This guest post on Allergy-Friendly Restaurants is by our good friend Paul Antico of AllergyEats.
We’re a sports family. I love hockey – watching it and playing it – and my kids are following in my footsteps. They’re also heavily involved in soccer, and between my multiple kids and their various sports, our fall schedule is busy and complicated. We’re not alone, of course. Millions of families nationwide are spending significant time on the road, traveling to games, meets, practices and tournaments. The complex schedules and logistics can be overwhelming for anyone, but families with food allergies face an additional stress – finding restaurants that can accommodate their special dietary restrictions.
As the father of three food-allergic children, I know this stress all too well. It’s not easy or fun trying to find accommodating allergy-friendly restaurants in a hurry – especially in an unfamiliar area. The situation is made even worse when my kids are tired and hungry after a long day of playing sports. In the past, I’ve visited up to a dozen different restaurants in a night, looking for a place that can prepare a meal without dairy, egg, peanuts, tree nuts and my kids’ other “trigger foods.”
Since we spend so much time traveling during soccer and hockey season each fall, however, we don’t have a choice but to face this stress and eat at restaurants on the road. Yet, as anyone in the food allergy community can attest, it’s not always practical to stop at a random restaurant and expect them to be able to accommodate our special dietary needs and multiple food allergies.
So based on my family’s experiences spending considerable time traveling to kids’ soccer and hockey games, I would offer the following advice:
- Do your homework in advance. With the internet, it is easier than ever to find menus and allergen information in advance. Another great use of the web is to see what other allergy-free diners thought of a restaurant. I launched AllergyEats more than two years ago to be a valuable resource for the food allergy community, bringing together reviews and menus.
- Ask questions. I’ve taken my son, who is allergic to peanuts, to various restaurants and asked if the French fries are cooked in peanut oil. I often get blank stares or restaurant staffers just guessing at the answer to my question. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s far more helpful to ask open-ended questions (“What kind of oil do you use to cook the French fries?”) because if a server doesn’t know the answer, they’re more likely to check – rather than guess. Ask restaurant staff about ingredient lists, how food is prepared and special protocols to prevent cross-contamination. The restaurant staff should provide confident answers to all of your questions. If you’re not comfortable with their responses, leave and find another restaurant.
- Encourage team spirit. Ask the coaches and other parents to help your child feel included in the team’s experiences. If the team is going out for pizza after a game, use AllergyEats to find a place that offers dairy-free options or gluten-free crust, allowing your food-allergic child to participate in this shared experience.
- Be prepared. Even the most conscientious allergy-friendly restaurants can make mistakes. Always carry your child’s Epi-Pen, Benadryl or other allergy medications. If your child is traveling with their coach or another parent, be absolutely sure they know the signs of an allergic reaction, how and when to administer the medicine, and how to reach you in case of an emergency.
- Think beyond meals. At the beginning of the season, talk to your child’s coach and teammates’ parents about your child’s food allergies. If snacks are served at practices and games, ask politely for everyone’s cooperation in avoiding your child’s trigger foods. Educate them (nicely) about what foods are off-limits for your child and be proactive in offering suggestions for safer snacks. If your child has a dairy allergy, for instance, explain that lactose and casein are also off-limits. Be kind – but clear – in your instructions as you advocate for your child’s safety.
- Dine at off-peak hours, when possible. Staff at allergy-friendly restaurants are often better able to take the proper precautions with your order when they’re less busy. This isn’t always possible with sports schedules and game times, but if we can eat early – and avoid the dinner crowd – we do.
- Rate your experiences. When you dine out, whether your restaurant experience was positive or negative – or somewhere in between – do the food allergy community a great service by rating each restaurant on AllergyEats. Rating a restaurant is simple and quick (it takes less than a minute) and helps other food-allergic individuals determine which restaurants to visit – and which to avoid.