Dining out is one of the greatest fears for those with food allergies, sensitivities and/or celiac disease – and for good reason. Putting your health in the hands of others is a scary thing. I never even get to see the people I put in charge of my health, as they are often in the back of house, grilling, sautéing, and hopefully keeping my food as far away from gluten as possible!
When I wrote my book about living life with celiac disease, I dedicated three whole chapters to dining out – it’s really 1) that difficult and 2) that serious of a matter. I write about calling the restaurant manager ahead of time, using a gluten-free restaurant app, and talking to the server in-depth about your needs. However, one option that isn’t talked about enough is the use of food allergy dining cards.
Food allergy cards are small pieces of paper (laminated or non-laminated) that explain your specific food allergies in-depth so the kitchen staff can assure your safety. It includes key items that they might use in the kitchen that could contain your allergen. It also explains about cross contamination/contact and tells them to be aware of any shared surfaces or utensils. You can purchase these cards in English or in other languages for use in ethnic food restaurants and for traveling abroad (so the staff can learn in their native tongue).
While these cards can come in very handy for travel at home and abroad, and even in your own neighborhood. Here are some reasons you should be using food allergy cards on a regular basis.
1) They force a conversation. Sometimes when you talk about needing something “gluten free” or “dairy free” you can literally see a server’s eyes just glaze over. You hope that the hamster wheel is turning but you have no idea that when they reply with “sure” if they actually had any idea of what you were talking about.
2) You have it all in writing. No one can forget when you see it all in front of you – not you, not the server, not the chef. There’s no telephone. There’s no “lost in translation” happening.
3) Even the shy can eat safely. I often tell people to put on your adult underwear and be a strong, forthright person when going out to eat. You must express what you need, and you have to express it loudly and clearly so no one misunderstands. However, this is difficult for shy people, or people that don’t like to be the center of attention. With these dining cards, every request is in the card. All you have to do is hand over the card to the server and tell them that you have a serious request and that this card needs to go to the person preparing your meals. No need to scream, memorize a rehearsed script, or draw attention to yourself any more than you need to.
Taylor Miller, better known as Gluten Away, has a line of dining cards that he created to take on this task. I talked to him about why he wanted to start making these cards, and about being taken seriously at restaurants.
“I always got extremely annoyed having to explain my allergies over and over again to each waiter I met only to be glutened time after time. I knew it wasn’t that hard to simply say what my allergies are but I also wanted a way for the kitchen to be aware of my allergies as well with a “hands on” item…Sometimes when I explain my allergies to a waiter I feel like I don’t get taken seriously. But when I give them a nice card displaying my allergies, they seem more interested and engaged to what I have to avoid…I do believe these make your dining experience feel a lot safer!”
Our own Living Without’s Gluten Free & More Magazine even sells dining cards for gluten-free and casein-free meals – sold here. While there are numerous brands that sell these cards, pick the one that makes most sense to you and your specific food allergy/sensitivity needs. For example, don’t pick a card that just talks about gluten if you have multiple other food sensitivities.
As someone with food issues, I know how hard it is to be taken seriously in a restaurant. Next time you dine out, try using a food allergy dining card and make someone take notice of you – even if it has to start with a small card!
Originally posted July 2014