Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dining Out With a Food Allergy

In a twist of fate that is a bit funny, a bit evil, a bit c’est la vie, I am a lova of dining out and a sufferer of food allergies.

Owe you one there, God.

But, I thought this is a great opportunity to help all y’all out there who may have the same affliction. Maybe you just found out you can’t groove on cashews anymore. Or, perhaps one of your kiddies has the good ole food allergy and you’re freaking. You’re scared. You don’t know how to let him or her out in the world to just eat and enjoy.

So, I will be posting periodically on my tips and procedures for dealing with this sometimes perplexing condition.

Depending on who you speak to, some want you to fear living and eating and traveling and just doing what you do because your body reacts in a really bad way to a certain food. The allergist I visited a year ago tried to put the fear of God into me about going to Phillies games and to Paris and to restaurants and to everywhere.

That didn’t bode well for a girl whose husband has season tickets to Citizens Bank Park. Not to mention the already booked plans to go to Paris in May 2009. And come to think of it, eating out and trying new things rock. If you can’t do them, what’s the point of living?

I so did not visit that guy again.

I’m not saying I’m doing this the right way at all.

But the fear that so many have about living with a food allergy. Yeah. I don’t have that.

Look, I’ve had my share of being thisclose to kicking the bucket because I ate a stupid nut or peanut. But, in my 33 years of being here, I’ve really had only three incidents in which I have swallowed a culprit food and have gone into instant anaphylactic shock. For those of you who don’t know what anaphylaxis is, it’s really bad and really fatal and really fast and really scary. It is wise to prevent it from happening. Ever.

So, here are my Dining Out Tips with a Food Allergy. If you have any you would like to add, please post in the Comments.

1. If you’re not sure, call the restaurant. I do this all the time. Call in the day or during off hours. If the person you speak to is not accommodating, do not go to the restaurant. But usually, the person you do speak to is accommodating. In the past six months, I called the Israeli restaurant Zahav and the tapas restaurant Amada. Why did I call? Well, I know that Middle Eastern and Spanish cuisines usually contain a lot of nuts. Both places were SO helpful and encouraging regarding my food allergy. I told the hostess at each restaurant that I have a life-threatening allergy to nuts and peanuts. Will this pose a problem if I eat at your restaurant? Both hostesses said they accommodate customers with food allergies all the time. Both restaurants made a note of my food allergy prior to the reservations. I’ve also called Thai restaurants, Chinese restaurants and Japanese restaurants. The reality is nuts are used in so many fab cuisines. I still have a major fear of Thai restaurants because when I lived in Pittsburgh, there was a Thai restaurant in Shadyside that always, permanently smelled like peanuts – on the outside. I did try a Thai restaurant on South Street in Philadelphia (I did this for The Husband. What love, I say!), but I used my call-before trick. I also said a dozen Hail Marys.

2. If the menu is available online, check it out. This gives you an idea of what you’re in for. If everything has nuts, maybe you shouldn't go to the place.

3. Tell the server right away that you have a food allergy.

4. Tell the server again after you order your appie and entrée.

5. Tell the server again when you order dessert. This may seem psycho to you, but look, a server is not just serving you. He or she most likely is serving many other tables where there are customers with their own issues. This also will help prevent errors or cross-contamination.

6. Be pleasant, but firm when you tell the server about your food allergy. He or she may go into detail about the menu, steering you clear of the offending items.

7. DO NOT ask for substitutions. So the spinach salad looks fab, but it has walnuts; or the salmon sounds delish but it’s crusted in pistachios. Yeah, forget those. Pick something that is already nut free. The kitchen DOES NOT want to swap this for that. Also, substitutions lead to the likelihood of error. And in a severe food allergy situation, we really don’t want that.

8. Have a backup. This is how I order: “I’ll have the mahi mahi, but if there are nuts in the dish please tell me and I will change my order.” Usually, the server says, “I will check with the kitchen right now and let you know.” If there’s a prob, I have a backup choice. Problem solved.

9. If the server/kitchen is unsure, change your order. This happens a lot with desserts because some restaurants don’t make dessert on the premise. Better safe than sorry is a cliché because it’s true. Besides, do you really need the chocolate mousse? Or, as my husband says, “Babydoll, you can make the chocolate mousse better than they make it here.” Good husband.

10. Look at your food before you eat. Yes, I am a total control freak. But, I have been served nuts by mistake. So, I always take a good look. If something looks mysterious, I have The Husband taste it. Hee.

11. If there are nuts on your plate, kindly send it back and order something else.

12. “My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, so that pretty much makes me a vegetarian.” Samuel L. Jackson’s words in "Pulp Fiction" ring true for vegetarians – and food allergy sufferers linked in coupledom. I have a food allergy, so The Husband does not order anything with nuts or peanuts or his beloved peanut butter or anything else that may cause me to keel over.

13. You scan the menu and it looks like EVERYTHING has nuts. Oh no, now what? This has happened to me, people. When Mark and I got hitched, my sister and her then-fiance-now-husband bought us a gift card to La Bec Fin. At the time, this was THE restaurant to go to in Philadelphia. It also cost like $700 to eat there. I was allergic to every single god damn dessert they served. OK. I’m over it. The dinner was SUPER amazing. I mean for $700, it better be, right? Right. So, I just didn’t eat any dessert. But, this is the case at frou frou schi schi restaurants at times regarding entrees. Keep looking, there usually is at least one non-nut entrée or salad or appie. You may need to amend my No Substitution rule and remind yourself to not return to this nutty restaurant.

14. Have fun. My No. 13 item is a rarity it seems, and if that does happen, don’t let it bring you down. And don’t let it deter you from trying new, different and unique restaurants and cuisines. We learn so much about other cultures from dining out. I hope my 14 tips help you!


  1. OMG- great post, suze-q. all i hear is our waiter on the cruise saying "nO nuts!" as he served you baked alaska with pistacchio ice cream. classic.

  2. Great tips. I ask servers to take out ingredients all the time. Maybe I should stop that.

  3. Anon at 12:17 aka Monica. I know, right. That guy was trippin' with his "hockus, pockus." On our anniversary every year, Mark still sings to me, "Happy nuts."

    Anon at 12:55: Thanks for checking out the blog!

  4. great post suzie, aka, alison. i remember the fam getting so upset when you would accidently eat a nut! keep eating, luv.

  5. Tip # 15: Just put a hypodermic needle on your bread plate.

  6. Great tips Susan! I enjoy reading your blog. Say hello to The Husband for me.