For me, the most stressful part of traveling with my nut-allergic daughter is restaurants. When you're away from home and staying at a hotel, restaurants are your main source of food. As someone who watches "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" 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. Yes, some restaurants do a stellar job, but you always have to do your research prior to eating.
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. When we travel, we call restaurants with lots of fried items and ask if they use peanut oil. If they do, we skip it. I've heard a lot about the "cold-pressed" vs "refined" peanut oil debate and some people insist that peanut oil is safe. The thing is, people have reacted to peanut oil -- some fatally -- and I would also argue that if you tell restaurant staff that you can have peanut oil with a peanut allergy, you're sending them a mixed message that may result in other kitchen mishaps. Plus, no peanut oil is 100% free of peanut protein, so for me, that's dancing too close to the mouth of the volcano. Many times, restaurants tell us that they use canola oil, and we have staff confirm this from the kitchen. These are the restos we feel good visiting. If you want to be absolutely safe, 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 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 and more relaxed. 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.
AllerDine and Allergy Eats. These two food allergy restaurant guides help you decide where to eat by offering a database of U.S. restaurants that are rated according to your specific allergen. If you travel and find a good place to eat (or a bad place) don't forget to share your experience on these helpful web sites! www.allerdine.com and www.allergyeats.com