This little ditty is for people who suffer from allergies and those who will be going out to eat with them.
I’ll divide it into tips for people with allergies and tips for people who have a friend with allergies. It’s a good idea to read the entire thing, though.
For the person with allergies:
You’ve been invited to go out to eat. Suddenly you find it hard to breathe or think straight. You would rather eat at home. You contemplate eating ahead of time, but you haven’t spent time with these people in a bit (or maybe you see them every day) and deep down inside you really just want to be able to eat like everyone else coming to the restaurant. So you decide, “OK, I’m going out to eat.” Now what?
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Be your own advocate: If you carry an EpiPen, make sure to tell your friends or show them where you keep it. If they are not familiar with how to use an EpiPen, make sure to tell them where they would need to inject it and how to properly administer it. Do this early — before you order — so it’s out of the way and not a big deal. If your friends or family react with nervousness or fear, assure them the EpiPen is just in case of an emergency, although it is what will help save your life if you DO have an anaphylactic reaction.
Research the restaurant online: When you know which restaurant you’re going to, immediately go to its website and look at its menu. Note the items that may be OK for you to eat so you can ask about them when you call. There are several apps, such as Allergy Eats, that can help you choose restaurants in your area that can accommodate your needs.
Call the restaurant: Calling the restaurant before you go gives you peace of mind and it gives the restaurant a chance to tell you if they can accommodate your needs. If the kitchen manager is unavailable, ask to speak with the general manager. These are the two people who will know the most about the restaurant’s food allergy policies and what ingredients are in the food.
If you find yourself in a situation where you didn’t know you would be eating out and everyone decides it’s time to go eat, don’t panic. Restaurants are required to answer all of your allergy questions. Follow the same steps above on the ride over or as soon as you get there. It’s always a good idea to have an emergency stash of food in your purse or pocket for situations like this. This way you at least know you’ll be able to eat something.
Is this restaurant right for you?: Once you’ve talked to everyone, now is the time to decide if this is the right place to eat or not. It is perfectly acceptable to get up and leave if you are getting a bad vibe about the food safety of the restaurant. Sometimes your friends won’t get it, in which case you’ll have to explain to them why you feel worried about eating there. I have yet to meet anyone who did not agree to changing restaurants if I didn’t feel safe. Most of the time after seeing the process I go through talking to the restaurant staff, they double check with me to make sure I feel safe to eat there. Nobody wants to see you get sick no matter what inconvenience you think you might be causing.
Have your server write down your allergies: If it’s a good place to eat, then it’s time to sit down and go through the process one more time to tell your server what you want. Normally by this time the manager has spoken with the server about what you want to eat, but they should still ask exactly what your order is and write it down correctly. It may seem high maintenance, but make sure the server writes down your allergies, especially with servers who like to go by memory. You can also write your allergies on a napkin and ask the server to give it to the kitchen manager. Or better yet, have a laminated card with your allergies on them ready to go.
Having your server write down or see your allergies also ensures that the person who brings out your food — the last line of defense — understands which ingredients cannot be on the plate. Most servers are understanding about this (and frankly more nervous than you about getting it done right), so they will more than likely oblige. If you encounter a server who isn’t OK with this, then this restaurant is not for you.
Bring your own food items: Yes, you are allowed to bring in food if you need it. I always bring my own dressing because some dressings in restaurants are made with soy, and even if restaurant staff says they are not, I don’t like to chance it. Servers are usually relieved to see you have brought one item they don’t have to worry about getting right.
Food arrival: When your food arrives, check it before you eat it. Trust me on this one. I made the mistake not too long ago of thinking the dish was fine because I had eaten it before. But we were at a different location and I should have checked. It was a pasta dish that was supposedly corn, wheat and soy free. I took a couple bites and noticed on my third bite that there was a different shaped piece of pasta within the fusilli pasta I knew I could have.
After some digging, I I encountered three different shapes of pasta in my dish. It is rare that a restaurant has pasta that is both corn- and wheat-free, but having three types of pasta that are corn and wheat free? No. Not gonna happen. It turns out my “gluten-free” pasta contained semolina, which the staff did not realize is wheat. How in the world could the knowledge vary so drastically from one location to another of the same chain?
What if I find food that shouldn’t be on my plate?: Check your food when it arrives; do not make the same mistake I did. You should be able to see or smell most of what is in the dish. If you are unsure, send that dish back. Seriously. You are not being annoying by sending it back; it is the staff’s job to make sure you have an enjoyable eating experience, and they will make that happen.
Stop eating immediately if you realize you have eaten something you shouldn’t have. If you know you will need to take an allergy pill immediately, do it! If you know you will have anaphylaxis because of what you ingested, get your EpiPen out and ready.
