Eating Out and Travelling

Alana and her family have travelled extensively with 6 food allergies plus non-Celiac gluten sensitivity and lactose intolerance.  The Elliott family has been to the US, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, England, Bermuda, the West Indies and Costa Rica.  Through careful planning, Alana believes that travel and eating out, including in your own community, is possible.  These tips are meant to help you fully enjoy your life no matter what special diets you might have to cope with.



Traveling and Eating Out

Choosing a Restaurant

While eating out at restaurants can be stressful, there are many excellent establishments who have gone out of their way to accommodate special diets.  And why not?  Once trust has been built with an allergic customer, we tend to be very loyal.  Some smart restaurants have discovered that their investment in staff training and foodsafe practices pays off by earning that loyalty.

But it goes both ways.  Restaurants have also been highly frustrated by customers not letting them know about a food allergy before ordering and customers who say they are allergic who the server then sees eating off others’ plates.  Frustrated establishments often then choose not to go the extra mile.  How we communicate our needs is incredibly important.

It also pays to be smart regarding the type of food establishment you choose.  Ideally it makes sense to not purchase from street vendors or outlets where they do not actually cook/assemble the food on site unless it has been manufactured at a separate establishment where they’ve put a proper food label on it.

Take into consideration your particular allergy as well.  Do you have Celiac Disease?  Eating out at a bakery deli might not be the wisest choice.  If you have a peanut allergy, Vietnamese restaurants often use peanuts as a garnish and avoiding peanuts would be extremely difficult.

There are different tools available online to help you with choosing a restaurant.  One site called Gluten Free Registry is a searchable database of American restaurants/delis/coffee/fast food businesses that are recommended by Celiacs.  Even if you don’t have Celiac Disease, it is a good place to start as many of the establishments mentioned also accommodate other special diets.

One caveat in finding a great local restaurant that is part of a chain; unless it is fully company owned, each restaurant is franchised by different individuals.  Don’t assume that each restaurant in the chain handles their food allergy safety the same way.

Restaurant Dining with Special Diets

Once you’ve chosen to eat out, here’s what you can do to make it a success:

  1. Ask about accommodations by phoning ahead or before sitting down.  You can check at the door or counter of the restaurant to see if they are capable and/or willing to accommodate special diets.
  2. State your food issue clearly and concisely.  If you are deathly allergic, say so.  If you have a mild sensitivity and just need to avoid the ingredient directly, say so.  The server can then communicate properly to both the kitchen and to you about their food allergy practices.
  3. If you decide sit down, come up with a couple of different choices you’d like to order from the menu.  If you’re with others, do this before they place their order and ask the server to check with the kitchen and report back.
  4. Don’t be afraid to leave if you don’t feel safe.  It’s not rude nor do you owe anything as you and your companions have not yet placed any order.
  5. Once the server has reported back and you feel safe, make a choice and have your companions order too.
  6. When your order arrives, double check your item to ensure that it was what you ordered and no mistake has been made.  Be sure to check garnishes as well.
  7. If the server and restaurant did a great job, be sure to tell them and tip well.  Restaurants will continue to go that extra mile if they feel that their effort was appreciated.

If you ever do have a reaction after you’ve left, tell the restaurant, not social media.  If the establishment is really trying to be responsive to special diets, they will appreciate having the opportunity to fix the problem.  They cannot do that proactively if you don’t let them know about it directly.

Dining as a Guest

Once you’ve been diagnosed with food allergies and intolerances, it will become very clear to you how much our society socializes around food.  Whether it’s friends or family, challenges are everywhere.  Here are some points to consider:

  • Set the stage before you arrive.  Clearly communicate your needs including their severity. 
  • Acknowledge that it can be difficult to accommodate your needs and that you greatly appreciate the opportunity to work with the hostess and the meal selections she has chosen.  If she finds your needs overwhelming, let her know that you are fully prepared to bring your own meal as you value spending the time socializing with her over increasing her stress level.
  • If the hostess would like to try preparing food for you, let her know some basics including not cooking with bulk food items, using new food ingredients (such as butter) and to please keep all packages and recipes out so that you can review them with her before the event.
  • This is when it is helpful to suggest brand names of items you know are safe that will be used in her recipes
  • Volunteer to bring an item that you know is very difficult to prepare with your dietary issue ( i.e. dessert)  Be sure to  inquire as to any dietary needs of other guests; you may not be the only one who has dietary issues to address
  • Arrive early, with your hostess’s prior knowledge, specifically to review those recipes and packaging that she used in preparing the meal.
  • Don’t forget to let your friends and family know how much you are thankful for their willingness to help you.  Everybody loves to be appreciated.

After following all tips, you will still run into scepticism about food allergies and the inability of some to actually prepare a safe meal with your guidance.  Just remember that your safety comes before anything else and saying no to an event may be needed.

Children's Birthday Parties

Children’s birthdays are very difficult for many food allergic children as they can be very isolating.  Sometimes parents specifically choose not to invite food allergic children as they fear their inability to accommodate the special diet or they simply don’t want to.  Addressed are the 3 most common settings where children’s birthday celebrations happen:

At School

  • If your child attends a school where parents bring treats for their child’s birthday, consider keeping treats specifically for your child at school.  Whether it is frozen cupcakes labeled specifically for your child or a treat that your child picks out and keeps at school, they are then available for any unexpected treat occasion
  • Consider asking your child’s school to not allow food at/delivered to school.  Many schools have made this policy both for food allergies and to address nutrition.  This also includes teachers giving out treats for rewards.

