Having a child with severe allergies turns everyday meals into a much bigger deal. When you cook for your child at home, you can check that every ingredient you use is peanut-free. But eating out takes some of the control out of your hands.
Restaurant menus don't always list every ingredient. And even dishes that don't have nuts could get contaminated when they're cooked using the same bowls and spoons as foods with nuts.
You don't have to eat at home all the time, or bring your own food to restaurants. Dining out can be safe for your child if you choose your restaurants carefully, plan your visit, and talk to the staff.
Use Caution When Picking Restaurants
Narrow down your restaurant options with an online search. Look for places that promote themselves as "nut-free" or "allergy-friendly." Chain restaurants can be a good bet. No matter where you are in the country, all of their restaurants usually use the same ingredients.
If you can't find any allergy-friendly restaurants on the first try, visit a few websites and scan the menus for nuts. And keep an eye out for dishes that could indirectly affect your child. For instance, if the restaurant serves peanut-butter pie, there's a chance the oven or serving tools could be contaminated with peanuts.
To be extra sure, call the restaurant to confirm that their dishes are safe for people with peanut allergies. If they can't accommodate your family, don't eat there. And if they say, "We don't know," consider it a red flag.
It may be harder to avoid nuts in some cuisines. Restaurants with Asian food, for example, often use nuts in their cooking. African, Mexican, and Mediterranean dishes can be nut-heavy, too. Nuts are sometimes hidden in foods where they're hard to find, like sauces.
Places that make a lot of fried foods can also be a problem for kids with peanut allergies. Nuts can contaminate the oil in the fryer.
Bakeries and ice cream parlors are also big on nuts. Desserts are more likely to contain nuts than entrees. It's safer for your child to wait and eat their sweets at home.
Buffets and salad bars can be big problems for anyone with allergies. With so many different foods sitting next to each other, a spoon or tongs could be used in more than one dish. Food from one tray can get dropped into another. You're better off ordering from the menu.
Before you eat somewhere new, call and talk to the manager and if possible, the chef. You'll have more time to talk if you call during the quieter hours between lunch and dinner. Also, plan your visit during off-peak times so the staff won't be rushed.
Some questions to ask:
- How do they train the staff about food allergies?
- Will they make special meals for people with allergies?
- Where do they prepare the food?
- Can they make your child's meal with a separate cutting board, mixing bowl, pan, and utensils?
Before you dine out, get a "chef card." You can get one from an organization like Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). It's a wallet-sized card that describes your child's allergies and explains how to prepare their food to avoid cross-contamination with peanuts. Show it to your server and have the server show it to the cook.
Don't leave home without your child's epinephrine auto-injector. You can't 100% prevent peanut exposure. More than half of allergic reactions in restaurants happen after people have told the staff about their allergy. Reactions can happen, even when the menu lists all allergens in the foods.
Also bring a pack of wipes. Most restaurants wipe down tables after each diner, but cleaning the table yourself will help make sure that it's free from any leftover food.
Always have a back-up plan. If the restaurant you visit can't accommodate your child's allergy, be ready to leave and go to a place that will work with you.
Give Clear Instructions
Tell everyone in the restaurant -- the manager, hostess, server, and chef -- about your child's allergy. Read the menu carefully to find foods that don't contain peanuts.
Ask how the dish your child wants is prepared. Are foods containing peanuts dipped into the same fryer as nut-free foods? Are the same spoons or knives used to serve foods with and without nuts? If your child wants something that does contain peanuts or that might be contaminated by them, ask if the chef can make it a different way. Be specific.
Once the food arrives, confirm with the server that it's the meal you ordered. In time, you'll have a list of restaurants that will work with your child's allergy. Things can get trickier when you travel. You'll need to do some careful planning before you go. But you should be able to figure out a system for eating out without always worrying about your child having a severe allergic reaction.