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Imagine having a child with a life-threatening allergy and being too afraid of the possibility of an anaphylactic reaction to attempt the “simple” act of having a meal at a restaurant. Here three experienced moms talk about their challenges and triumphs in dining out.
Sometimes the Answer is Yes
My fingernails drum an irritated rhythm as I search through a convoluted menu. Sifting through the miles of allergen-ladened dishes for a plate of plain, fresh fruit and vegetables, I can feel my irritation build to a quiet desperation. I never imagined ordering fresh fruits and vegetables would be something akin to the search for the Cup of Christ. Glancing across the faux wood table at my four-year-old, I can tell the five packs of Smarties he’s eaten in the last fifteen minutes will wear off soon. I don’t have time for an expedition through modern gustatory trends of egg-topped hamburgers and seasoned fries. I need a banana or a green pepper and I need it now.
A waiter delicately clears his throat at my elbow. I smile and politely ask if I can just order a plate of fresh produce for my son. He looks at me as if I’ve just asked him to store a dead body in the kitchen. I glance at his nametag. ‘Alex’ nervously stammers and stalls until he explains that he’s new and no one has ever asked him for a plate of fresh food. Breathing deeply, I search for the patience I’ll need to organize a kitchen safari for some grapes and a cucumber. From across the room, a manager picks up the scent of server fear as he moves toward our table. Oozing customer service from every pore, he inquires into the panicked look on Alex’s face.
I point to my son as he licks the last of the sugar remnants from his Smartie wrappers and patiently explain to Alex, and now Randy, that my child has a rare disorder and cannot eat anything with wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, nuts, tree nuts, fish, or shellfish right now. They now both look at me with that same ‘dead body in the kitchen’ face. A giggle escapes my lips. I’m a master of the nervous laugh. I ask them if maybe the chef can prepare some fruits and vegetables on a plate, ones that haven’t come from a bag or a box, ones that don’t have any dip or special seasoning sprinkled across the top. Watching them scramble to the kitchen, I start to doubt whether we’ll order anything at all today and grab my son’s allergen-free formula—my son’s savior for the next few weeks. I’m prepared for a no from the kitchen as I look out the window for the nearest grocery store.
Alex and Randy usher an older man in a white coat and pants back to my table as if he is an ambassador and I am the queen of some ancient, indigenous tribe just emerged from the jungles of South America. Smiling and still giggling, I explain the situation again and ask for that plate of fresh fruits and vegetables.
And then, the miraculous happens.
The man in the white coat and pants smiles back. He pats my shoulder and says, “Of course! I thought you were asking for something really difficult!”
And I smile again, because I know. I know that sometimes the answer is no and that finding a plate of fresh fruit and vegetables isn’t so easy in a restaurant. But I breathe a sigh of relief and smile even wider, because in this moment we are much like anyone else. Because sometimes, sometimes the answer is yes.
I could have easily written about any number of times that we entered restaurants and were denied such fresh fare. During the days and months after my son was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis, eating out really was an expedition and we never really knew what we were going to end up with—the smiling yes or the exasperated no. Restaurants, even chains, can be so dramatically different that I can’t impart some allergen-free dining secret that will make eating out easier. I can only tell you that sometimes the answer is yes. And hopefully, as time goes on and as the public learns about different types of dietary needs and medical challenges, the answer is yes more often.
– Alicia J. Hart
Author: Brains, Trains & Video Games: Living The Autism Life and Foods, Moods & Isms: Living The Eosinophilic Life
Columnist: Autism Spectrum Quarterly
Adjunct Faculty: Virginia Commonwealth University
Department of Special Education and Disability Policy
Autism Center for Excellence
Eating out can be hard for families with food allergies. It seems there are very few restaurants that even have a clue about food allergies, let alone how to accommodate them. One of our preferred restaurants is Red Robin because they have a binder for food allergies that you can ask to see when you’re seated. It has menus listed by allergy. You will have to cross reference if there are multiple allergies, but it’s pretty easy.
The location closest to us is so good that the one time I tried to order a burger with onion straws, but a gluten free bun due to an allergy, they reminded me that I couldn’t eat the onion straws. You would think I would know this by now, but my own allergies are newer to me.
Like every restaurant, you still have to check out every location. Even as good as Red Robin is with their food allergy binder, results can vary by location due to management. We have three locations that are in our area of frequent travel. The one in our town and the next town over are great! The one an hour away, and in a high tourist town will even question my husband if he wants to change the bun on his burger, and he has no allergies at all. The service at that location is less than stellar, so we eat elsewhere when we’re in that town as a result.
– Amanda G.
TGF Special Menus and Understanding. TGI Fridays!
I live in the city and I notoriously hate chain businesses. Especially chain restaurants. Then, almost 9 years ago I had a baby who happens to have five food allergies that cause him to have serious reactions. He has had anaphylaxis a few times now. When he was diagnosed with food allergies there were very limited resources on the internet beyond recipes. We just avoided everything and ate at home. My husband or I cooked every meal our child consumed. It was exhausting but we were just so afraid.
One Christmas we received TGI Friday gift cards. On my husband’s vacation we decided to go as a family, but pack a meal for my then four year old food allergic kid. As we told the server about my sons allergies he returned with an allergen menu. This menu was different. It told you which of the Big 8 allergens were in each item for all the choices on the menu. What an amazing idea. We found a few choices for our kid to eat that night We were so excited we have been back many times since. TGI Friday’s has become my son’s #1 choice in a
restaurant. He is especially fond of the angel hair pasta. I thank them to this day. They made eating out as a family safe and comfortable for us when it was for so long a very scary idea. After that first dinner I cried as I watch my kid consume something I did not prepare, knowing it was safe. I will continue to support their
business for years to come.
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The Golden Corral in the town over from ours has an allergen list as well!
That’s awesome! Thank you for sharing with us!
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