Guesswork is out and choice is in: Top tips for eating out with Food Sensitivities

Food allergies or intolerances are a pain. Eating out with a food allergy or intolerance is even more of a pain.

Some restaurants are very accommodating; they either have particular food parameters in place (e.g. Gluten Free Menu) or staff who are well trained and can assist you in navigating their menu based on your particular allergy or intolerance (You restaurants and café’s ROCK by the way – and perhaps a story for another time if you live in Sydney or Melbourne!). More-often-than-not however, most restaurants are unwilling to prepare something allergy/intolerance specific (they don’t know how to charge/process it, the chefs are too busy etc.), or they are simply unable to service your requests (they do not have the appropriate ingredients available or cannot guarantee any cross-contamination, traces etc..). See? Pain.

For those of you who don’t have an allergy or intolerance or don’t know anyone close to you that does, let’s discuss the difference below.

A Food Allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. Even a tiny amount of the allergy-causing food can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20355095)

A food intolerance is more directly related to how well your body can digest a particular food and doesn’t involve an immune response. The symptoms are generally less serious than allergies and most people can eat small amounts of an offending food item without too much trouble or reaction. The true symptoms, however, are not a walk in the park and may include digestive related issues (we won’t get graphic here) or even asthma attacks. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-allergy/expert-answers/food-allergy/faq-20058538)

In Australia, approximately 4 million Australians (or approximately 20% of the population), identify as having a food allergy or intolerance (as per study conducted by The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy in 2014).

So how do you, or can you, if you know someone with a food allergy or intolerance, be smart about and enjoy eating out?

1.     Research.

If you haven’t decided on a restaurant, a quick google search for your specific requirements will help guide you on where might be best to eat. If you’ve already decided on a restaurant (typically happens with groups of friends or family…), visit the restaurants website for menu information or give them a quick call to find out if they can accommodate your needs.

2.     Communicate.

Even though you may have spoken to someone on the phone or scoped out the menu yourself prior to visiting the restaurant, be sure to communicate your needs to the staff/manager/chef of the restaurant before ordering. Be clear about what you can’t eat and state your allergy or intolerance. Follow up by asking open questions like “What oil do you use for X dressing or to cook X food in?” so that you can ensure you have a dialogue about what is suitable and you feel comfortable that the restaurant understands your requirements.

3.     Check, check, check.

No, not the bill - your food. Sometimes you still might end up with something on your plate that's not supposed to be there. Some foods are easier to detect than others of course. For example, as a person who is allergic to pineapple, I’m highly aware of its presence within quite a large radius of me. I’m lucky in the sense that this food is usually easily detectible due to its colour and its smell. I’m unlucky in the sense that I know it’s delicious, and that it’s determined to take me out of this world, so we tend to run in different crowds!

My most recent run in with “Ninja Pineapple” was at a restaurant that some friends and I went to for some afternoon birthday drinks, we decided to order some cocktail jugs off the menu, one that was listed as having pineapple in it and one that was not (which we had ordered so I could also partake in cocktails!), turns out they BOTH had pineapple in them! I sniffed it out and didn’t drink it, the manager and restaurant were very helpful and made another jug (sans pineapple) and didn’t charge us for it. You have to be a damn food detective, but sometimes the stakes are too high if you let your guard down.

4.     Be Prepared.

Always have your medication or epi-pen with you just in-case. Make sure someone knows where to find it in case of a more serious emergency so that they can help you.

5.     Enjoy Yourself.

There can be a bit of anxiety, stress and pain surrounding trying to eat out with a food allergy or intolerance, but organisation and communication is key! So, when you find a great place that can make you great food surrounded by great company, sit back, relax and enjoy!