Guest post from Teen Advisory Group member Josephine Schizer
For many teenagers like myself, spending time with friends is very important. However, many social occasions are centered around food, which can be challenging due to my many anaphylactic food allergies. My friends often want to go out to eat, but it is difficult for me to find places to eat safely. Recently, I have eaten in some new places and had both good and bad experiences.
One weekend my friend Jack* wanted to go out for lunch before our afternoon plans. Jack suggested multiple places, asking if any of them would work for my allergies. After looking at the menus online, one place he suggested surprisingly seemed possible. I called the restaurant and after listing my allergies, I was told that I should be able to eat there safely. The man I spoke to on the phone, Frank*, said he would be working the next day (when I would be there) and could help me. I was so excited that I would be able to eat out with a friend, which almost never happens!
The next day, Jack and I walked in and were dismayed to find that Frank wasn’t there, and neither was the chef Frank had spoken to the night before! The two people working there seemed totally clueless and knew nothing about the ingredients in their food. I was so disappointed, but knew I shouldn’t risk trying the food without confirming the ingredients! Jack, who is allergic to nuts himself, was so understanding, agreeing with me that I definitely shouldn’t try it, and decided that we should leave. Jack never once made me feel bad about it, and we decided to walk to a nearby supermarket and buy packaged sushi, which we then ate on a park bench. It wasn’t what we were planning on, but it worked out and we had a great time the rest of the day.
Later that week my friend Abigail* asked if there was a place nearby where we could eat dinner between two afterschool activities. The only place that seemed like a possibility was Frank’s restaurant, which hadn’t worked last time. However, Frank had been so great on the phone that I decided it might be worth trying again. After a second phone call, I went over exactly what I could eat and was assured that Frank would be there this time. Abigail and I entered and Frank, who was in fact there, confirmed that I could eat safely. I enjoyed my meal with my friend with no allergic reaction! Now, I have one more restaurant where I can eat safely for future occasions!
Eating out with friends is a fun way to spend time together, and is also helpful when you need to get food away from home on a busy day. Therefore, although it can be difficult, it is worth trying to find places that will accommodate my allergies, as it makes my life easier later on when friends ask.
There are many ways to prepare and make the experience more pleasant and likely to succeed. First, calling the restaurant in advance is always a good way to gauge their flexibility and competence in handling allergies. Take the opportunity to emphasize the severity of your allergies, talk through the menu to find out what might be safe, and get the name of the person you are speaking to. Use this phone call as a baseline, but be sure to check again at the restaurant just in case ingredients changed.
Second, educate your friends about your allergies! It is so helpful to have friends you can rely on. I tell my friends about my allergies, and they are always careful about eating around me, come with me to ask for special food, and know how to use an epinephrine auto-injector just in case. It made me feel so good that Jack was willing to walk out of the restaurant for me, no questions asked, and he probably didn’t even know quite how much I appreciated that. Everyone should feel that way about their friends. Don’t be afraid to tell them, because your friends will want to help keep you safe!
Third, it is always helpful to have a few places you can suggest to friends that you know are safe for you. When possible, it’s better to try a new place in a low-key setting like lunch with one friend or a casual family dinner, and not a high-stakes situation like a big dinner for your best friend’s birthday or a family reunion, just in case it doesn’t work out.
In new places, if possible, you should try to go at an off-peak hour so that the chef can take adequate time and care with your food. It’s best to start with simple food (skip the sauces and have your meat plain), because it is less likely that there will be a hidden allergen. Although it isn’t fun when everyone else chooses exciting food and yours is plain, remember that you are there for the company, not the food. It would be worse to have a reaction! Once you have eaten safely at a restaurant and know they are trustworthy, you can eventually try more complicated dishes if you feel confident.
Finally, allergy cards are a useful tool; giving one to your waiter serves as a visual cue to remember about your allergies, and makes it easier for the waiter to pass the information on to all relevant personnel.
As a teenager, restaurants have been a major challenge I have faced with food allergies. However, don’t let your allergies prevent you from doing fun things with your friends! I hope these tips help you to be able to participate in restaurant meals with your friends.
*names have been changed for privacy
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