Q: What are some tips for people with food allergies to stay safe when eating out at a restaurant?
Michael Pistiner, MD: Going out to eat is an important part of our society, our culture and our lifestyle – and people with food allergies can and should go out to eat, too.
The food allergy management pillars are prevention and emergency preparedness.
Food allergy management
It’s critical that you be able to read a food label and communicate your food allergy and dietary needs effectively.
You will want to identify yourself to the eating establishment as having a food allergy, and you’ll want to clearly state all your allergens. Some people use a chef card that can be helpful.
Direct communication with a manager and or chef is really helpful. You will want to make sure that you have common language with restaurant staff so that everybody fully understands your needs.
When chefs prepare food from scratch, this is helpful because you can be sure there aren’t any hidden ingredients, or any switches in ingredients that were unexpected. It also significantly reduces the risk of cross contact with one of your food allergens. You also want to make sure your allergy-free dish is not made on common cooking equipment where other foods are being made.
Other things you will want to think about is calling the restaurant before going in and making sure the staff has had adequate food allergy training and that they can accommodate your specific dietary needs. Another thing you can do is check out the menu before going in and seeing how common your food allergen is in all dishes. This can help you gauge the potential for cross contact.
And if ever you feel uncomfortable about the food service, feel free to politely leave.
Make sure you bring your epinephrine auto-injectors with you. Having someone in your dinner party who knows how and when to administer the epinephrine – in case you are unable to do so yourself – is also important.
Work with your allergist to develop an emergency care plan for the treatment of anaphylaxis. This is something people with food allergies should have wherever they are and whoever they’re with.
Michael Pistiner, MD, FACAAI, is a board-certified pediatric allergist and immunologist, Director of Food Allergy Advocacy, Education and Prevention of the Food Allergy Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, and co-creator of the educational website AllergyHome.org.
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