Monday, July 19, 2010

Food Allergies and Travel: Dining Out Tips

My blog was quiet last week since I was on a short summer vacay with the family, so I thought I'd share some of the insights I picked up while out and about.

For me, the most stressful part of traveling with my nut-allergic daughter is restaurants. We do go to them at home, but not super frequently and when you're away from home and staying at a hotel, restaurants are your main source of food. And as someone who watches "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" every day on BBC America, that is a pretty scary reality for me. The bottom line is that you just never know what is going on in a restaurant kitchen and who is doing the cooking. As we know, restaurant workers vary widely in their knowledge and understanding of food allergies. So the pressure is on us to communicate and navigate menus and establishments on our own.

Here are a few things I've learned. Forgive me if I'm repeating myself on any points--some can't be emphasized enough. Also, I've been getting messages from several new readers and they may not have heard these before. Okay, here are my tips for dealing with nut allergies while traveling.

Less is more. When evaluating a restaurant for allergic folks, seek our restaurants with small, simple menus. Why? Well, big menus that feature everything under the sun usually contain several off-limits items and cross-contact risk becomes greater. Also, the bigger the menu, the more likely that several chefs are cooking at once and again, cross-contact is an issue.

Find out what kind of oil they use for frying. This is especially important if a fried dish is one of a resto's specialities. We called every restaurant in Lake Geneva, WI that we wanted to try and found out that several used only peanut oil for frying. In that case, we skipped the restaurant entirely. Too much risk of cross contact. In other cases, we were told only canola oil was used--we had staff confirm this from the kitchen. Those were the restos we felt good visiting. So peanut oil is out and canola is in. Minimize your risk ahead of time and you'll have a better experience.

Get the menu in advance. Most places have their menu displayed outside the restaurant and in many cases you can get menus online. This is hugely helpful--don't skip this step! Knowledge of the menu helps you to avoid places that emphasize items that your allergic family members need to avoid.

Pay attention to salads. Salads are one of my daughter's favorite meals, especially Greek salads (no doubt a heritage thing since my husband is part Greek.) However, salads can be high risk so before you let your child order one, examine what other salads are on offer. Do any of the salads contain nuts or nut oils in the dressings? If so, don't order a salad. The reason? Sometimes chefs untrained in food allergy simply pick the nuts off of a prepared salad and serve it--this makes for a potential reaction because the salad is then contaminated. Dressings look alike and can be mistaken for each other. Side note: my daughter knows to do this already. When she ordered a Greek salad, I opened my mouth to say--let's look at the other salads first--and she already had read the menu. None of them contained nuts. One more reason to involve your kids in the menu-reading process, even when they are young. It's great when they take responsibility for their own allergies.

Take the pressure off with some non-restaurant meals. We made sure to get a room with a refrigerator, enabling us to give our kids some cereal for breakfast or simple snacks. We also had a picnic dinner and lunch during our vacation using items we purchased from the local grocery store. Our kids really enjoyed picking out foods for our picnics and our allergic daughter felt more in control. Our picnics were some of our best times while on our trip--and it was the one time I wasn't on alert for allergic reaction. I needed a break--and so will you. Adding a few non-restaurant meals to your trip is not only stress-saving, it's money-saving as well.

Readers, please feel free to share your tips as well. The bottom line is that we had a great, allergy-free trip by using some simple "menu detecting" and common sense precautions--and you can too. Still, I admit it's nice to be home in my own kitchen where I know what is being served!


Lindsay said...

An additional one is related to your "less is more" tip. Not only do I choose restaurants with smaller menus, but I choose dishes that contain fewer ingredients.

Paul Antico said...

Jenny --

I hope readers readying for a vacation would visit AllergyEats first at to find a list of nearby allergy-friendly restaurants. In less than 5 months, we've got thousands of members/fans and the largest # of allergy-related restaurant reviews on the web by far! And the momentum has only just begun to increase as awareness of Allergyeats has spread.

(It would also help if your readers would go to AllergyEats afterwards and rate the restaurants they patronized. It only takes a minute but helps the whole community.)

Sorry if this seemed like a commercial, but I thought informing your readers of this tool we've created called AllergyEats was valuable enough that I should share it here.

Paul (

jenny said...

We just returned from a safe trip to NYC and in a city that is filled with food, in every corner, we decided to go for super simple food. A vegan pizza restaurant that is nut free all together and a 100% Japanese restaurant (no fusion with any other type of Asian food, which is common in many part of the country)
In some previous travels, I have even packed a small George Forman grill and make simple food for my daughter.

Melinda said...

Will you be adding your Lake Geneva info to your blog or AllergyEats? I know you suggested AllerDine but they don't have any WI restaurants listed on their site.