My Top 12 Tips for Eating Out and Traveling with Food Sensitivities

Dining Out Does Not Have to Mean Freaking Out

If you are blessed with dietary challenges, dining out takes forethought and often compromise if others in your group are limitless in their choices.  Adult and children's parties and other social engagements may be dreaded instead of anticipated.  And oh that awkwardness when the conversation turns to how awful it must be to be unable to eat whatever you choose.  Who thought life could become so complicated over a basic necessity?  Here are some tips that I use to make dining out more enjoyable.

1.  Be Absolutely Clear About Ingredients To Avoid
First and foremost, ensure that your waitstaff (or party hosts) understand the allergens that must be avoided.  Don’t worry if it seems patronizing to break it down, better safe than sorry.  On several occasions servers have said to me that they did not realize that butter is dairy after detecting a buttery taste in a dish.  They have kindly apologized and fortunately my reaction is not severe.  The consequences might have been more dire otherwise.  In fact, even if you only have a slight intolerance or there is an ingredient your healthcare provider advises you to avoid, treat the offender as an allergen.  The staff is more apt to take your request seriously when they believe the allergy is life threatening.

If you like a particular restaurant or restaurants become regulars.  The staff will be familiar with your needs and they will often go out of their way to cater to you above and beyond what is expected.

2.  Seek Cuisines That Are Less Challenging
Have a list of "go-tos" that offer cuisines that are suitable to your needs.  For example, you might think twice about southern Italian restaurants specializing in pizza and pasta if gluten, dairy and night shades are no-nos.  Scour your area for establishments that cater to your dietary restrictions or are amenable to altering their offerings.  Sometimes this might get a little boring for your dining partners, but if the menu offers a variety, they do not have to select the same meal each time.  Keep in mind that when they are not with you, they have the freedom to choose among the hundreds of other awesome restaurants and food carts. 

3.  Know Before You Go
Check out menus ahead of time, many restaurants have their menus online.  Follow up with a call to see how accommodating they are to make substitutions if necessary.  I confess that I am so fortunate to live in a Foodie City that thrives on keeping food local, organic, and responsive to dietary constraints.  In other locations, your options might be limited.  From personal experience, fast food restaurants are not an oasis for patrons with limitations.  They are also less likely to have the ability to modify their menu when particular ingredients are taboo.  Some of the larger chain restaurants such as Chilis, Applebees, and Red Robin are typically open to providing suggestions for selections or able to omit offending ingredients.

4.  There's An App For That, Of Course
According to the YoDish.com, this Iphone App is "the smart, fast, fun, and beautiful way to discover, share, and discuss gluten free, veg, and food allergy friendly restaurant meals.”  YoDish.com profiles restaurants around the country that specialize in allergy avoidance menus.

There are also tips on this site for sending your child off to school.   If you have school age children, this article is a must read for keeping your allergic child safe in school.  http://allergicliving.com/2013/08/22/know-your-food-allergy-rights-u-s-schools/ 

If your child is heading off to college, take a look at:  http://allergicliving.com/2013/08/22/know-your-food-allergy-rights-college/

Allergyeats.com is a free app for Android and Apple users.  They do caution users that “this is a guide, not a guarantee".  "Restaurant ratings are based on the opinions of food-allergic diners, not allergy experts.  Always carry emergency medication and discuss your allergies with restaurant staff in advance.”  With their handy grid, you can check off which allergies and intolerances to filter.

Another IOS App is holdtheallergen.com.  Currently there are approximately 40 restaurants on the App and continually adding new ones.  Select a restaurant on the list, visit their menu and then click a menu item to see if it is safe.  This site enables filtering from a list of the 9 common allergens:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Soy (separate Soy Lecithin and Soybean Oil selections)
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat

5.  A Little Leg Work Up Front
If eating out with a group, find out the destination ahead of time and call the restaurant to explain your restrictions and see how they might be able to accommodate you.  Be sure to give them the name of your party and your name as well.  By managing the details prior to the visit, it saves the awkwardness of having to delineate the list in front of others and shaves a few minutes off the ordering process, especially if the group is large.  If you do not know the location or if you do not have time to call, you might wish to consult with the host/hostess about the best way to approach your needs upon arrival.  Sometimes they will find a manager or waiter to give guidance or they will suggest that you ask the waitstaff when they come to the table.  A number of times when I have consulted with waitstaff at the table, I have discovered that I am not the only one in the party with limitations.  This may create the opportunity for an exchange of tips and ideas.  I find this particularly helpful when visiting a new city and others already know the lay of the land.

