Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dining out with food allergies

Restaurants have greatly improved in knowledge and accommodation of food allergies. Many restaurants now have gluten free menus. I always find this an encouraging sign- it means they are aware of gluten sensitivities, and likely conduct staff training regarding food sensitivities. This translates to other food sensitivities as well, so even if your sensitivity is not gluten, a restaurant with a gluten-free menu will likely understand your allergy to "x" and take the same precautions. Tip: even if dining in a restaurant with a gluten-free menu, be sure to discuss your allerg(ies) with your server, or the manager. Be sure they understand your specific needs, and make sure they understand issues of cross-contamination, etc.

The best option, if you need to be away from home for any length of time, is to bring a little cooler with some allergy-safe snacks. Fresh or dried fruit, veggie sticks, nuts, granola, water, etc. Or a big green smoothie in a glass! I use a mason jar, plastic lid, and a big fat glass straw.

Other options

Asian restaurants- steamed rice & steamed veggies. Depending on your allergies, you might also be able to use soy or other sauce, but be aware that soy sauce contains wheat AND soy. Also be aware of the oils used for stir-frying veggies- it could be soy, peanut, sesame, canola oil or a blend- any of which may be a problem for you, so always ask. I play it safe and get steamed rice and steamed veggies, no sauce, no oil. Be sure they use a freshly sterilized pan to prepare your meal (good restaurants already know this, but it never hurts to ask the server).

Salad bars- In my opinion, salad bars are not a good option- there is too high of a risk for cross-contamination. Customers pick up tongs from one item and use them for another item, food falls off tongs into another bin, etc. Be careful about salad bar items that come from a jar or can: artichokes, olives, water chestnuts, even beans. You can't be sure what they were packed in. You can ask the manager to check for you- I've found they are usually very accommodating about this. Don't even think about a salad dressing- there are waaaaayyyy too many ingredients in commercial salad dressings. Use oil & vinegar if you go the salad route. Ask what kind of oil if oils are a problem for you (it's usually olive oil but you never know). Salad bars are not impossible- I often use the one at Whole Foods- but be aware of the risks, and choose wisely based on your own sensitivities.

Juice and smoothie bars- The best options for juice and smoothie bars is those that make the juices FRESH, from whole, fresh ingredients. You can often find these types of juice bars in health food stores and Whole Foods. Be careful about chain stores, such as the smoothie stores you see in shopping malls. Those ingredients are often canned or frozen, and have added ingredients for color, sweetness, etc. It is not impossible to find a viable option at one of these places, but it takes a lot of time, label reading, and communication with the staff. If that is the type of smoothie bar near you, and you want that to be an option, I would recommend speaking with the manager at a time when they are not busy. Explain your food sensitivities and ask him to check the package ingredients, to see which might be an option for you. Also, ask about every ingredient that goes into the smoothie. Commercial smoothies are not only fruit. They often also add a thickening agent, and sugar. Some have an added protein (soy, whey, egg) that might be an ingredient you are trying to avoid. Ask specifically about these items. Often it does not occur to the staff that those items could be a problem. As with other restaurants, smoothie bars should also use a freshly sterilized blender carafe to prepare your item (again, this is usually not a problem). In my experience, I've found staff totally understand using sterilized utensils, but they rarely understand hidden ingredients.

Stay tuned for future posts on this topic.

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