At Other Children’s Homes

  • When your child receives an invitation, give that parent a call to discuss your child’s food allergies
  • Remember that if your child has a severe food allergy, you’ll need to teach the other parent to use the epi-pen and if they are not comfortable, you’ll need to be willing to stay at the party.  Offer to help out if this is the case.
  • Be willing to send a complete meal and/or birthday treat for your child to eat alongside the other children
  • Make sure that your child is trained in washing their hands well before eating

Activity Centers/Restaurants

  • When your child receives an invitation, give that parent a call to discuss your child’s food allergies
  • Remember that if your child has a severe food allergy, you’ll need to teach the other parent to use the epi-pen and if they are not comfortable, you’ll need to be willing to stay at the party
  • If they will be going to a restaurant or play center, give the birthday coordinator at the facility/restaurant a call.  Ask them how they accommodate special dietary needs
  • Be willing to send a complete meal and/or birthday treat for your child to eat alongside the other children as long as the center allows it
  • You may need to pay your own way to accompany your child if at an activity center.  Be sure that you let the birthday child’s parent know that you will do that.
  • Bring wet wipes to use to wipe down surfaces and make sure that your child washes their hands very well prior to eating.

Travel

There are several different things that you need to consider when you’re traveling, from working with your travel carrier to language barriers that you may face along the way.  What you may need to address:

Transportation

  • Call ahead to the carrier that you will use to find out their policies for special diets.  You can also check their website.
  • If you have a severe food allergy, be sure to indicate that in clear language when you book.  Special diets will not require letting the airline know unless they are serving a meal (i.e. gluten free, Kosher)
  • If a meal is served on the flight, ask about their ingredients and preparation practices.  It is rare that you would be able to eat their food so you must be prepared to bring your own meal on board.
  • Be aware of what is reasonable.  Asking an airline to completely remove an allergen from your flight is not generally accepted practice.  However, creating a buffer zone around the allergic individual may be possible.
  • Ask if special cleaning at your seat will be possible before you board
  • Most airlines will no longer make an announcement asking people on the flight to abstain from eating a specific food due to most airlines no longer offering meals
  • Announce yourself to the desk prior to your flight and inform them of your food allergy in case it is not recorded
  • Bring your own wet wipes and completely wipe down all hard surfaces that will be touched including on-call buttons and tv screens.
  • Be aware that the various employees you meet along the way may not have been properly trained or well informed about food allergies and/or their company’s policies. 
  • Always completely wash your hands before eating or drinking any item

The most difficult trips for planning are those where you are moving daily and trying to catch meals on the fly.  If you have tried to get a safe meal in an airport, you know the frustration of not having safe food at your fingertips. 

For your travel days, pack your own snacks but remember to make sure that they meet security rules so that they won’t be removed from your carry on.

If you require special medication (such as an epi-pen) as you move through Customs in other countries, have your doctor provide you with a letter regarding the need to have the medication on your person.  It’s usually not needed but it is a lifesaver should you have any issues.

 

Food at Your Destination

  • Try to book a hotel room that has at least a fridge and a microwave.  At the very least, a coffee maker can provide you with hot water for instant meals
  • If you can, book a suite with a kitchen.  Wash all of the pots, pans and utensils before you use them to ensure that all food residues have been removed
  • Bring toaster bags with you if you plan to use a toaster.  They are washable or disposable and allow for you to toast your own safe food without contamination from the toaster.
  • Pack a suitcase with all of the shelf stable food items that you may need.  Include snacks, meals, utensils, straws and even pans if necessary.  The cost of paying for the extra bag will be well worth it on the other end.

 

Language

If you are traveling where you don’t speak the first language, it is imperative that you have a way to communicate your special diet needs in the local language.  Consider purchasing translation cards.  You can either purchase them from several websites or download an app to keep on your phone.

At least 6 weeks ahead get your doctor’s note regarding your medication translated into the language of the company you are visiting.  If your doctor is willing, have them put this translation on their letterhead so you have one in English and one in the language of the country you are visiting.

Sleeping Arrangements

Whether in a hotel or sending a child for sleepover, some basic ground rules should be followed and taught to allergic children to follow if their parent is not present but allergic adults should follow them too:

  1. Hotel Bedspreads:  we’ve heard horror stories for years about what germs bedspreads harbour but the same holds true for food allergens.  People often sit down to eat on hotel room beds and if the hotel still uses bedspreads, they are often not washed between guests.  Either remove the bedspread completely or call down to explain your food allergies and get a freshly cleaned bedspread (be sure to explain why it must be freshly cleaned).
  2. Hotel blankets:  the same holds true for hotel blankets that are generally not washed between guests.  Either remove the blanket or call down to the front desk to ask for a freshly cleaned blanket
  3. Couches:  whether in a hotel or at a friend’s home, couches are often used for snacks and often contain food debris.  It is preferable to not sleep on the couch at all but, if unavoidable, using a clean bed sheet to completely cover all of the couch cushions is imperative.  If sleeping on a foldout couch, use completely clean bed linens, not those that have been in the couch for some time.  If necessary, travel with and/or send fresh bed linens to be used.
  4. Use wet wipes to wipe down all hard surfaces to remove food allergens.  Include hotel alarm clocks, lamps, light switches and remote controls that may not be properly cleaned between guests.
  5. Always hand wash prior to eating any food and again when finished.  If water is not available, wipes are appropriate if they are used carefully.  Hand sanitizers do not fully remove allergen residue.