“Let’s just stay home.”
This is how I felt during the first couple of months after my sweet 8 month old baby was diagnosed with food allergies.
The amount of information I was learning about food allergies was like drinking from a fire hose. Every instinct in me wanted us to cocoon around our family to protect ourselves while we figured this out.
The first few months after a food allergy diagnosis can feel that way. If you have felt that way too, here is a list of resources we wish someone had handed to us during that time.
We hope it’s helpful to you!.
Over time, my confidence as a food allergy mom began to grow and I want to encourage you that although it is never easy, it does get more manageable over time. You do find a new normal. You’ll find many safe brands and types of foods.
It’s a lot of work to find safe foods, new brands, and introduce new foods. Each one of those steps helps to take the burden off prepping all of the food.
But the reality is, feeding a family on its own is a large task. It is a completely separate deal to prepare meals that are safe for families living with food allergies.
We have found a few restaurants that we trust that have helped ease that weekly burden.
In time, you may even find safe restaurants that you trust, but we can totally relate to it feeling intimidating to take your kids with food allergies out to eat! That’s why we wrote this post.
Here are 6 Tips that have helped our family!
1. Check Out Fast & Casual Restaurants
This is where we started adventuring out. We wanted some quick food that we could pick up on our busier days as a family.
Two fast and casual restaurants we love that have great allergen guides and protocols are Chipotle and In & Out Burger.
Both restaurants have also been accommodating with food allergy protocols. Things like changing gloves, bagging things separately, or getting a fresh batch from the back. I’ve heard over and over again from other food allergy families that they have had good experiences with these restaurants.
Maybe one of these could be a good starting point for your family!
2. Restaurant Allergen Guides
More and more restaurants are getting onboard with sharing food allergy information.
For example, Chilis, Red Robin, and Olive Garden have allergy menus you can review ahead of time.
For big chain restaurants, I definitely recommend searching their website ahead of time to see if there is an allergen guide.
Sadly, for those of you managing allergens that fall outside of the Top 9, most of these guides won’t suffice. I know. It’s a huge bummer.
We know how hard managing non-top 9 allergens can be and we definitely recommend calling the restaurant directly.
3. Call Ahead
I highly recommend calling ahead and speaking with the staff. It’s helpful to call during a non-busy time and bring up your concerns. I usually look at the menu online myself first to get an idea of what foods contain our allergens.
As a general rule, I don’t love lots of nuts on the menu because cross-contact is a huge concern for my son. I pass on a restaurant if I see lots of nuts in appetizers, main courses, etc.
If I see nuts listed in just a few items, salads for example, then I would at least call to ask if they could accommodate us.
Some questions to ask:
- Are you familiar with food allergies?
- Have you served patrons with these allergies before?
- What kind of oil is in the fryer?
- Is the fryer shared with other foods? (aka what else is cooked in the oil)
- How do you handle cross-contact (aka are you able to cook my food on separate equipment and with safe cookware)
- What on the menu would you recommend that would be safe for these food allergies?
Without a doubt, the answers to these questions usually determine my comfort level in visiting these restaurants. If the staff seems unsure, or clearly communicates that they do not have allergy safety procedures, then we pass on eating food there.
4. Try to Avoid Peak Time
We’ve all had mistakes happen at restaurants. They bring out the wrong food, forget an extra side dish, or leave out a ingredient substitution, etc.
This is what terrified me about eating out after my kids were diagnosed with food allergies. For us, a simple mistake on their part has potentially huge consequences on our end.
Hence, it is the main reason we don’t eat out very much at places that have my son’s allergens.
When we do go to a sit-down restaurant, we do try to reduce the human-error possibility as much as we possibly can. We call ahead so they know to expect us and no one is surprised.
Another way we do that is to try to avoid the really busy times at the restaurants.
We have had a much better experience when the wait staff is not frazzled and the chef has time to come out and speak with us. And yes, if we are at a restaurant where my son’s allergens are served, we speak with the chef.
I have lots of respect for waiters. I literally cried and hugged one who was sooo thoughtful about our family’s food allergies.
However, they are not the ones preparing my child’s food. The chef is. And I don’t want any miscommunication about exactly what our needs are.
If this is too much to ask at this restaurant, we take our business elsewhere. We make this clear on the phone before we arrive as well, so no one is shocked.
Again, it is helpful (not required) to do this on the earlier or later end of the rush hour rather than right in the middle.
5. Bring What You Need
I always have safe food with us. Literally, I am a walking buffet, picnic, potluck, whatever you want to call it. I embody the mom with snacks in her purse. You should see our car!
However, there have been scenarios where I even have had to pack a meal to bring for my kids at a restaurant.
For example, if we are invited to a social gathering at a restaurant and I know the food is not going to work for my kids, I would pack their own food. I still prefer and advocate that no nuts or peanuts are served at our table. This way we can still be included.
If the staff asks about you bringing in your own food, usually explaining the situation, and sometimes showing the epinephrine injector, is enough. If they make a fuss at me, then I simply don’t give them my business.
There are plenty of other places.
If it is a restaurant where there are open nuts or peanuts, (think Texas Roadhouse or Five Guys) that’s a hard pass for us and we would skip the event.
One of our family food rules is if we are not comfortable with the safety of the food, we don’t eat it. If the food doesn’t look right, you don’t feel comfortable with the staff, etc., after you get in there, then it’s just not worth the risk.
Furthermore, especially in this scenario, it is really nice to have your own food on hand, even if it’s just snacks. That way you know you can head out and have safe snacks waiting for your kids in the car.
Additionally, I also bring wipes to wipe down the table area and chair (high chair) where my kids are sitting. I do get looks sometimes, but after COVID, many people don’t seem as weirded out by this!
Especially with little kids, this can be really nice. When my kids were babies and toddlers, the disposable placemats came in super handy at restaurants so I had a clean surface to put their finger food on.
Similarly, Katie’s family has even brought their colorful plastic placemats from home so that her kids felt more familiar with the setup.
Unquestionably, the epinephrine injector should also be with you.
Katie’s family gently teaches their children that the epipens are an extension of their bodies. If they go, the epipen also goes.
Our family practices that same principal. It is actually one of our family safety rules. If we forgot the epi, we turn around and go get it.
Every. single. time.
And we do not eat any food until we have the epinephrine back in our possession.
6. Go Local
Get to know the small restaurants in your area!
@DetectiveHarley has a wonderful instagram account where they just shared a story about how a local restaurant has known and cooked for them for years and truly understands how to manage their allergy needs safely.
And if you don’t follow this account, we highly recommend them. Harley is a dog that can detect peanuts in food!
Additionally, consider going to the restaurant first (before you bring the kids) to speak with the staff and see if they can accommodate your needs. This might take some time, but if you can find even one local restaurant that you love, how great would that be?!
Another way to find allergy friendly restaurants in your area is with the Spokin App. This was created by a fellow food allergy mom and is a wonderful resource. Check them out here.
We hope this has been helpful to you!
Katie and I both have felt the fear and anxiety in allowing other people to cook for our children. Truly, it took a long time for us to find safe restaurants that we felt comfortable ordering from.
It has helped ease the burden of cooking for our families, but we know not everyone shares our comfort levels.
Honestly, if your family does not feel comfortable eating out, then don’t feel pressured to do so! Every food allergy, family, and experience is different, which is completely okay.
Feel free to direct message us your questions or leave them in the comments. As always, we’re here for you!