Eating out with confidence

Eve Menezes Cunningham has some great tips and advice.

Many people exaggerate. They say that they’re allergic to food they only dislike. This adds to the challenges for people with genuine allergies and intolerances when it comes to eating out. These tips will help you make people understand that you’re not being a diva but need reassurance that eating at their home, restaurant, event or resort will be safe for you.

“Mistakes are more likely when you’re away from home, so it’s not something you can treat lightly or be over-confident about,” says Alex Gazzola, author of Living with Food Intolerance and Living with Food Allergies. “It is vital to understand what you can and cannot eat – it’s no good expecting others to if you don’t.”

Whether you’re eating at a friend’s house, work event, wedding, restaurant or you’re on holiday, Alex says, “Get family, friends and colleagues ‘on side’ before you go out. Let them know about your dietary needs and that you will need to talk about them, so you don’t feel embarrassed when the time comes, and they can support you as needed.”

“Be polite throughout. Make a point at the end of the meal of thanking staff for catering for you. It will encourage them to become more aware of those with specific dietary needs. Spread the word and report excellent establishments to others.”

At friends’ and acquaintances’ houses

You know your friends best. Some will only need you to mention it once and they’ll keep you protected from harmful foodstuffs forever. Others will keep forgetting and you might end up wondering if they are actually trying to kill you.

They’re not. It’s just hard for people who don’t have allergies and intolerances to get their heads around how even a trace could make you very ill. If you don’t often eat there, they’re likely to have forgotten. Remind them of your allergy when they first invite you and a couple of days beforehand. You might even offer to take your own food in some situations.

“The main thing that most non-allergy sufferers do not understand is that allergens may often be included as ingredients, even where you might least expect it,” says Sam Thewlis, the mother of a son with multiple allergies and allergy blogger at Food Allergy Kitchen.

“Ask to see the packaging and ingredients for anything anyone else has prepared, to make sure no dangers lurk. If you are in a potential dinner party situation, ask what the menu is and maybe suggest an allergy friendly alternative, or offer to bring a dish.”

“My friends are brilliant at acknowledging my situation,” says Julie Penfold, a freelance writer who is allergic to nuts and lactose intolerant. “They buy Lactofree alternatives to cheese and milk and ensure the kitchen is entirely nut-free when cooking to ensure I can share the same meals without aggravating my allergy.”

Others are not so sensitive. “One friend told me during the meal that she had put only a sprinkling of parmesan on top of the lasagne just as Peter was finishing his meal,” says Wendy Bailey, a PR agent who is allergic to fish and whose husband is allergic to cheese. “I decided not to mention that he'd eaten cheese but about 15 minutes later he was sick and we had to go home.”

In restaurants and cafes

Now that so many restaurants have their menus online, it’s much easier to phone up in advance to ensure they can accommodate your dietary needs. “Speak with the head waiter or chef,” says Alex. “Try mid-afternoon, during a quiet period.” He also suggests asking others with allergies and intolerances for restaurant recommendations.

“It can be difficult in a busy restaurant,” says Miles Quest from the British Hospitality Association. “The most important thing is for guests to tell the hotel or waiter what the allergy actually is. They would know what is in the food and how they prepare it but they won’t know how it affects people. Say something like, ‘I can’t eat nuts. If I have a nut, I will die’. Tell them exactly what the problem is and they will take note.” Ideally, you should ring in advance so they can let you know if they can accommodate you.

“I find restaurants and friends are great at dealing with my food allergy,” says Julie. “By explaining my allergy when making a restaurant booking, the majority of restaurants will offer plentiful safe alternatives or will let you know they are unable to guarantee ingredients will be allergy-free.”

“Most restaurants now have allergy information available on request,” says Sam. “Although bad news for nut allergy sufferers is that many eateries will not guarantee nut free food, due to the risk of cross contamination. Cross contamination is a big problem in restaurants. Although individual items may be free from whichever allergen causes you an issue, kitchen staff are rarely trained in allergy awareness so may well use the same utensil, or cooking oil, to touch breadcrumbs and then potato chips, for example.”

This is one of the things you can stress when talking to them so you can relax. And if they can’t reassure you, you’ll know to eat somewhere else.

Wendy’s husband has been caught out even after studying menus. “You have to actually ask, ‘Is there cheese/nuts/fish in this dish?’  You are not being annoying. You have to stress, ‘Please can you find out from the chef if this dish is free from xyz’ and explain how serious it is if you eat this food you're allergic to.”

At networking and other catered events

Throughout human history, sharing meals together has been important. But with allergies and intolerances so prevalent, it can feel nightmarish for a sufferer. Existing anxieties about your allergies may get heightened as you imagine missing out on work or the joy of family celebrations. But again, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure you don’t miss out.

“At events like Formula 1, we see a large percentage of people who have allergies to things like nuts and wheat on a regular basis,” says Steven Saunders, a Master Chef, an original chef on BBC’s Ready Steady Cook and Creative Director of the Aspire Group.

“We (Aspire at Silverstone) have an events manager always on hand to take careful note of these requirements and ensure that they are implemented successfully. All we ask the client to do is let us know.

“There is nothing more frustrating than being informed last minute so please call or email well in advance. Clients can email most events asking for someone from catering to contact them urgently about serious food allergies. The catering department will call and take details. They will then have someone to oversee that the criteria are met and everything should work out well.”

Even if you’ve been reassured that food at such an event is safe for you, aim to be first at the buffet to avoid any potential cross contamination in case serving implements get mixed up later on. And, while it can be a pain, have a larger earlier meal or snack so you’re not left feeling hungry and cranky if something does go wrong with the planning.

If you have a choice of networking events such as breakfasts, lunches or dinners, think about the kind of meal most likely to contain your nemesis and, where possible, opt for safer meals.

“I find most venues are great at offering separate meal options for those dealing with a food allergy,” says Julie. “Always to let staff know ahead of the event to ensure they have advance knowledge of your allergy to prepare alternatives.”

“This can be a minefield,” says Wendy, “Finger food is a potential time bomb. Often, the people serving have no idea what they’re handing round. Keep it simple. Eat what you can identify with your eyes. Be vigilant. Ask, ‘What is this, please?’”

On holiday

It’s natural to feel even more anxious about staying safe at mealtimes on holiday, especially if you don’t speak the language. I used to mime imminent death in an effort to explain what would happen if a trace of bell pepper contaminated my plate but now simply get the phrase properly translated so I can show everyone that I’m fine with ground and chilli pepper but not red, green, yellow or orange.

“I always research food in the area ahead of making plans for the holiday,” says Julie. “Always discuss food issues with your travel agent and, if language is a barrier, ask them to discuss your food allergy with the hotel and airline in advance of your trip. If in any doubt, when eating out and about on holiday, I tend to stick to a largely fruit and vegetable diet to ensure there are no problems.”

“The main problem with eating abroad is that you do not know what is in the food,” agrees Sam. “If you are buying food for yourself, you may not understand the ingredients in a foreign language, and our own allergy labelling standards that mean most foods list ingredients and an allergy awareness panel often do not apply abroad.

“When eating out, even if you ask about ingredients and explain about allergies, there is no guarantee that the meaning will translate properly. Take some staple foods with you in your case.”

Eve Menezes Cunnigham is a freelance writer who is, herself, severely allergic to bell peppers. You can contact her at

First published in January 2011


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