Q: Russ – I understand the extent of what restaurants and easy recipes I can make and enjoy, but how can I keep from compromising my dairy-free habits with the dairy-needs of a girl on a date? In other words, how can I dine dairy-free while she eats with dairy?
A: Alisa – In the early stages of a relationship, friendship, or even when you are trying to break your family into the idea of your special diet, most people don’t want to make waves. Those “first” moments are awkward enough without throwing wrenches in about what you can and can’t eat. Plus, you may not want to inconvenience your dining companion’s food choices. To avoid compromising my own health while ensuring that everyone gets to enjoy what they want, these are the general rules I follow when dining with others:
1) Suggest a restaurant you are familiar and comfortable with. What is most important is the company and conversation, but good food doesn’t hurt either. Choose a reliable place where you know the food is good and you have pre-selected options to choose from. If you have several “go-to” places, offer them up to your dining companion to give her a choice and to get some insight into her likes and dislikes.
2) Contact the restaurant in advance. If your dining companion picks the spot, and you haven’t been there, look the restaurant up online to see if they have a menu up (most do). Then call or email to find out which dishes are dairy-free (note other allergens too if they are a concern for you). I do this all the time. When we arrive, I open the menu, glance at it along with everyone else, but no one ever knows that I have already selected my meal. When the waitress arrives, I simply order and smile.
When you contact the restaurant, be sure to be clear about the reason you are asking and what dairy-free is. Let them know it includes butter (many restaurants don’t consider this dairy), but that eggs are okay (yet servers often think eggs are dairy – of course, if you are allergic to eggs, note that). Because cross-contamination is not a major concern for me, I always make this clear to the restaurant. Some may panic if you just say “allergy” assuming it is a life-threatening reaction. This is good, since life-threatening reactions are a real and scary thing, but if your reactions aren’t that extreme and you can handle it if a cheddar shred gets tangled in your minestrone, make it clear that you are looking for foods made without dairy specifically. If you are concerned about cross-contamination, then ask about the processes.
You will be surprised how many restaurants are helpful. The most trouble I have is with chain restaurants, but many of those have allergen charts online.
3) Don’t be afraid to let them know you have a food allergy or intolerance. While you don’t want to inconvenience them, being straight forward and in control (asking questions when you need to) will put your companion at ease. If you are confident in handling your own diet, then they won’t feel obligated to do it for you. They can assume you will speak up if there is a problem, which you should.
4) Show them what you eat. My husband can eat dairy (he is not intolerant or allergic), but he chooses to live dairy-free. He feels better, and he finds the flavors and foods in our diet very satisfying. He doesn’t miss it. Cook them some of your favorite meals, and perhaps some where dairy just doesn’t belong (cheese on Pad Thai? Um, I think not). Not everything they eat must contain dairy, and surely they will appreciate good food. When we throw parties, everything on the table is dairy-free, while none of my guests ever are, but I am never left with a crumb and I always receive raves, repeat guests, and numerous requests to bring dishes to parties.
5) Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and give options. Sometimes you just end up at a restaurant. There isn’t always time to plan. Scan the menu to find a handful of menu items that look like they could be dairy-free. Then pick out those that interest you. Once you have narrowed it down, ask the server about those dishes specifically. Asking about specific dishes is much less overwhelming to the staff than simply saying “I’m dairy-free, what can I eat here.” Do some of the work for them.
6) Sharing meals is still possible. If your date wants to split a meal, let her know the options you have. If they still want some dairy, order it on the side. For example, when I go out with some of my girlfriends for appetizers there often aren’t numerous options to choose from. But I pick an item that can be customized to my needs (ie sliders sans cheese) and we get a partial order with cheese, a partial order without. I have even split a pizza that had cheese on one side, more of the other toppings on the other. Most restaurants are happy to oblige. Also, if they really want to eat “Dutch” then pick a restaurant that tends to have more dairy-free options, like Chinese or Japanese.
7) Make versatile meals. Cook a base dish and serve sides of dairy along with it for dressing. Chili with avocado for you and sour cream for her. Italian dishes with parmesan for sprinkling. Roasted or grilled meat with vegetables and a dish of butter on the side for topping. Baked potatoes with assorted “fixins,” some dairy-free, some not. You could even go so far as to make two separate sauces for a dish, but surely once they try yours, they will want it anyway.
8) If cohabitation ensues, make sure you know your personal limits. If you can have dairy in the house without temptation or fear of cross-contamination issues, then let your food cohabitate too. If this will be a problem, then suggest that at-home is the dairy-free zone. Offer to cook the meals at first to make the transition easier. And of course, when they are out, they can splurge away. This is a common technique that I have heard in many food allergy households.
To note, if you have severe or life-threatening food allergies, avoiding inconvenience can be near impossible. I highly suggest that you disclose your food allergy to your dining companion and if possible, stick with my first tip, and dine at a restaurant you are already comfortable and familiar with. Juggling the stress of a new venue along with getting to know someone can cause slip-ups. If you can’t select a place you already know, contact the restaurant before arrival (chefs are usually available but not too busy at around 4pm for the dinner hour) and make sure your needs can be accommodated. For in-home dining, take the reins and cook in your own “safe” kitchen.
It is natural when you have a special diet to not want to put others out. Making efforts to not inconvenience others is always a nice gesture, and helpful in not overwhelming new friends and potential significant others. But when they return the gesture by trying to learn more about your diet and how to cook for it, welcome it.
For more tips on social situations, see Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.