How to eat out with food allergies

Mother Nature NetworkMay 12, 2014 

  • Where to eat

    We asked our readers for advice on the best restaurants for handling food allergies and celiac disease.

    •  Kay Reynolds of Roxboro says, “The Bleu Olive restaurant in Durham has been wonderful in working with me concerning my food allergies.” Reynolds adds that wherever she eats, she always tries to be the last person at her table to order so that her instructions are fresh in the mind of the waitstaff.

    •  Aparna Rane of Cary wrote to tell us that members of her family have peanut and tree nut allergies, but they’ve been able to eat at the following local restaurants with no problems: The Pit Authentic Barbecue, Zoe’s Kitchen, Chili’s, Chipotle, Moe’s Southwest Grill and On the Border. “Menus can change, so checking in advance is always good,” she advises.

    •  Penny Prichard of Benson says, “Connect the dots – so you don’t break out in them.” For instance, if a restaurant has fried oysters/clams/shrimp on the menu and hush puppies or french fries, ask if they use separate fryers for the seafood and for the hush puppies and fries. Also be alert to the possibility of hidden seafood stocks in dishes.

    •  Elizabeth Conley of New Bern thinks locally owned restaurants are more responsive than chains. If you’re traveling outside the Triangle, she recommends The Harvey Mansion and Morgan’s Tavern and Grill in New Bern; the Icehouse Waterfront Restaurant in Swansboro; and Miller’s Seafood and Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe in the Outer Banks.

    •  Linda Nicholas of Raleigh says her family has had nothing but wonderful experiences with Vivo Ristorante-Pizzeria in North Raleigh. The first time they went there (three in her family have celiac disease), they called ahead to be sure the restaurant could accommodate them. “The owner went out of his way to be sure our food was safe,” she says. “He sterilized the cooking utensils and only used them on our meals. ... He is very familiar with the needs of someone on a gluten-free diet.”

    •  Dee Batts of Durham has three recommendations for those with celiac disease. Batts says ZPizza has “absolutely the best gluten-free pizza. They are very careful with cross-contamination. I have tried other GF pizzas and they don’t even compare to ZPizza.” She also says the staff at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is knowledgeable: they offer gluten-free buns and can serve fries with only salt seasoning. Of Noodles & Company, “they have a delicious rice noodle and are careful with contamination,” she says.

    • A great resource for those with celiac diseasae, sent to us by Chris Shearer, is raleighcelkids.com – a website Shearer says grew out of the Raleigh Celiac Support Group for Kids. The website regularly updates with Triangle restaurants that have gluten free offerings, stores selling gluten free products and other information.

    Help on the go

    The smartphone app YoDish helps people share their specialty diet dining out discoveries. Right now the app is only available for iPhone, but creators plan to release an Android version soon.

Food allergies are common, and they can be incredibly serious.

Just because you’ve been diagnosed with food allergies, however, doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying food. These days, even eating out at restaurants is getting easier for people with allergies, with more restaurants and food industry professionals making efforts to cater to customers with specific dietary needs.

If you or someone in your family suffers from food allergies or celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that is caused by a reaction to a gluten found in wheat and other grains), these simple tips can help you enjoy eating out without sacrificing your peace of mind.

•  Know your allergy: It may seem obvious, but the first step to keeping safe is understanding the allergy. What causes it? How severe are the symptoms? What should be done in the event of a reaction? It’s also important to understand hidden allergens, as many common allergens may be included in the ingredient list under a different name. Talk to your doctor about your allergy and, whenever possible, seek the advice of an allergist as well.

•  Do your research: Before eating out, take some time to find restaurants that accommodate food allergies. Fellow allergy sufferers are a good source of tips, as are allergy specialists and medical professionals. You can also check an online searchable database like AllergyEats.com, which features peer-to-peer restaurant reviews, ratings and allows you to search by address and by specific allergy concerns. Perhaps surprisingly, many allergy specialists recommend chain restaurants over independent eateries – unless you have personally vetted the independents – because chains often have corporate policies in place regarding allergies, as well as a standardized set of ingredients and preparation methods for every item on their menu.

•  Call ahead: Restaurants are often extremely busy, so calling ahead and asking about food allergies might seem like an imposition. But this is an important topic, and you deserve to feel safe if you’re going to eat out. It’s a good idea to call ahead and ask to speak to a manager or chef. It’s best to do so during off-peak hours (2-4 p.m. is a fairly safe bet), and have a list of questions ready. First and foremost, you need to ask whether they are willing to accommodate your allergies and, if the answer is yes, you need to make sure they are serious and competent in handling allergy concerns. FARE, Food Allergy Research and Education ( foodallergy.org), has a helpful list of questions to ask a restaurant, including whether staff are trained in allergy prevention.

•  At the restaurant: It’s a good idea to hit up a restaurant during potentially quiet times, for example during the first hour after the restaurant opens. Not only will you get better service, but there is less chance of cross contamination while everything is clean, orderly and calm in the kitchen. Be sure to bring any medicines, such as an epinephrine autoinjector, with you.

When you arrive, make yourself known to the staff, and ask to speak to the manager again. If you’ve already planned a specific meal with the chef, bring a copy of what was agreed so there is no room for miscommunication. If, at any point, you feel unsure that the restaurant is taking your allergies seriously, it’s better to go without eating than to risk an exposure.

•  After the meal: Once you’ve enjoyed your meal, assuming everything was to your satisfaction, it’s a good idea to let both your servers and management know that you appreciated their attentiveness. This isn’t just about being polite or showing gratitude – although these things are important – it’s about creating and reinforcing a culture in which food allergies are taken seriously. Similarly, if anything was not to your satisfaction – even if no actual exposure occurred – be sure to alert management so they can do better next time. You can also use the same searchable databases mentioned above to rate a restaurant and provide honest feedback, information that other allergy sufferers can use as a resource.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service