Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What Do You Disclose to a Server About Your Food Allergies?

This question is for all with food allergies (including celiac disease) who advocate for themselves: When you are eating out, what do you tell the server about your food allergies?

In my family, we crossed the boundary of “parent advocating for child with food allergies,” to “teen/young adult advocating for themselves,” when my son went off to college. Prior to that time I was nearly always with him in a restaurant and able to actively participate in the drill.

As a parent of a child with food allergies, I know that parents (okay, mostly moms) can be hawkish. We are protective. We ask all of the needed questions to make sure that our child is fed safely (and sometimes we ask them over and over again). That’s what Moms do, right?

But, when we advocate for ourselves, do we let our guard down?


With my own food restrictions (severe gluten intolerance and soy allergy) I tend to be less thorough. When eating out I tell the server that I am allergic to gluten. If they ask (as they seem to be prone to do lately) if I have celiac disease I have evolved to simply answering, “Yes.” I have discovered that this question is really being asked to determine how diligent they should be in the kitchen. Rather than a lengthy explanation of, “No, I don’t have celiac disease but I will get very sick if I eat any gluten,” or a lecture on why they shouldn't be asking that question, I find that the simple “yes” achieves the desired result. But I almost never mention my soy allergy. There are so many dishes that contain soybean oil or soy lecithin (which I am able to eat safely), but – especially at chain restaurants – those non-protein soy ingredients seem to be in everything. So I avoid mentioning my soy allergy unless I am suspicious that a dish I am considering ordering contains soy protein.

When I stumbled upon an article by Lane Moore titled, Why You Need to Stop Lying About Food Allergies, her story resonated. I watched my son order for himself (something he now does regularly when I am nowhere near) over the holidays. As a reminder, my son is allergic to wheat, dairy, eggs, peanuts, and soy – the same list as Ms. Moore plus soy. Also I will note that we have now crossed the boundary from “teen/young adult advocating for themselves,” to “Mom better not say a word because I do this all the time and know what I’m doing.”

I am silent as I listen to my son order his meal. And he handles it masterfully (albeit not as I would if I were ordering for him).

My son always chooses to disclose his dairy allergy. Often, that is the only allergy he mentions. If he is at a chain restaurant with a gluten-free menu he will order from the gluten-free menu and ask for the item to be prepared without cheese (or milk, or cream, or whatever dairy might be lurking in the dish). He doesn’t eat at places that have peanuts on the floor or prominently featured. My son doesn’t eat at oriental restaurants. He has discovered (as I have) that mentioning soy or eggs results in the eye-glazing look that Ms. Moore described in her article. If the server asks if he would like a gluten-free roll he politely passes because undoubtedly it will contain eggs; he orders the lettuce wrap with his burger for the same reason. My son orders nothing breaded (because even if there is a gluten-free breaded option he knows that it will be prepared with eggs).

If we are eating at a special restaurant – the type that cooks food for us – then my son will specify that he is allergic to dairy and wheat, and he may mention eggs. Again, he is trying to avoid the looks of disbelief or overwhelming the chef. Instead, he mentions his allergies as if they were simply normal, suggests alternatives, and asks if items can be substituted – all with a smile.

Your turn – how do you handle it?

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