Behind The Scenes: What Dining Out With Food Allergies Is Really Like

Most people only ask themselves two questions when it comes to eating out of the house- where to eat, and what to eat.  It seems quite simple. However, those with food allergies have to ask a lot more questions.

Chris O’Donnell is someone with food allergies who has had both good and bad experiences with dining out. His allergies include dairy, eggs, nuts, sesame, and shellfish. I conducted an interview with Chris via video chat, and he was able to explain to me what dining out is like for him. I asked him how he goes about explaining his food allergies to servers, what precautions he takes before eating, and to describe one positive and one negative experience he’s had dining out.

Chris said that he explains to the server all of his food allergies, the severity of them, and the concept of cross contamination. Then, he asks him or her to pass the word along to the chefs in the kitchen. Other precautions he takes include wiping down his chair and place at the table before getting comfortable, and calling ahead to restaurants incase he is unsure whether or not they can accommodate to his allergies. Before actually eating his meal, Chris will also perform something called a manual skin test. “I use a skin test, where I take some of the food, rub it on my arm, and wait to see if it has a reaction,” he said. Chris also explained that he carries his Benadryl and EpiPens everywhere he goes.

When I asked Chris to explain one positive experience he’s had dining out, he chose to talk about when he went to Billy Joe’s Ribworks* for the first time. He told me that they explained to him the full process of how they make ribs. “It made me feel safe, knowing that none of my allergens would cross paths with or land on my plate,” he said. Chris added that they tasted great, and it was a good experience because he was able to eat out with his family.

Chris then explained one negative experience he’s had dining out. He said that one time, the family went to TGI Friday’s for a special occasion, and he had a bad reaction. He said, “It wasn’t our first time eating there, and we explained my food allergies like usual.” He ordered pasta with marinara sauce, and a bowl of fresh fruit on the side, which is what he’s always had. The pasta went down fine, but when he went to eat the fruit, he had an allergic reaction. “First, my mouth started to get itchy, and I told mom something was wrong,” he said. “Then, I started to get hives and my airway started to get tighter.” Chris then took a lot of Benadryl, went home, and slept. As it turns out, the fruit was cross contaminated with dairy.

I conducted a second interview with Robert Jones, the kitchen manager of Billy Joe’s Ribworks. I called the restaurant before they opened  in the morning and he picked up, and agreed to answer my questions. I asked him to describe the experience of feeding people with food allergies at the restaurant, and he said that there are times he has to go out to tables and explain the kitchen’s allergy protocol to people. “It has become part of what we do in the back,” he said. Jones also told me that they take their own precautions to make sure food doesn’t get cross-contaminated, and it has become just a normal process.

The second question I asked Jones was what his personal connection to food allergies is, if he has one. He said that he has one friend who is highly allergic to shellfish. They were at a sushi place once, and cross-contamination gave Jones’s friend an allergic reaction and hospital visit. Jones said that incident showed him how detrimental simply using the same surface to prepare food can be when it comes to food allergies.

For those of you with food allergies, I suggest you take Chris’ precautions when eating out. But remember, a mistake can happen at any time, regardless of the precautions. When preparing a meal for someone with food allergies, it is so easy to forget to change gloves or wash hands after coming in contact with an allergen. Take it slow, one or two bites at first until you know it is safe. And don’t forget to carry your EpiPens!

* Check out my review of Billy Joe’s Ribworks!

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