OK and ask permission before doing so.
- PRE-COOK: You could even ask them to not only use your pan and utensils, but to prepare your food in advance and just heat it up when you arrive. I’ve done this at an Indian restaurant, not always easy to achieve but gives you much better peace of mind.
- CHEF: If you’re not sure ask to speak to the chef. Most chefs won’t mind at all and will be concerned that you have an enjoyable experience and are not made ill by the food they prepare. Ask him/her to suggest what they think would be safest for you.
- NO SAUCE: I often ask for sauce and dressings to come on the side, and then if I’m not entirely happy with their explanation of ingredients or assertions that it’s OK for me I don’t have to eat it.
- IS IT TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?: Eat with your eyes! Like that creamy sauce, if it doesn’t look like, don’t risk it. If you aren’t sure when food arrives – don’t eat it, send it back and speak to staff.
- EASY ON THE ALCOHOL: Don’t drink too much alcohol, it can speed the allergen through your blood stream, increase the speed of an attack, and you won’t be best able cope if the worst happens and you’re also a bit tipsy.
- DIETARY CARDS: Carry translation cards when abroad – I find even English ones can help in England as staff can take them to the kitchen and have something in writing to show the chef. You can have quite a bold shocking statement written here and hand it politely over to the waitress. Much easier than having to say. “I might die if I eat any dairy whatsoever.” in front of all your fellow diners. It gets the point across quite well. It can also have a list of possible allergens. For instance some people don’t automatically think of all the types of dairy. So the translation card would have the translation for; milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, cream, whey, lactose etc.
- ACT FAST: Notice any itching or tingling, or feelings of being short of breath quickly when eating out – they could indicate you’ve eaten the wrong thing. Act fast and take your EpiPen if you think it might be anaphylaxis. Don’t be embarrassed to do this in a restaurant.
- TAKE PICTURES: This may not be your thing, but it can be really helpful, particularly after an incident or mistake, to be have photos of your meal and what it looked like.
- BE PREPARED: If you’re just out for coffee, have some allergy friendly biscuits or cake in your bag so you don’t have to miss out when your friends all order a piece of cake and there is no allergy free cakes available.
- BRING YOUR OWN: You can also take your own bread or butter, then you won’t feel you’re missing out as most restaurants will not have an alternative for you.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE: Stick to simple options which are easier for the kitchen to get right, and safer for you too.
- BE CLEAR WHAT YOU CAN’T HAVE: Be confident, clear and concise when communicating your allergens. Explain how serious they are and that you carry adrenaline. Explain what you can’t eat very clearly.
- BE CLEAR WHAT YOU CAN HAVE: It can also help to explain what you really like. Often I’ve found a chef will do me something totally different so he and his staff know exactly which meal is safe for me. When planning options with staff doing this can really help the dining experience for all.
- EAT WITH THOSE EYES: Most of all though, stay safe and take care. Use those eyes of yours. They’re very clever at spotting nasty sauces and flaked cheese… If it looks wrong, don’t risk it.
- YOU WON’T STARVE IF YOU MISS A MEAL: Don’t be scared to not eat the food it you don’t trust it. Trust your instincts instead. It could save your life, like mine did in the incident mentioned above.
- WALK AWAY: If you aren’t happy, leave. Don’t be scared to act with your feet. Your safety is more important than eating something out of politeness or staying somewhere where you feel uncomfortable and unhappy.
- LEAVE REVIEWS: If you have a good experience, leave them a good Trip Advisor review, thank staff and make sure they know how grateful you are for their help and attentiveness. Gratitude goes a long way.
- ALWAYS CARRY TWO: I think this should go without saying, but if you are going out to eat, take your medication. It’s no good sitting in your car or safe at home. It is a vital lifeline so always always carry it with you.
- BE NICE: Always be polite, try not to get cross if staff seem to not understand. They may be very busy and not understand what you’re asking. Just be clear and ask to speak to someone else. Also remember to thank staff for every really good experience you have. It’s free to say thank you and will help future diners.
- SHARE ON SOCIAL CHANNELS: If you have a really good meal out, share some love for that great restaurant by sharing on social media channels. If you want them to continue to be successful and be there when you next eat out, support them in this free and easy way.
