Eating out with food allergies can be a major minefield. You may have mastered eliminating the allergen in your kitchen, or even at your child’s school, but restaurants are a whole new world. To ensure your child’s safety while still enjoying going out, know your rights, be prepared and take proactive steps.
Know the Laws
There is no overarching federal law that requires all restaurants to label foods or warn consumers about allergens. The Food and Drug Administration does require ingredient labeling for chain restaurants, but this does not include a large number of restaurants in the U.S. Some states and cities have laws requiring restaurants to take certain steps for allergen safety. For example, in Rhode Island restaurants must display food allergy safety posters, include reminders on menus for customers to ask about allergens and train managers be trained in food allergy safety.
Rights under the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that someone with a disability is not discriminated against. According to the law, a disability is an impairment that significantly limits life activities, like eating. It is important to know that under the ADA restaurants are not required to serve allergen-free food. However, they are required under the law to take reasonable steps to accommodate someone with a disability, including life-threatening food allergy. Reasonable steps may include answering a parent’s questions about ingredients and allergens or being willing to make appropriate ingredient substitutions.
Take Matters into Your Own Hands
While you and your child have rights under certain laws, the real burden of responsibility is on individuals with food allergies and their families. To keep your child safe while eating out, be proactive:
- Call restaurants ahead to find out if they can accommodate your child’s dietary needs.
- Ask restaurants about food allergy training and whether or not they keep allergen-safe foods separate from other foods, using appropriate hygiene practices.
- Avoid food establishments that are more likely to have cross-contamination: bakeries, buffets, those with premade foods.
- Ask questions at the restaurant about ingredients and food preparation.
- Order items that are simple and likely to have fewer ingredients.
- Tell the manager if you have a good experience with helpful staff and patronize those restaurants that are most accommodating.
- As a last resort, bring food from home. If you have to go out for an event, such as a wedding or birthday party, you can be sure your child has something to eat that is safe.
Eating Out Abroad
If you’ll be traveling in foreign countries, the complexity of eating can get overwhelming fast. Start by researching before you go, and find out what the laws are with respect to restaurants and allergies. For example, it’s useful to know that in the United Kingdom, restaurants are required to inform customers about the presence of 14 food allergens. It also helps to bring a stack of food allergy alert cards in the language of the country you are visiting. The card should clearly state—in the appropriate language— which allergens cannot be in your or your child’s food. Bring several so you can use them everywhere you go. One source of these allergy alert cards is AllergyTranslation.com.
Eating out should be fun, not frightening or stressful. Unfortunately, enjoying restaurants isn’t as easy for someone with food allergies, but with the right preparation, the right questions and good communication with staff, you can make eating out both safe and fun.