Kelsey Quinn sits down to dinner with her friends and gently opens the menu the waiter hands her, though she already knows what’s on it—and what she thinks she’s going to get. Quinn, who lives in Portland, Oregon, is highly sensitive to gluten, so as soon as the “where should we go?” question popped up in her group chat, she responded first, naming a place she knew prepared gluten-free options safely. Still, she was ready to ask her usual questions to the waiter about how certain dishes were prepared, and what exactly was in the sauce. Welcome to the world of navigating the restaurant scene with a food allergy or sensitivity.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires clear labeling of food products with the eight most common food allergies (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy). However, there is no federal law requiring restaurants to warn customers of food that may contain allergens or take any special precautions to avoid cross contamination—which is problematic, given that an estimated 15 million Americans have a food allergy. According to FARE, a food allergy education and advocacy group, only five states have laws requiring restaurants to better serve customers with food allergies.
The lack of oversight means that it’s up to the customer to watch out for his or her own health. This isn’t just about someone not eating bread because gluten-free eating is a trend; people with food allergies can suffer debilitating and even life-threatening symptoms if they eat the allergen, and people with a sensitivity or intolerance can endure serious digestive distress. It can take the joy out of dining out and instead add a whole lot of stress and confusion. That’s why we talked to a registered dietitian with a food allergy, along with two other women with food allergies and intolerances, to get their tips on how to keep yourself safe while still enjoying your meal.
All three women interviewed for this article say doing your research ahead of time, if possible, is immensely helpful and can limit the stress of in-the-moment ordering later. “I always look at the menu before I go somewhere, partially because I’m a foodie and curious, and partially because as a gluten-free diner, I want to know ahead of time that there will be options for me,” No Bread blogger Nicole Cogan says. (She has Celiac disease, which is technically an autoimmune disease, but it causes a serious reaction to gluten that prevents people who have the condition from eating it.) “This way, if I have any questions for the restaurants about their gluten-free items, I can call ahead or ask in advance so I don’t have to make a big deal of it at the table.”
What’s the deal with gluten, anyways? Here’s what an RD wants you to know:
Registered dietitian Lindsey Janeiro, RD, who is highly allergic to tree nuts, says while it isn’t exactly trendy to suggest a big chain, she points out that they can be the easiest to research when it comes to what’s safe to eat. Chances are, if you Google “eating at Applebee’s with a soy allergy” or “dairy-free options at Chipotle,” you’ll find others have asked the same thing. Many chains put their full menus and ingredients lists on their websites, which makes research much easier, too. “Often, you’ll find that big companies are holding themselves responsible to keeping eaters safe in a way that smaller, independent restaurants might not,” Janeiro says.
Does this mean you’re doomed to never try cute, local places because you were born with a dairy sensitivity or a tree nut allergy? Of course not. But it may mean you’ll have to ask the waiter and chef more questions once you get there. “I would also recommend eating a bit earlier in the day so the chef can really focus on your dietary needs and can answer your questions at a time when he or she isn’t slammed,” Janeiro says.
Fortunately, the research phase of going out to eat is getting easier for people with food allergies and sensitivities. Yelp, for example, is getting more personalized, filtering options based on users’ individual eating styles, including vegetarian or gluten-free. “Yelp’s newly created heart symbol will appear throughout the app to clearly show why the business is being suggested to you,” Yelp’s trend expert Tara Lewis says. For example, if a restaurant has a lot of gluten-free options and you’ve indicated in your Settings that that’s a priority for you, it will earn itself a little heart icon.
Whether you did initial research or not, the work isn’t done once you find yourself in the restaurant. “You have to be comfortable being the one at the table that’s going to spend five minutes asking the waiter questions, because that’s what you need to do to keep yourself safe,” Quinn says.
If possible, Janeiro says to ask to speak to the chef who will be preparing your food, as he or she will have a better understanding of what exactly is in the meal and if there is risk for cross-contamination. (Don’t just take the waiter’s word for it.) She also says it’s critical to ask how something is prepared versus if it’s dairy-free (for example). “If you have a peanut allergy, for example, something may be cooked in a peanut oil but they may not think to tell you, so you have to ask how things are prepared and what oils are used,” she says.
Cogan seconds the advice of asking exactly how your food is being prepared: “If you order gluten-free pasta or pizza, there is a good chance it is cooked in a shared boiling pot or oven. This does not ensure it is totally gluten-free because it is subject to cross contamination,” she says. “So even though restaurants are taking measures to offer GF alternatives, it may not actually be gluten-free.” Depending on the severity of your allergy or intolerance, this information can affect your ability to eat any food that’s prepared. Sauces can be a particular sneaky place allergens pop up, so Janeiro and Cogan both recommend asking about exactly what’s in it.
Ultimately, Janeiro says, it’s up to you to keep yourself safe. “While it’s nice when a chef works to cater to someone with a food sensitivity, we can’t expect a chef or waiter to know how to change a dish to cater to every single request someone has,” she says. As long as you do your research and know what to ask before you order, you can spend the majority of your meal focusing on who you’re with and how good everything tastes—just like someone without any sensitivities at all.