Helpful Tips on Dining Out with Kids with Food Allergies

by Leila on February 16, 2011

My daughter’s food allergies appeared when she was just a month old. It was a terrifying experience and started us on a long road of lifestyle changes and learning to manage her food allergies without freaking out.  Her previous allergy list was Eggs, Milk, Wheat, Pork, Oats, Corn, Soy, All Nuts, All Fish, Eggplant and Berries. Yeah, we were very limited. Over the years of strict avoidance and a lot of conflict in between we have made huge progress with our modified lifestyle and with her allergies. The list is now down to eggs, milk, pork, nuts, some fish and shellfish. It is easier to manage but some of the same concerns are still there since the severity is so high she is contact sensitive so cross contamination can be devastating for her.

I had a manager at a restaurant chain ask me “Why do you even take her out to eat if it is so difficult?” and my response was, “Why are you such a heartless jerk?”

Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have said that but I was pissed. It boiled down to the fact that she did not want to deal with making any accommodations because she was just too busy. I won’t mention the restaurant’s name because the owner was more than amazing at helping squash that whole mess, told me what I should request in the future, gave me his personal cellphone number and gave us a gift card. We haven’t had problems since.

It is not easy going out to eat with children in general and especially with a kid with food allergies. But, I don’t let one crappy experience determine our choices. I want my kids to do what everyone does: Pay way too much food to eat out!

I’ve learned some very important things along the way so I hope that it’s something that may benefit another. Here are my basic tips:

1.       DO YOUR RESEARCH!!! Ingredient lists are usually available online. If you plan ahead you can look these up or even contact them directly to get a good idea of what options you have. PRINT IT OUT!!! I can’t even say how many times I’ve requested plain pasta, explained the egg/milk allergy, and had managers tell me “All bread and pasta has egg and milk”. Nope dude, read your ingredients and oh by the way I have them right here! That brings me to…

2.       READ THE INGREDIENTS! I always request to see the ingredients or ask that a manager verifies this. Supplies can change and they often do. So, even if you have gone to the same place dozens of times always, very politely, ask to see the ingredients. Also, try to refrain from calling someone a jackass when you prove you were right. I usually say something like, “Yeah I had no idea that this would be okay until I got used to reading all the ingredients of everything I touched! So crazy!” … then I will mentally add “Jackass”. Speaking of people being Jackasses…

3.       DON’T BE A JACKASS!! I’m blunt. I’m crude. I curse when the kids aren’t listening and often slip up when they are… but I truly believe in treating others the way you wish to be treated! I am really nice to the hostess and the servers and the managers and the random people around us when we are dining out. If you go in with your research done, with a great attitude and the biggest cheesy grin you can muster then you will be better off. Hey, it hurts me sometimes to be cheerleader nice. If I can do it so can you!

4.       ALWAYS ADDRESS THE ALLERGIES FIRST!! If it’s the first time I have been in a restaurant I will always ask the hostess to bring the manager over to discuss food allergy options. As soon as our server greets us I will let it be known in a very tactful way. I usually try to do this away from my kids because, unfortunately, there are some jerks out there that have created bad situations and reduced my kids to tears. When you got hungry kids and are feeling the funk from someone it’s good to have…

5.       TASTE IT!!!!!! I won’t feed my kid something prepared for them unless I sample it first. Something has looked okay, I’ve been told it was prepared okay but when I tasted it holy shit there was butter on it. That would have been a trip to the hospital!

6.       ALWAYS BRING SNACKS, TREATS OR A BACKUP!!!! I always have snacks on me. I always bring some kind of sweet treat (We really don’t do a lot of sweets/candy so this is brought out when we might be in a pickle) If I am going somewhere new I always, always, ALWAYS bring a backup meal. Sandwich or rice balls or pasta will be the main thing I will bring then I can add fruit or sides from the restaurant. Sometimes, it sucks because they can’t be accommodating for your kid but you can bring your own food so they still have the sit down experience.

7.       SAY SOMETHING NICE ANYWAY YOU CAN!!! I’ve walked out of restaurants pissed off but could find something positive to say. If we have great service I like to take a few minutes to tell the manager and thank them for their time and efforts. They remember that. The staff remembers that and they usually get some kind of incentive for compliments. They like that! I also think it’s important that I show appreciation to those who go out of their ways to make sure my kid doesn’t go into anaphylactic shock!

8.       ALWAYS BRING EMERGENCY SUPPLIES!!! This goes without saying but I have to say it because it will make me feel better. Always bring Benadryl, Epi pen, wipes, inhaler or whatever you have to manage your child’s allergies. We do not leave the house without these things and especially to places where there is a higher risk of break out!

9.       LEAVE IF THE PLACE IS BEING A BUTTHOLE! It’s okay to leave. It’s okay to just go with your gut and not want to give someone your business. If it’s just the manager or staff then follow up with a very professional and tactful letter outlining your experience. I’ve had an amazing response when I’ve felt a situation was crap and I followed up with the owner. Some places I just won’t go to again but I appreciated the efforts.

10.   USE YOUR COMMON SENSE!!! I say this simply because I have been in situations where I know there is nothing my kid can eat but my friends/family/coworkers have said “Oh let’s just go anyway… we can figure it out.” Yeah, no…. not always! We don’t go to seafood restaurants because the likelihood of cross contamination is high and I do not think it’s worth the battle/risk to try to get the cook staff to accommodate. It’s just not an option. We also don’t usually go to buffets because even if they have a clean setup you cannot control user error! I see people putting the soup spoon in with the mac and cheese. Ugh.

11.   BRING CARDS OUTLINING THE ALLERGIES!!! I have a simple card that I bring with me that says “Hi! I have food allergies to (list them). Please don’t feed me anything with these in it or cook my food with these items! A clean grill and clean utensils will keep me safe! Thank you!” Sometimes the physical card eliminates error in translation.

12.   BIG HUGE TIPS ARE ALWAYS REMEMBERED!!! I have friends that are and have been servers and the big tippers are always remembered. I figure if I am going out I will always factor in a large tip for excellent service.

13.   BRING DISTRACTIONS!!! Toys, coloring books, books and angry birds seriously help the dining out experience. I’m not the type of parent that lets my kids bring electronic handheld games everywhere we go but sometimes I make exceptions. Think of everyone around you and don’t bring something obnoxious. I think my ipod touch is mostly used when we dine out and that’s when we get most of our levels on Angry Birds! Ha!

14.   DO NOT GO AT PEAK TIMES!!! You will have more luck with happy staff if you schedule your dining experience on off peak hours. They will simply have more time to devote to you

15.   ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE!!! Seriously, keep it fun… keep it positive… don’t freak… don’t scream… don’t let the little bumps in the process put you in a funk. It’s not easy to dine out with food allergies so accept that but hope for the best.

These tips are by no means fool proof and are just my opinion. Do not expect flawless results by following my advice. I’m not responsible if any mishaps arise if you try to dine out. These are just friendly suggestions on how to make your experiences a little easier.

About Leila DontSpeakWhinese

Leila, aka The Ninja, is the advocate for all things not whining. Parenting is fun when everyone stops b*tching! She is the Mom of a big blended family of five awesome kids. They ninja kick through life together. Oh and she is a total jackass.