For the 15 million people with food allergies (and their families), traveling can be a source of tremendous anxiety. As the parent of three food-allergic children, I know first-hand how nerve-wracking it can be!
Dining in unfamiliar cities and restaurants - which may or may not be able to accommodate special dietary requirements - can be extremely stressful. Worrying about a possible allergic reaction compounds the problem.
I've traveled extensively with my children - who are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, sesame and dairy - and have learned some key lessons from our experiences. There have been countless times that my family has spent up to an hour or more visiting many different restaurants, looking for places that could accommodate my children’s multiple food allergies. I've learned the importance of planning ahead, researching menus and gathering peer feedback to make more informed decisions about our restaurant choices. That's why I founded AllergyEats, as a source for finding allergy-friendly restaurants.
Tips for Traveling with Food Allergies
Based on our experiences (and my subsequent work in the food allergy arena), I offer the following tips for traveling with food allergies and intolerances:
- Research restaurants in advance. Whether you're traveling across town or across the country, doing online research first is a wise move. Look up restaurants' menus, ingredient lists and allergen statements. A site like AllergyEats can be incredibly helpful, allowing you to find restaurants where otherfood-allergic diners have had positive experiences and avoid the ones that are less allergy-friendly. Additionally, interactive smartphone apps, like the free AllergyEats app, provide mobile access to allergy-friendliness restaurant ratings, as well as restaurants' websites, menus, directions, phone numbers and more.
- Be prepared. Always travel with Epi-pens, Benadryl or other allergy medications in case of an allergic reaction. Know where to go for medical help in your destination city (and along the way). Even restaurants with the best intentions and food allergy protocols can occasionally have a mishap, so always be prepared in case of an emergency.
- Try to dine at off-peak hours. Peak times at a restaurant mean busy servers, a busy kitchen, and a higher likelihood of communication or cross-contamination mistakes, which can be extremely dangerous for people with food allergies. If you dine before or after the busiest times, your order will likely get greater attention. If you must dine during peak hours, be extra vigilant.
- Ask open-ended questions. Inquire about ingredient lists, restaurants' procedures for avoiding cross-contamination and staff communication protocols - but in a way that inspires ongoing dialogue. My son is allergic to peanuts, so instead of asking, for instance, if French fries are cooked in peanut oil, which results in a yes or no answer, I ask what kind of oil is used in the fryer. By keeping my questions open-ended, the server is forced to ask the chef about any unknowns – as opposed to possibly guessing – and I feel more comfortable making decisions based on those answers.
- Read ingredient lists and labels. Families with food allergies are accustomed to reading ingredient labels at the supermarket to avoid products containing their allergy triggers, and they shouldn't be shy about doing the same in restaurants. Comments on the AllergyEats Blog show that many food-allergic diners ask to read ingredient labels at restaurants, where available, to double-check that the sauces, breads and other foods are free of their allergens. If the restaurant staff doesn't offer to show you ingredient lists and labels, ask to see them.
- Avoid restaurant buffets. Even if a dish wasn't cooked with peanuts, dairy, eggs, gluten, or your other allergy triggers, it can easily be cross-contaminated from other items or utensils in a buffet. Your best bet is to avoid buffets altogether and politely ask the restaurant staff if they could please prepare a separate meal that's free of your food allergens.
- Stay vigilant wherever you go. Your favorite local restaurant may be terrific about accommodating your child’s food allergies, but never assume that another restaurant – even if it's part of the same chain – will be able to cater to your child’s needs as well. Chain restaurants often have different owners and managers at each location - each with a different level of food allergy knowledge, experience and training. Ask questions and be cautious every time you dine out.
- Acknowledge a positive experience. If the service was excellent and your meal was prepared correctly, thank the staff, leave a generous tip and let the restaurant staff know that you'll be returning (and recommending their establishment to others).
- Leverage the food allergy community for advice, tips and info-sharing. Discussions on food allergy Blogs and social media sites (including the AllergyEats Facebook page and blog contain helpful information from the food allergy community. These forums offer great tips, advice and "lessons learned" about traveling with food allergies.
- Trust your instincts. Does the restaurant's server, manager and/or chef sound confident and knowledgeable about how to handle your special meal preparation? If not, leave and find another restaurant.
- Post about your experience on AllergyEats. Whether your dining experience was positive or negative - or somewhere in between - please take a minute to rate the restaurant on AllergyEats. By doing so, you'll help others with food allergies find accommodating restaurants.
Resources for Travel with Food Allergies or Intolerances
I'm constantly looking for ways to increase my comfort level when traveling with my food-allergic children. That's why it was so important to me that AllergyEats is helpful and easy-to-use -- even while on-the-go -- resulting in a more enjoyable, less stressful trip.
AllergyEats lists well over 625,000 restaurants nationwide, which food-allergic diners can rate. The site also offers information on restaurants’ menus (including gluten-free menus), allergen lists, nutrition information, certifications, web links, directions and more.
And, like most families, we love traveling to Walt Disney World. So I recently launched the AllergyEats Disney World microsite to help families navigate the many restaurant options in and around the theme parks, reducing the worry that often accompanies traveling with food allergies.
While Walt Disney World is widely considered the "gold standard" for accommodating food-allergic guests, there are still some restaurants that are better than others at catering to diners' special dietary restrictions.