By Beatrice Povolo
Deciding where to dine out is a common debate in our household. As a family of five, everyone has their favourite place and sometimes it’s a challenge to get everyone to agree. However, one thing we all agree on is that whichever restaurant we select, it must have safe meal options for my 15-year-old son who has food allergies. Whether it’s a casual lunch out or a more formal sit down dinner, this is a must for all of us.
Since my son was diagnosed with allergies to peanuts and tree nuts at the age of three, we have tried to approach dining out in a positive way, ensuring we were “careful and not fearful” when managing his allergies. We soon found out how challenging this would be, especially when eating at restaurants. In the beginning, trying to understand which restaurants would have safe options for him was a bit overwhelming. Not knowing how different establishments prepared their meals or what processes they had in place to manage food allergens were two of our biggest worries. However, like many other families, we began to research and call some of our favourite places, asking about their allergy policies. We were relieved to know that some restaurants had very good policies in place and we could continue dining out there as a family. Others, unfortunately, did not.
Learning from experience
Looking back on our experiences over the past 12 years, I realize how much we’ve learned and how we’ve balanced my son’s needs with our expectations of restaurants. We understand that there are risks when eating out, and we are not looking for a “guarantee.” However, we are looking to see how the risks can be managed and minimized in order to have a safe meal option, recognizing that in some cases, this may not be possible and we will have to find other alternatives.
For example, we had planned a holiday dinner with some friends, who highly recommended a restaurant that they go to regularly. Before making the reservations, I called to speak to the manager who informed me that they are a buffet style restaurant, use peanut oil in many of their dishes and have several different tree nuts in most of their menu items. He also told me that their kitchen is quite small and they do not have a dedicated space for preparing a special meal to help minimize the possibility for cross-contamination. After this conversation, we agreed that this would not be an option for us given my son’s allergies and booked another restaurant that we knew could accommodate his allergies.
Top tips for dining out
As a parent of a child with food allergies, there are many things to consider when dining out. Here are some tips we’ve found helpful when selecting restaurants. We’ve taught our son from an early age to also follow these tips; it’s especially important now as he often dines out without us.
Allergy policy – Restaurants that have an allergy policy and procedures in place on how to manage food allergens is key.
Access to information – Being able to get information on a restaurant’s allergy policy is a must. We look for the allergy policy on the restaurant’s website and we also look for a main contact person to call with any questions before we visit the restaurant.
Well informed and trained staff – Knowing that staff (both front of the house and back of the house) have been trained on managing food allergies goes a long way in helping us make an informed dining choice.
Clear communication – Being able to speak directly to the chef/manager at the restaurant with our requests and hearing from them what safe options are available, gives us greater confidence in the restaurant we select.
Consistency – Having the same experience in terms of how allergies are managed when we visit a restaurant makes us more confident.
While we understand that there is no such thing as having zero risks when dining out, we feel that having the above procedures in place can go a long way in helping to minimize the risks for diners with food allergies.
We also understand that it’s primarily our responsibility and our son’s responsibility to manage his allergies. My son learned to self-manage early on; for instance, he would be the one to tell restaurant staff about his allergies and ask them questions on food handling and cross contamination. Now that he’s older, he’s the one going online to check out the restaurant’s website and look for safe options. We also taught him that a big part of being safe when eating out is always being prepared. This means he always:
- Discloses his allergy to the restaurant staff prior to ordering any meal
- Asks about ingredients and how food is prepared
- Tells others who are dining with him about his allergy
- Carries his EpiPens® and knows how to use them in case of a reaction
Over the years, we have learned that dining out can be a challenge, but it can be done with the right safety precautions in place and by being prepared. As a family, we find ourselves drawn back to the restaurants that we have confidence in and can provide us with choices, but more importantly, safe options for my son.
We, like many families living with food allergies, are frequent and loyal patrons of establishments that make allergen management a priority for their business. On behalf of my family and many others, we thank those establishments for their support and for giving us a place to dine safely, to celebrate special occasions with loved ones or to just stop in for a quick bite with the hockey team. For all this and more, thank you!
About the author:
Beatrice Povolo is Director of Advocacy & Media Relations, Food Allergy Canada and mother of a teenage son with food allergies. For more information, visit foodallergycanada.ca
Food Allergy Canada, in collaboration with TrainCan Inc., has developed the Allergen Training Basics for the Foodservice and Food Retail Industry to educate foodservice managers and front line staff on how to prepare and serve food that is safe for customers with food allergies.
The program covers the basics of food allergy and anaphylaxis and teaches managers the necessary principles to develop allergen risk management procedures that are specific to their own company’s environment. For more information or to take the course, please visit: foodallergycanada.ca/foodservice.