How to Eat Out With Food Allergies or Intolerances

I remember scouring every menu before I went out to eat, always dreaming of my next culinary adventure. Of course, I miss choosing any item from the menu and not having to ignore most appetizer and dessert menus. When I first learned about all my food issues, I was so nervous about losing my restaurant privileges. I didn’t want to feel restricted with all the great food around me in both Boston and Providence and I hated the idea of having to explain my situation to every poor waiter that was unlucky enough to get our table.

It’s never easy to tell a waitress on her first day “Oh I can’t have gluten,” and then she smiles back because gluten is now a simple task to take on. But, now I have to follow-up with “…and corn, soy, eggs and dairy. I’m sorry.” This is followed by an awkward giggle from me and then you see his/her face start to turn as they quickly walk away with a final remark, “Let me check on that and see what we can do.”

I can admit that at some places, the process can still be difficult and awkward. Some restaurants are really good at handling diet restrictions and others just say you can have the side salad.  You do have to know that when you have such restrictions, the meal of your dreams, (every time you eat out) may not be reasonable. Sometimes you just get grilled meat and steamed vegetables and sometimes it’s  worth eating before you meet up with people.

Nevertheless, here are ten ways to make the ordering and eating experience at restaurants more bearable and still enjoyable when you have food allergies and sensitivities.

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  1. Give Them a Heads Up: Before you go to a restaurant, call them and tell the host about your dietary restrictions so the chef and waiter are prepared in advance and have options for you. It actually makes you feel a little VIP when they’re ready for your arrival. That’s what I tell myself :-). Most restaurants are great about accommodating dietary intolerances and allergies but it’s easier if they know beforehand.
  2. Be Prepared: The easiest way to feel confident when you walk into a restaurant with several diet restrictions is to know the menu before you order. This will help you brainstorm ways to change a dish to fit your diet and you can easily give your  waiter some options so he can check with the chef to see what he/she can do.
  3. Cross Certain Cuisines or Restaurants Off Your List: For me, certain cuisines just don’t work for me anymore. I know this is a hard pill to swallow (especially because I LOVE food) but it’s just something you have to accept. Since I have a soy allergy, many Indian restaurants solely use soybean oil so I haven’t been able to go to them in some time. It’s important to check on that before attempting to even find an item on the menu. I called up a Cambodian restaurant in Providence that Bon Appetit raved about and I gave them my laundry list of foods and the guy simply said, “This place is not for you.” Touche. I’d rather know before I go to a restaurant, that I can’t eat anything there.
  4. Have a Card or Paper For Chef: My dietitian gave me a card that lists all the foods I can’t eat. Some restaurants prefer that you just give the card to the chef so they can easily digest (ha!) your restrictions and while they are cooking, they can reference the card. You can easily make one yourself and leave it in your wallet so you have it for the next time you go out to eat.
  5. Learn Your Go-Tos: You don’t have to get the same dish every time you eat out. In fact, that may be my worst nightmare. However, if you start to get a feel for dishes that often work for your diet or certain food items that you love, that should help you when you are ordering out. I don’t usually bother with the pasta section because most places use gluten-free pasta that has corn. But I now know that chicken or seafood dishes can often be changed to fit my needs.
  6. Be Careful of Hidden Allergens: No one wants to make you feel sick or hurt you but sometimes some elements of a dish are overlooked when it comes to food sensitivities and allergies. A lot of sauces have gluten and soy, so you should check on that before ordering. Sometimes meat is marinated in advance so make sure that’s also checked.
  7. Sharing Dishes Means Compromise: When you’re getting tapas or sharing a few dishes family-style, you can’t ask the people around you to make every dish work for your diet (especially when you have quite a few items on your “no” list). It’s just not fair. Compromise is key here. Just ask the people you are out with if you can choose one or two dishes that fit your diet so you can join in with everyone and well, EAT.
  8. Don’t Be Afraid to Double Check: Luckily, I have been going to restaurants that are super accommodating with my restrictions. However, sometimes in the hustle and bustle of a restaurant,  the chef can easily throw in something to garnish or season that won’t sit well with you. Last week, I ordered a dish and confirmed that it was corn-free. Yes, everything in the dish was corn-free but somehow the chef just sprinkled some corn in the salad that came with it. Just look over your dish quickly before you dig in.
  9. Laugh It Off, They’ve Seen Worse: You’re going to be that person, so just own it. It usually sparks some interesting table conversation and if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people who love you, they won’t care one bit.
  10. Thank the Chef: I’ve read many times that chefs actually like when they have to go off course with their menu to accommodate people with food allergies. For some cooks, it helps strengthen their creativity in the kitchen. Nevertheless, if the restaurant and chef go above and beyond,don’t forget to thank your waiter for the communication and help and tell them to thank the chef for being so helpful.
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