Tips on eating out with food allergies
Eating out with food allergies is difficult. Some restaurants and cafes offer special menus or include ‘free from’ symbols on their menus, but these are few and far between.
The European Union (EU) regulations on food allergens were introduced in the UK last December, but it doesn’t seem to have made much impact. Under the regulations, restaurant owners risk large fines if they don’t state which dishes contain ingredients from a list of the EU’s 14 top allergens.* These include gluten, milk, celery and mustard seeds. This information needs to be clearly displayed and staff should be able to tell diners the ingredients of each dish.
Although the EU regulations are a big step in the right direction, if you have a food allergy you still have to be vigilant when ordering meals. Here’s some advice:
Before you visit a restaurant
Investigate the menu online to see if there is something you can eat. If it doesn’t seem likely, telephone the restaurant in advance and ask them whether they will be able to cope with your particular allergy. If you’re gluten free, give examples of what is not safe for you to eat such as wheat flour in sauces, breadcrumbs, stock cubes and so on. Does the information they give you on the phone and their manner fill you with confidence? If not, try elsewhere. Always get a contact name.
At the restaurant
Remind the waiting staff that you have food allergies and ask for the person you spoke to on the phone. In many cases, they won’t be there as they may work a different shift. Reiterate your particular allergy and discuss with the waiter what you can eat. Don’t be surprised if the waiter has to check with the kitchen. Be persistent and don’t place your order until you have been reassured that they can supply an acceptable dish. In some cases, I’ve asked to see the packaging of certain foods so I can check the ingredients. One of the problems is that some waiting staff can’t speak English and don’t understand the word “allergy”. On one occasion, when I said I had an allergy, the waiter tried to find it in the menu. I find it incredible that some waiting staff don’t know what’s in the food, have never tasted the food or been educated as to what is in the dishes so they can pass this information onto customers.
Don’t be put off by your friends (who don’t have food allergies) who are embarrassed, make jokes and get impatient. This is the price of eating out with food allergies. They won’t be the people who get sick, so take no notice.
Some restaurants such as Carluccio’s www.carluccios.com have a special gluten free menu, while Pizza Express www.pizzaexpress.com offers gluten free and dairy free pizzas.
The Leon chain www.leonrestaurants.co.uk have symbols indicating whether a dish is gluten, dairy or nut free. This is such a simple idea; I wish more restaurants would follow their lead. I do like their gluten free cakes.
When your meal arrives, ask “Is this dish gluten free?” as they place the plate in front of you. It is easy for them to make a mistake in the kitchen and give you the wrong meal. This has happened to me several times.
Buffet restaurants are a great idea because you can see at a glance whether there is anything you can eat, although you may have to ask questions as to whether certain dishes contain your allergen, unless the food is well labelled. Tibits buffet restaurant http://www.tibits.ch/en/home.html clearly labels all the dishes with symbols so you know exactly what’s in them.
Labelling is great but sometimes it can be inaccurate, so you should doublecheck. Restaurants can be over zealous with labelling. For example, in a staff restaurant, I thought I couldn’t eat the curry as it said “contains gluten” in the label, but it turned out it was only the accompanying poppadum that contained the gluten, not the curry.
It’s a good idea to take a snack with you such as gluten free crackers and bread. Make sure you have a written translation of “I have an allergy to dairy products – milk, butter, cheese, eggs” or whatever it is and then you can show this to the waiting staff in restaurants. I’ve found this method works well. You can try saying it, but unless you’re fluent in the language, they won’t understand you. Ask your hotel in advance to supply “free from” food for breakfast such as soya milk or gluten free bread. Always ask your hotel to direct you to the nearest supermarket so you can buy “free from” food and soya milk if needed. On the plane, I always take soya milk in 100ml bottles from Muji www.muji.eu
A growing demand
As the demand for “free from” food is growing – in the UK about 20% of the population are affected - many restaurants recognise the enormous opportunity to cater for this market. At the Rainforest Café www.therainforestcafe.co.uk , for example, there is a staff member responsible for looking after customers with food allergies.
Eventually you’ll create your own list of restaurants and chains which cater for your food allergies, but even if you think you know a particular establishment well, the same rule always applies – inform the staff about your food allergy as restaurants staff and menus change regularly.
There are a couple of Apps to help you find restaurants catering for people with food allergies – Coeliac UK has an App “Gluten free on the move” www.coeliac.org.uk and Biteappy www.biteappy.com is a worldwide search for people with food allergies.
Footnote: The EU top 14 allergens are: egg, molluscs, crustaceans, celery, milk, fish, treenuts, sulphites, soya, sesame, peanut, mustard, lupin and gluten