- ADD TO ALLERGY COMPANIONS WEBSITE: There is a brilliant new website which is collecting a whole database of great eating out places for people with allergies. If you have a great meal out, add it to the Allergy Companions website.
I dream of the day when I can decide to go out at the last minute, choose any restaurant I like, and then from the menu I’ll have a shepherds pie, or a pasta dish with sauce, maybe even risotto, one of my favourites. Sadly it’s a different story for me. Salad with no dressing, or ham and chips, or steak. Good job I’m not vegetarian or vegan as I would really struggle. Pudding is also always disappointing when eating out; no sticky toffee pudding for me with lashings of custard. Just a bowl of fruit please.
Anaphylaxis: The Essential guide
If you are struggling with anxiety and fear about eating out with your allergies, you might be interested in my book Anaphylaxis: The Essential Guide, available on Amazon.
Anaphylaxis has the potential to hijack your everyday life but it is possible to create a positive path forward.
It can be terrifying. It can make people severely ill and in rare cases it can be fatal. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing and swallowing, rashes, vomiting, collapse and loss of consciousness. Every person’s allergic reaction is different and the symptoms can also be different depending on which allergen they come into contact with. They might only suffer a mild reaction at first, but the reactions may become severe over time.
Ruth Holroyd, who is severely allergic to nuts, dairy and other foods, has a lifetime of experience of anaphylaxis. Through research and her first-hand experience she has compiled a self-help guide for people living with the condition, their family and their friends.
In Anaphylaxis: The Essential Guide, you will discover information, help and support to face this frightening condition with confidence. Ruth shows you how to:
- Get a diagnosis swiftly and how to come to terms with it
- Recognise the other factors that can affect the severity of a reaction, including exercise and medication
- Put together an Anaphylaxis Action Plan with day-to-day tips and strategies for staying safe at home and at work, eating out, holidays and dating
- Assess possible treatments, therapies and resources
- Cope with the psychological impact of living with anaphylaxis and severe allergies
- Take action when you’re feeling depressed or anxious, or experiencing panic attacks
- Create a positive and resilient mindset, and reframe the condition to feel less excluded and more in control
What do chefs want to hear?
Finally, it’s important to remember that your chef on the night and all the staff serving you are humans too. They may also be stressed and busy, so be nice, be polite, be clear and be confident. I found this brilliant blog from Kyle Dyne of Equal Eats. His company provide Dietary Cards to use when eating out. Read ‘What allergic diners say and what chefs want to hear’.
I do have a lot of good restaurants around where I live that have been great for me, and generally if you phone in advance and make sure staff know who you are when you arrive you’ll be fine. Have you had a similar experience? Do you have any tips for eating out safely? Remember, always play it safe and if you’re not sure, don’t eat it. Eat with your eyes!
Eleanor Kendall says
I found your article “Eat with your Eyes” very interesting. I too have a dairy allergy and have found eating out very difficult.
Indian restaurants are always very good and I don’t even have to mention it. Wagamama’s don’t use any milk in any of their dishes so they too are brilliant. I hate having to make a fuss and these are the two places where I don’t have to.
Unfortunately I’m vegetarian too which makes life even more difficult. I would like nothing more than to go for a nice pub lunch (macaroni cheese and crusty bread was a favourite) but know that sadly, it’s impossible.
Hi Eleanor. Thanks for the comment. If I was vegetarian as well as all my other allergies I don’t know what I’d eat. Dust! Except I’m allergic to that too… ha ha. I have to be really careful in Indian restaurants because they use nuts and don’t always quite get the cross contamination issues. Watch out for Ghee which Indian restaurants do use. It’s a clarified butter. Naan can also have butter melted on it so please do be careful. Ghee is usually mentioned on the menu if they use it. Generally though Indian, Chinese and Thai are great for avoiding the dairy. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a Wagamama’s so I’ll have to give that a try. Looks like it’s salad and chips for you in the pub. Oh and before I forget, I think Burger King onion rings would be OK for you too. Please do check before trying them but I had them last week and they were certainly dairy free.
Heather @Gluten-Free Cat says
Thank you for pointing me to your website! We truly do need to eat with our eyes! Thankfully, I don’t require an epi pen for my gluten allergy, but I definitely don’t want the days of misery! Thanks for the great tips.
No problem. Your article on catering for people with allergies was great too. People do get terrified of poisoning you but it’s really not so bad if you keep it simple.