Eat Out Gluten Free!
An expertís advice on dining out safely with food allergies
1 Carry your medications. Don’t leave home without EpiPens, Benadryl or other medicines used to control an allergic reaction. “This is always a top requirement,” says Antico. “Even the best restaurant in the world can make a mistake, so you have to be prepared.”
2 Watch their faces. If the server proactively asks about food allergies, it’s a very good sign—but most restaurants don’t do this. “When I walk into a restaurant, I always look the host or server in the eye and inform them I have food allergies in my group. As I say this, I pay close attention to their facial expression. Do they freeze? Do they have that deer-in-the-headlights look? It’s a sign the place isn’t a safe bet,” Antico says. “Most restaurants that deal with food allergies are actually pretty proud of it. The staff will light up and may even get excited and say, ‘Yes. Tell us what you need.’” Given the high turnover in this industry, not every server will know about food allergies. “That’s okay, as long as the manager and the chef know,” he says. “If I don’t get a good feel from the server or host, I’ll talk to the manager. If he gives me a concerned look and a lot of ‘uh...uh..,’ it’s time to choose another restaurant.”
3 Look for procedures. Restaurants that understand food allergies and manage them well have three general procedures in place: good staff training, excellent communication and strong policies in both the front and back of the house. These all work together to avert cross contamination and help ensure a safe dining experience. “Sometimes the chef comes out to speak with you—that’s a great procedure. Your server may explain that there’s a separate area in the kitchen with separate utensils. They bring your food out on a square plate or a plate with a blue edge. Maybe there’s a gluten-free sticker on it. These are all cues that the restaurant has good procedures in place,” says Antico. “Don’t be shy about asking about procedures and protocols: ‘What do you guys do in the kitchen to make sure this dish doesn’t have eggs or dairy in it?’ Again, good restaurants will have something in place. Ask questions until you feel confident.”
4 Ask open-ended questions. If you use an open-ended question, you have a better chance of getting the correct answer. “Rather than saying to the server, ‘Do you use peanut oil to make your fries?’, ask, ‘What oil do you use for your fries?’ Most servers want to give an answer on the spot so you don’t have to wait. They’ll guess and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to keep everything moving,” Antico says.
5 Use friendly language. “When speaking to the restaurant staff about food allergies, I don’t like to say, ‘My son can die from this.’ Although it’s true, it sounds overly dramatic to someone who may not be familiar with food allergies and it can make me look like a crazy parent, reducing my credibility. Plus, I don’t like the message it sends to my child,” Antico says. “So I try to use less dramatic language, explaining that this is a very severe allergy and that my child really can’t eat this food. Then I throw in a serious statement in a friendly way that comes across like I’m half-joking—‘It’s a Saturday night and we don’t want an ambulance coming in here to cart anyone off.’ Sometimes I’ll pull out the EpiPens and say, ‘You don’t want me to have to use these.’ I say this in a firm but friendly tone, looking them straight in the eye. They get the point.”
6 Always double-check. When the server brings the meal to your table, double-check the order by saying, “This is the dish without the gluten, right?”
“This paid off for us recently at a restaurant known for its allergy-friendly policies,” Antico recalls. “The chef came out and talked to us in detail about the menu and our order. When the waitress delivered the meal, we asked her about dairy and she said, ‘Wait! He can’t eat these mashed potatoes! They have milk in them!’ And she swooped the plate back to the kitchen before any damage was done. The next time she brought the meal, it was correct.”
7 Let others know. “If you have a great experience (or not), log on to AllergyEats.com and rate it. Our community needs to know,” Antico says. “The more we spread the word, the more it helps all of us dine out safely and encourages restaurants to do a great job for those with food allergies and sensitivities.”