6.  That Old Boy Scout Motto, "Be Prepared"
As a last resort either eat ahead of time or pack a snack that can be discretely eaten and simply order a drink.  If anyone inquires, I usually respond that I am not very hungry after all.

7.  Pack Non-Perishable Snacks For Travel
When traveling pack some non-perishable snacks.  Bring enough to last for at least a snack or 2 per day.  My backpack is filled with an assortment of gluten free, dairy free protein bars.  I also add some rice cakes or GF bread.  If we head to restaurants with limited menus for breakfast, I can pull out a slice of bread to have along side some eggs.  Most restaurants will not toast your bread for you due to food safety regulations, but at places where a toaster is available to the public such as at a buffet, put the bread on a plate and take it to the toaster. 

I pack my rice cakes and/or bread in a large bag or container and pack a few sandwich size baggies inside the larger bag.  Before heading out to breakfast, I place a slice or 2 into the sandwich baggie and stick it in my purse.  Then it is available if needed.  If you explain to the waitstaff why your brought your own, they are frequently willing to bring to the table toppings such as jams, honeys, or syrups.

The bars are a satisfying mid-day snack.  Sometimes they are a savior when nothing else is available for meal time.

8. Scout Out Grocery Stores
If you do not have room to pack enough food for a long journey, check ahead of time if there are any grocery stores at your destination(s) that might offer acceptable grab and gos.

9.  Traveling Abroad? 
Communicating your challenges when there are language barriers can be tough.  Fortunately English is widely spoken, but even so the intricacies of your diet can get lost in translation.  Check out Allergyft at Allergyft.com.  This App available to Apple users allows you to “quickly create a customizable list of food allergies and accompanying warnings for you and your whole family. These profiles can then be quickly translated into French, German or Spanish, which you can then easily show to local waiters so that they can guide you away from foods you should avoid.”  The App costs $2.99.  Some free translation App alternatives are listed below.

Look up some foods and key phrases prior to your trip in the event Apps do not function properly.  Visit sites such as http://www.wordreference.com, http://dictionary.reverso.net, https://www.babelfish.com, https://translate.google.com/.

Translation Cards for over 60 languages are available from SelectWisely.com.  Their catalogue of cards allows you to choose from a variety of food allergens and special diets (sugar free, low-salt, vegan, vegetarian, etc.), skin contact allergens, animals and insects, and drugs.  If you have a hodge podge of allergies or traveling to multiple countries, they will customize cards for you at a cost of $40-$75 which will take 3 to 5 days to complete not including delivery time.  This option is quite pricey although less expensive than an unwanted trip to the ER.   Medical emergency cards such as for diabetes and asthma are available.  They offer doctor letters to present to airport security if necessary for auto-injectors, insulin pumps, and inhalers. These handy cards are durable, laminated, and designed to fit into your wallet.

10.  If You Don't Know, Ask
Seek suggestions from hotel concierge, desk clerks, friends/families in the area.  Concierges are usually intimately familiar with the restaurants in their locale and can supply a list of possibilities for you to check out.  If you desire, they will place some phone inquiries and make reservations.

11.  Make a Home Away from Home
If staying with friends or family, alert your host/hostess ahead of time of your restrictions.  Feel free to let them know that you will be bringing some staples with you to avoid any offense.  Offer to make a grocery run once you arrive if that is possible.  Ask if they feel comfortable allowing you to lend a hand with the cooking.  Granted, it can be awkward wading your way through the host's kitchen, but the payoff for you might be lifesaving.  They might appreciate a non-cooking night or two.  Be alert for cross-contamination of ingredients, and appliances/cookware that might harbor contaminants.  Disposables, grilling or dining out might be the way to go.

12.  Emergency Supplies
No matter how prepared we are, sometimes things go wrong.  Remember to take your digestive enzymes prior to your meal to assist your body in breaking down your food if advised by your medical professional.  More importantly remember to carry your EpiPen if you have severe allergic reactions.  If you have not been prescribed an EpiPen, then bring along an antihistamine or other allergy medicine.  Mistakes are occasionally made during food preparation despite taking precautions.

Caveats
I have not used any of the Apps mentioned above nor do I endorse any of them, so please use at your own risk.  I like to make a list of eatery options before I travel to the extent possible to ease the stress of travel.  If I am at the mercy of others, then I have to play along as graciously as possible.  If visiting family or friends, they are often familiar with which restaurants might be able to meet my needs.  I hope this helps to make dining out a more safe and enjoyable experience for you.  For additional tips, visit www.thepracticalsort.com.