And tell the manager what has happened. Most managers will respond with compassion and ask what they can do. Some who have no idea what to do when someone has an allergic reaction may freak out. At this point, have your friend get the manager’s name or card, and then leave the restaurant to take care of yourself.
What if I need to take legal action with the restaurant?: This is something I have not done. There have been times, like in the story I shared above, when I should have. In a worst-case scenario, you may need to take it to the authorities if the restaurant is not responding in a responsible way.
Let the staff know it did a good job: Tell the restaurant staff if you had a great time with no food allergy issues. It will help them continue to treat people with food allergies with just as much respect and vigilance.
By following the steps above, you should be able to head out to eat with less anxiety and fear. Here’s hoping you have a fantastic experience!
For the person eating out with someone with allergies:
Offer to help find a restaurant: Sometimes your friend with allergies doesn’t want to pick the restaurant every time because they will likely go with what they know since it feels safe. However, if you are feeling adventurous and they are up to it, do some research on allergy accommodating restaurants. Not only does this show them you care, but it also takes some of the work out of their toil of having to think about everything they eat and every eating place they go everyday and whether it is safe or not.
You can do even more legwork by calling ahead and speaking with the kitchen manager if you know what the food allergies are that your friend has. Likely your friend will still want to call because, well, it’s their health at stake.
I can’t tell you how awesome it is when a friend or family member calls me up and says “Hey! I want to go out to eat with you and I’ve done the research on what restaurants are accommodating so you don’t have to!”
Ask your friend what to do in the case of an allergic reaction: If your friend doesn’t offer up that information, ask them. It’s easiest to do it when you sit down at the table because so you can find out what to do if you need to administer an EpiPen, allergy pills or inhalers. It’s good to be prepared, but don’t freak out. The likelihood of a reaction happening is small, especially if your friend has been diligent about talking to the restaurant. If your friend is having a bad reaction, call 911.
Let your friend disclose allergies to the staff: I love my family members, but sometimes, with the best intentions, they try to order for me or point out what they think I might be able to have, even though I don’t want them to. Just like everyone else, I enjoy being able to peruse the menu, and I’m perfectly capable of seeing what may or may not work for me.
Now this may be different if your friend is newly diagnosed and is feeling overwhelmed at the very idea of going to a restaurant. If you notice the friend is not saying anything about their allergies, try to find a kind way to bring it up. It may be that your friend doesn’t want to impose on the restaurant or just wants to feel normal and not make a fuss about ordering. However, you can help remind your friend that advocating for their health is not making a fuss.
Do not say you have food allergies if you do not: Saying you are allergic to something when you are not IS high maintenance and can cause the restaurant to think so too. I can’t tell you how many servers have asked me, “Do you really have an allergy or do you just not like the food? The chef prefers not to make modifications if they can help it.” So if you don’t like onions, tell the server you do not like them. If your food comes out with onions on the plate, tell the server you specifically asked for no onions and send it back — there’s no need to fake an allergy.
When the food comes out: If the order is correct, your friend will eat it and be happy. If the order is incorrect, your friend will know. If your friend mentions there is something on the plate that seems suspicious, tell them to send it back. Don’t let them eat one more bite. If your friend doesn’t say anything, speak up if you think they need help.
If your friend is having a reaction: First, ask if your friend is OK or if you can do anything to help. Sometimes reactions are slow enough that they can take a Benadryl or inhaler and be fine. Some are not. If you notice your friend is getting spacey or sick, having trouble breathing or is breaking out in hives, point it out and ask what you can do to help. If your friend is having trouble responding or cannot respond at all, get that EpiPen immediately and stick it in the side of their thigh, hold it there for 10 seconds, then pull it out and rub the injection site for 10 seconds. Alert the restaurant staff and call 911. You need to go to the hospital any time an EpiPen is administered.
I know this is scary stuff, but if you are going out with a friend who has food allergies, you are taking on part of the responsibility of helping them if they need it. Your friend would do the same for you. Please don’t let this scare you away from ever going out with your friend or family member. Again, the likelihood of a reaction like this happening is small if all the above steps are followed. A willingness to have fun with your friend and take on responsibility to help will mean more than you could ever know to someone with allergies. Trust me.
Mary Beth Eversole is an actress, voiceover artist and musician living in Los Angeles. She is a native of Overland Park. She has performed all around the world in opera and musical theater, as well as on film and television and as a voiceover actress. She currently has a show, “Allergy Actress Cooking,” on YouTube, and it is soon to be distributed by TV Tibi and Akyumen TV.