How to Dine Out Safely With Food Allergies
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2022
Going out to eat is something most people do without a second thought. But for those with food allergies, eating out can be challenging or even dangerous. The good news is, you probably do not have to avoid dining out if you have a food allergy. There are steps you can take to enjoy restaurants safely.
Choose restaurants carefully
Look carefully at menus before choosing to go somewhere. Look to see if the restaurant explains the ingredients it uses in each dish. If this is not possible, here are some other tips for eating out safely:1,2
- If you have a shellfish allergy, do not pick a restaurant that mainly serves seafood because there is increased risk of cross-contamination.
- If you have a peanut or tree nut allergy, avoid Asian cuisine that uses peanut and tree nuts often.
- If a restaurant has a pizza oven, think about the possibility of contamination from various toppings.
- Avoid fried foods because of potential allergens in the frying oil.
- The more complicated a dish, the more chances there that there may be an allergen in the dish. Consider ordering something simple and straightforward.
Other high-risk restaurants for people with food allergies include buffets, bakeries, and ice cream shops. Buffets have a higher risk for accidental exposure and cross-contamination because foods are served close together and people serve themselves. Bakeries and ice cream parlors also have a high risk of cross-contamination.2
National chain restaurants may be a good choice when dining locally or when traveling. They are often required to use the same ingredients in all their locations. This can be an advantage if you already know the ingredients in their dishes.2
Ask if the restaurant makes its dishes from scratch on-site or if they serve pre-made foods. If the dishes are pre-made, staff may not be able to tell you all the ingredients in a dish.
After choosing a potential restaurant, if possible, call and speak to a manager or the chef. Tell them what you are allergic to and how serious your food allergy is. Let them know what you would need to avoid in your meal and if this is possible given how their kitchen operates. They will know if it is possible to avoid cross-contamination.3
You can also ask if they have experience with food allergies. If so, ask what they did in the past to keep their customers safe.
At the restaurant
When you get to the restaurant, remind your server and the manager about your food allergy and your needs. When ordering, ask about all ingredients in a dish.
Being clear and specific about what you are allergic to helps reduce any misunderstanding or confusion about whether you can eat a dish. If in doubt, do not order the food. Do not rely on visual inspection to figure out if a dish contains one of your allergens.
Consider dining during off-hours
Restaurants have peak business days and times. Consider going during a restaurant's slow time, especially if it is your first time going somewhere and you want to speak with the chef or manager. An example would be dining at 5 pm on a weekday instead of 7 pm on a Saturday night.
This will allow everyone time to talk without being rushed. It also makes it easier for the kitchen staff to take extra care preparing your food.
Bring "chef cards" to give to your server. These are wallet-sized cards that can be given to a chef that explain your food allergy and what needs to be done. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) offers printable chef card templates in several languages.2,4
Wear your medical alert jewelry in case of an emergency. Bring cleaning wipes to wipe down your seats, table, and menus. Make sure you have 2 doses of an epinephrine auto-injector and any other allergy medicines. Even if everyone is careful, accidental exposure can still occur, and being prepared is never a bad thing.
If you have a good experience somewhere, let them know they did an excellent job and how much you appreciate it. Leave a good tip. Keep supporting them by dining there, if possible. Once you build a relationship with a restaurant, it will make dining there that much easier.