My name is Grace. I’m 16 years old, and I’m allergic to fish. When I go out to eat, my parents are the ones who always ask the waiter about food preparation to make sure the foods I get don’t contain fish and aren’t cross-contaminated. I’m growing up and will eventually go to college, so I want to go out to eat with my friends without my parents, but for some reason I’m nervous about asking my waiter about how food is prepared. I need to make sure my food is safe, but how can I overcome my shyness and fear of asking those questions?
Congratulations on entering an exciting time in your life! At 16, you’re going to encounter many new life experiences that you have to work through on your own now (or at least with less help), like driving on your own, starting to look at what colleges you want to apply to and maybe even looking for a part-time job. These are all exciting times in your life, but I get it—they can also be scary, especially when you have your food allergy to think about, too. First, I want you to know that you’re not alone.
Just under 6 million kids and teenagers like yourself live with a food allergy, whether that’s to fish, soy, gluten, peanuts or another food. That’s good news for you, because it probably means most restaurants have already been asked about food preparation by other people. You may not know it yet, but there might be kids in your class or even in your friend group who also live with a food allergy.
Does your school have a food allergy support group? If not, have you thought about starting one? That way, you can meet the other kids in your school who likely have the same experiences as you. Maybe they were in your shoes a year ago and can share how they overcame their shyness when asking about food preparation. You’ll likely make new friends, learn new techniques to approach food questions and bonus: it’ll look good on your college apps or resumé!
If that seems like a lot to take on, maybe choose one friend you really trust to go to a restaurant with so you can practice asking the waiter about food preparation. That way you’re not in a big group of girls doing it yourself for the first time. You’ll have the support of your friend and get some good practice while enjoying delicious food.
Another thing that may help ease your nerves is to look up the menu before you go eat. That way, you already have an idea of what you want to order. You can ask the server, “I think I’d like to order the vegetarian roll. I’m allergic to fish, so I have to make sure it’s prepared in a separate space from the other sushi rolls. Is that something you can do?” Another option would be to call ahead and ask your question over the phone. That way it’s not face-to-face the first time and then, when you get to the restaurant, you already know the answer.
One last suggestion is to continue to go out to eat with your parents, but next time you take the lead in asking about food preparation. Your parents can step in if you need help, but that way you can practice in a safe environment, surrounded by family.
I know it seems really scary right now, but I bet by this time next year, with practice, you’ll be a pro and won’t think twice about asking your server questions.