Going Out to Eat: The Food Allergic’s Rules to Live By

For anyone dealing with multiple food allergies or horrible illness as a reaction to certain foods, going out to eat is a difficult challenge. Most restaurateurs (especially independent ones) are not prepared to handle food allergies and you will often be met with a severe lack of compassion and willingness to take the necessary steps to help avoid reactions. This is unfortunate, but many organizations, including our own, are working very hard to change this. After all, we have to travel or socialize, and deal with this food disability at that same time.

Many in the allergy community will make a decision to eat at a place, not by the menu (most menus are not allergen-free), but by the attitude of the person they begin speaking with. If it’s clear that the the service staff is either uneducated on the seriousness of handling allergies or they seem unwilling to understand and take it seriously, it’s at that time that the food allergic will decide to try another (more understanding) place. Places where there is a likelihood of a language barrier is also usually avoided by those with a food allergy disability.

Though we have some of our own restaurant reviews written below, we generally stick with these rules for approaching outings and going out to eat:

1. Plan ahead and always ALWAYS bring a little cooler with snacks, food and drink. (We have strayed from this rule a few times and it just isn’t worth it. Just always do this, even for short outings in case you decide to go to another place or stay a little longer.)

2. If we must find a place to eat, we ALWAYS go to a large chain. They are more likely to have standard practices in place from their Corporate Management and the staff has been trained to take food allergies very seriously.

For example, we’ve had more success eating at a Cheesecake Factory (where we received a gluten-free/dairy-free meal) than we have at an independent restaurant that offers gluten-free/dairy-free menu items (where they don’t take cross-contamination into account). It is always a good sign when the manager or chef stops by our table to chat to see how they can help. The chef at Rain Forest Cafe at Opry Mills Mall came out to speak with us and was personally involved in preparing the food and explained how he would keep his food away from the other allergens; all with compassion and understanding.

After all, we don’t like needing accommodations anymore than a person in a wheelchair does. This is a food disability, and we need this help when we go out.

We hope that one day, every Restaurant is trained to help us and all of the other growing kids out there that suffer the same problem.  But for now, it’s a long road ahead.

Though we don’t go out to eat much (it is infinitely less stressful to eat at home), here are a few places we have tried out. What about you? What experiences have you had with certain restaurants?

Ruby Tuesday’sAccommodating, Proceed with Care. Salad Bar and accommodating staff. My son eats the ham from the salad bar and does not have a problem.

Mellow Mushroom (Nashville, TN) Accommodating, Proceed with Care. Both my son and I had a good experience here and it’s wonderful to have a place to take him out. However, there have been reports that others have not felt well. It is difficult to completely avoid all cross-contamination if an allergen is anywhere on the premises.  The only way this could be guaranteed is if wheat and gluten was not part of their standard inventory.

On their menu, they describe how they use gloves and use dedicated pans for their gluten free pizza. They also use daiya mozzarella-flavor vegan shreds to make it totally dairy free. If you are intolerant but do not have life-threatening dairy or wheat/gluten allergies, then you might be okay.

Try with caution and let us know if you have a different experience. Here is their website: http://mellowmushroom.com/

The Olive Garden (Anywhere) –  Accommodating, Proceed with Care. I was surprised by this one. Olive Garden has gluten-free pasta that they can offer. When I spoke with the managers at a nearby chain, they indicated that it was their job to ensure that any customers’ food allergies are handled appropriately and according to best practices in the kitchen for managing cross-contamination. Though I don’t know what those practices are, this news made me happy. We had not been to an Olive Garden in years. We tried one out with the GF pasta and we were okay. Again, proceed with caution if you are highly sensitive to food being prepared in a kitchen that also handles the allergens.

The Cheesecake Factory (Anywhere) – Accommodating, Proceed with Care. At one point, we found ourselves stuck with limited options for eating and did not bring the requisite lunch in the car. Sticking with rule #2 of going to Corporation-managed chains, we went with Cheesecake Factory (a place with wheat and dairy ascribed in the very name). We were impressed that the server immediately asked the manager come over and take our order. He was patient, listened with compassion and took his time letting us know what our options were based on what we were needing to avoid. My son got scrambled eggs, hash browns (I think?) and a big pretty fresh fruit cup. We were happy. Proceed with caution if you are highly sensitive to food being prepared in a kitchen that also handles the allergens.

Whole Foods Salad Bar (Anywhere) – Not Recommended. While this popular grocery store, known for catering to the most specific of dietary needs, might be the first thing to think of to take an allergic little boy, it is actually one of the worst places to go. Whole Foods caters best to wheat-eaters and people who do not react to airborne allergens while fetching a box of gluten-free cake mix. With the open bins of nuts and grains, a lot of allergens become airborne throughout the store. And while it may be the only place that sells Wowbutter or Sunbutter, you may have to keep your nut allergic child in the car with another parent while you fetch it.

As for the salad bar, the eight common food allergens are all over it. My son got really sick later in the night after we had a basic salad with boiled eggs and no dressing. We thought it was safe from wheat and dairy. We were wrong. So, now, we just shop in the store, keep him away from the bins and walk right by the salad bar and cafe.’

Starbucks – Mostly NOT recommended. Here is another place where you would think that the food allergic would be highly catered to, but they are not (at least not here in Tennessee). For a while, I could count on the RAW bars for snack but they have discontinued those. The bags of chips are manufactured in facilities with other allergens, so those are no go. The only thing my son can have in there is a gluten-free granola bar that he hates (he hates nuts), a pouch of applesauce or a fruit juice. I can get the soy latte but I’m never sure that the soy doesn’t get mixed up with the milky equipment. Hard to tell.

Five Guys – Not for people with peanut allergy. Not always accommodating. Not recommended for those sensitive to cross-contamination. For gluten-free people: they cook only french fries in their fryers (nothing breaded). They have bun-less options on their menus. If you are also allergic to dairy, ask the cook to cook your hamburger as far from possible where they cook the hot dogs (hot dogs usually have casein protein added). We have gone here a few times and depending on which location, you will get helpful or not-helpful staff. In one store, the staff was very friendly and helpful and even let me take a look at the ingredients list on their standard seasoning for french fries.  In another place, the worker did not care and she made my son’s food with the same gloves she used to handle wheat and cheese (she rolled her eyes at us when we asked her to make another one with new gloves). If you are allergic to peanuts, Five Guys is not the place for you; you probably already know that from the big warning sign on their door.

Note: if you use the Malt Vinegar for your fries, note that malt vinegar is made from barley. Do not have it if you are allergic or intolerant to gluten.

That is all for now. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on places you have been.



2 thoughts on “Going Out to Eat: The Food Allergic’s Rules to Live By”

  1. Got to disagree with the Mellow Mushroom experience. My son with celiac goes to that one and gets sick every single time. You really can’t avoid cross contamination in a pizza joint…. in my humble opinion.

    1. Thank you for letting me know. I will update my review of it since you reported that he gets sick. I was wondering about the cross-contamination and how they managed it.

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