Eating out with your kids is supposed to be a fun, relaxing way to indulge everyone, but when your child has a food allergy it presents a challenge. Planning ahead and direct communication with restaurant staff is vital in preventing an allergic reaction.
“Communication is key when you are eating out with children who have food allergies,” says Stacy Dorris, M.D., pediatric allergist and director of the Food Allergy Clinic at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
A good way to assess the safest outing is to call the restaurant in advance and speak to the manager. Ask if the establishment is familiar with food allergies and if they have managed them before. It is more helpful to know what their experiences have been versus determining whether they “get it” based on their reaction to your questions.
“Be direct. State clearly that your child is allergic to specific foods, and ask if they feel comfortable in helping you,” says Dorris. “You should feel confident that this is a standard procedure for them. If not, it might not be the best place for you,” she adds.
ON THE SPOT
If your family’s dining excursion is more spontaneous, or if you’re traveling and you haven’t had a chance to inquire ahead of time, consider going at a time that’s not as busy so you can discuss food allergies with your server in a less frenzied atmosphere.
Be clear about what your child needs to avoid in a specific meal, and also be sure to have a conversation about cross contamination with utensils and other meal prep procedures in the kitchen.
“Cross contamination is a risk, but I would say that it is fairly rare,” says Dorris. “Probably more important in regard to accidental ingestion in a restaurant is not communicating the allergy to the server,” she adds.
Some parents carry “chef cards” that relay their child’s allergies to kitchen staff, but if you go that route, don’t rely on the cards alone. The most important thing is to communicate verbally to the server, manager and even the cook.
“It cannot be overstated that many accidental ingestions that occur in public also involve lack of access to an epinephrine auto-injector,” Dorris says.
Always carry your child’s medication and have a written plan of action, just in case your child encounters an allergen.
“The goal is to allow the child to live an essentially normal life, but there does need to be caution in certain situations,” Dorris says.
Quick Tips for Dining Out with Kids Who Have Food Allergies
• Assess the risk and choose a restaurant wisely. For instance, if your child is allergic to fish, avoid places with menus that are predominately seafood.
• Have a general knowledge of ethnic cuisines, such as Asian fare, that incorporate nuts.
• Communicate your child’s food allergies to your server immediately. If you’re not confident with the server’s response, talk to the manager.
• Dine during “off hours.” It’s easier to ensure precautions when the kitchen isn’t swamped with orders.
• Ask if the restaurant is familiar with food allergies and how it has managed them before.
• Consider a “we don’t know” response as a red flag and go elsewhere.
• Always have a back-up plan. If uncertainty arises, be prepared to put “Plan B” in place.
• Keep it simple. Avoid ordering items with fancy sauces or gravies.
• Always bring your child’s medications and food allergy action plan with you.