Food Allergies and Restaurants

It always puts a smile on my face when a restaurant menu contains a note saying something to the effect of “Please advise your server of any allergies or intolerance”.

To me, that means I’m in a restaurant that will likely take some extra precautions to do its best to ensure my food won’t cause me issues. This definitely takes some of the guesswork out of dining out.

Over the last 13 years, since the discovery of my intolerance to wheat products, the number of restaurants that have adjusted their menus to accommodate wheat-free/gluten-free diets has been impressive and heartwarming. And over that span of time, the improvement in the ingredients, recipes and dishes that have been offered has been spectacular.

I hear the same from friends and colleagues with sensitivities to nuts, eggs, dairy and shellfish. It is getting easier to make informed choices.

When it comes to dining, it is certainly a competitive market. I genuinely respect those establishments that have gone the extra mile to retain and attract clients by helping them navigate their options whether through little icons next to menu items, menus that specifically address dietary concerns, or in extremely well-informed service staff.

I admit that I have to contain my shrieks of delight when the server or the chef says, “Tell us what you’d like and we’ll see how we can modify it.”

Being the over-apologetic Canadian that I am, on a few occasions, I have apologized for asking so many questions about the menu, but I have been met with much reassurance. One chef even went so far as to say that it helps keep things interesting and challenging in the kitchen, in finding clever ways to make the menu work for the client. That completely made my day!

But what happens when a restaurant makes no such accommodations?

Usually when a group of family, friends or colleagues proposes a visit to a restaurant, before I accept, I check out the restaurant’s web site to see if they provide an online menu. If I have further questions, I usually follow it up with a phone call outside of peak serving times, so that the person who picked up the phone has a minute or two to chat.

If the restaurant doesn’t offer dietary accommodations, I will ask if they can prepare an easy and safe meal like a Caesar salad, making sure the chicken is grilled (not breaded) and to not put in croutons. If they do, I can still participate in the get-together and not worry about getting sick later.

I recall contacting one restaurant prior to a colleague’s farewell luncheon and when I asked if they offered gluten-free options, I received a flat “no” followed by silence, and no attempt to offer suggestions. Sadly, I had to pass on the farewell luncheon, but my colleague understood.

In another situation, I visited a restaurant that offered gluten-free pizza crust and when I asked if their pepperoni was gluten-free as well, I was floored when the response I was offered was “Hmm… well, no one died from it yet!” Needless to say, I didn’t find the joke funny and I have never returned to that establishment.

Just the same, I still extend my understanding and respect to the establishments that choose not to cater to different allergies and food intolerance. It can be a complex and risky undertaking, especially when some ingredients contain hidden sources of allergens or cross-contamination.

When a restaurant prides itself on secret recipes to meet a specific niche audience, it can be difficult to make changes to those recipes to achieve the same flavour, quality and texture and still meet a specific dietary need. It can be a very lengthy (and costly) process of experimentation with different formulations, ingredients and proportions, requiring the patience of a laboratory scientist.

I can understand if a restaurant doesn’t want to take a chance. When I discovered my intolerance to wheat products, I lived off of shepherd’s pie, hard boiled eggs, grilled chicken and salad for months before I built up my repertoire of recipes. (And even then, surprisingly, some salad dressings contain wheat products.) It’s not easy, I completely understand, especially in a fast-paced commercial setting.

I am very lucky that I live in a city with many restaurants and many choices. If I don’t end up going to one restaurant, there’s probably another one in the same neighbourhood where dining won’t be a risky venture for me.

Also, I am lucky that my body’s reaction to wheat products would not be a fatal one, just an inconvenient one, as my body would reject them in the form of a stomach flu.

But for people with much more serious food allergies who need to carry an EpiPen at all times, dining out can be a scary prospect requiring thorough advance research and knowledge of what went into every item on their plate.

For a dining experience to be enjoyable for everyone, navigating food allergies and food intolerance requires clear communication, kindness, understanding and patience on everyone’s part. It really is up to the diner to be informed ahead of time, to work with serving staff to choose carefully, and for the restaurant to be as forthcoming as possible with information about ingredients.

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Filed under food, Health and Wellness

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