The Disturbing Truth About Dining Out With Food Allergies

Turns out you may not be able to rely on your server to keep you reaction-free. Here’s how to stay safe and enjoy yourself too.

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If you’re one of the more than 32 million people in the United States with at least one food allergy, you know that eating out can be a risky game. You may rely on the wait staff at restaurants to help keep you safe — but it may be time to rethink that strategy.

Turns out, servers may not know much about food allergies and often have negative views about people with special dietary needs, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

To get a better understanding of restaurant staffs’ attitudes and knowledge surrounding food allergies, researchers interviewed 295 randomly selected staff members from restaurants in Düsseldorf, Germany. Results showed that only 30% could identify three common food allergens. To wit, when given five true-or-false questions about food allergies, just 41% got them all right. For example, one in three people said they thought drinking water was a way to dilute food allergens. Um... no. [Insert horrified face here.]

It gets even more concerning: Not only did most interviewees say they felt good about their colleagues’ ability to meet the needs of customers with food allergies (despite their own lack of knowledge), most reported generally negative views about serving this group overall. Why? In part because they don’t trust that customers tell the truth about their restrictions all of the time. Great.

What’s a diner with allergies to do?

While these results are undoubtedly upsetting, it’s not realistic to say that everyone with food allergies should avoid going out to eat altogether. But it is smart to take steps that can help keep you as safe as possible when you do. Here are a few key tips:

  1. Ask to speak to the manager. We know, it can feel like a bit much, but managers were shown to have a higher level of knowledge about food allergies compared with other staffers, according to the study. When you speak to your server, ask them to send the manager (or, better yet, the chef on duty) over too. Tell the manager or chef directly about your concerns, and hopefully they’ll go the extra mile to ensure you avoid your specific allergens.
  2. Pick a larger restaurant. That little hole-in-the-wall joint that just opened up down the street may seem like a hip choice for your date night, but the study also showed that staff at larger restaurants were more likely to be educated about food allergies.
  3. Do your research. Before dining out at a restaurant, give them a quick Google. That way, you can check out their menu, identify foods that may be a good choice for your situation, and see if they offer any special menus for people with food allergies (many places now offer a gluten-free menu, for example). You can also try searching a restaurant’s reviews on Yelp to see if other customers with food allergies had a good experience there before you make the leap yourself.
  4. Go for simple ingredients. While you may be tempted to try that complicated-looking dish starred on the menu as a chef’s favorite, it may be a wiser choice to pick out menu items that have simpler ingredients (for example, baked salmon with a side of greens rather than an elaborate pasta dish with a sauce that may include sneaky ingredients).
  5. Take a personal allergy card with you. Some people with food allergies find it’s helpful to carry cards with them that list all of their specific food no-nos — that way you can ask your server to pass it along to the chef. Use this handy template from Food Allergy Research & Education to make your own.

While it can feel embarrassing to take all these extra steps when you’re out in public, try to shift your mindset to feel empowered instead. The more steps you take to keep yourself safe, the less likely you are to have an unexpected reaction, according the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. And if anyone gives you a hard time, just make it clear that you’re trying to avoid a surprise hospital visit over dessert.

See more helpful articles:

Food Allergy Safety Tips for Dining Out

Food Allergy Prevention Tips for Parents

10 Things to Know About Food Allergies in the Classroom