Finding Safe Food on Vacation: Seven Lessons Learned.
If you’ve researched all your allergen specific and/or gluten-free dining options in advance of your vacation, you’re awesome! You’ve cut stress and hours of research time out of your trip, thereby maximizing the fun. Congratulations!
But then there’s the rest of us. Perhaps we thought we’d somehow fit this research time in before we left — in between the packing, appointments and general demands of a busy family.
Or, if you’re like me, you did do some research, googling your destination and checking results on dining apps like AllergyEats, Find me Gluten Free, and more. And the results were unfruitful. But even the best laid plans go awry. Businesses close and itineraries change.
These scenarios above lead to one fall back option: Find a dining establishment on the fly.
In our hometown, my skills have gotten a little rusty as we tend to frequent the same businesses. A three-week trip has since cured me of that. After repeatedly finding dining options on short notice, my approach has been fine tuned.
It’s still a daunting task — and I’m not perfect at it. But the lessons learned (or re-learned) along the way were valuable. I hope you’ll find them helpful and respond with some of your own!
“My son has a life-threatening peanut allergy in addition to celiac disease. Do you use peanut products in your gluten-free bakery?
Lesson 1: Be specific — really specific — in communicating your dietary needs.
Apparently, the question posed above to a staff person from a gluten-free bakery in Kailua-Kona a few weeks ago wasn’t specific enough. She replied that she couldn’t think of any baked goods that had peanuts in it.
Upon further questioning, I was handed off to a supervisor and learned that while they don’t use peanuts, they do use peanut butter. Clearly, not everyone connects the dots — Peanut butter is a peanut product!
Many families have found it useful to hand out allergy cards to restaurant staff for their reference. We haven’t utilized this resource but it seems like an excellent idea.
Check out Kate’s post about allergy cards on her blog The Diary of Ana Phylaxis. Erica Dermer of Gluten Free & More (formerly Living Without Magazine) just wrote an article about using food allergy dining cards. Very helpful! I plan to order some for my son — and for myself with my 10+ food intolerances.
“Our gluten-free bakery may not be appropriate for your son if he is particularly ‘sensitive’ to gluten.”
Lesson 2: Don’t assume that a gluten-free bakery — or a gluten-free menu — is gluten-free.
You know that bakery that I just mentioned above? I was informed by the supervisor that if my son was very sensitive, we may not want to eat there. That GF bakery becomes a pizza parlor every afternoon — and NOT a GF pizza parlor. “There’s gluten on the walls and on other surfaces,” she informed me. Gluten-free? I don’t think so.
While GF menus abound, the gluten-free movement has been influenced by people opting for a GF diet — people who need not worry about traces of gluten or “cross contact” (as restaurants say).
I’m making a point now to explain that my son has celiac disease and he cannot tolerate traces of gluten. Which leads me to cooking practices…
“We have to avoid traces of peanuts and gluten to keep my son safe. Are you able to provide a meal for him where cross-contact would not occur?”
Lesson 3: The must-have conversation: Discuss cross-contact concerns and ask about their cooking practices.
When inquiring about getting a safe meal, I want to hear the restaurant staff describe what they do to avoid allergens. It is definitely appropriate to ask for a manager or chef!
We find these responses encouraging:
- We use separate pans, utensils, etc, so cross-contact does not occur.
- Allergen X is confined to area X only. The dish you’d like is prepared elsewhere.
- Our staff has been trained in food allergy preparation.
- Let me get the chef and he / she can go over your options.
Before deciding to dine there, we often ask for guidance with choosing menu items that are safe from contamination and what items we should avoid. This gives us another opportunity to assess their knowledge:
- Our fryers should be avoided as they are contaminated with gluten.
- The grill wouldn’t be safe but we can put the burger in a separate, clean pan.
- I would be glad to show you the container / bottle / box so you can read the label.
This interview is vital in helping us answer that nagging question. Can we trust them?
“We can’t guarantee that your meal will be free of (allergen)…”
Lesson 4: Recognize the disclaimer for what it is. In a litigious society, businesses worry about getting sued.
When you hear that disclaimer, are you being dismissed or are they covering their bases? While this adds a level of complexity, the restaurant may be able to provide you with a safe meal despite that irritating disclaimer.
The question is: Do they want to safely prepare your meal?
In the photo above, my questioning about their practices lead to the dreaded disclaimer about their kitchen not being a gluten-free facility — twice. (They don’t use peanuts so we didn’t need to worry about that.)
We persisted. Why? This cafe — a farm to table eatery — was written up many times by reviewers as being gluten-free friendly. With help, we were able to identify a meal that would safely meet my son’s needs – corn tacos with shredded pork and vegetables. Always prepared in a bowl away from the flour tortillas.
(And yes, that restaurant staff person pictured above was probably getting a headache!)
Lesson 5: What is your gut telling you? (Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?) Tune in!
Making this decision can be tough. It’s a lot for your brain to process.
Don’t forget to listen to your gut. You are probably absorbing information that you’re not aware of… Waitstaff seem stressed and disorganized — unable to follow through? Or perhaps the server is not terribly knowledgeable but is communicating a genuine desire to get it right — and has the time, too.
If you’re feeling doubtful, turn around and walk out the door. The risk isn’t worth it!
“I can’t think of one item on our lunch menu that doesn’t have peanuts or gluten in it.”
Lesson 6: Upon learning about your serious dietary restriction, not everyone wants your business.
The response given above is what we were told when inquiring about a peanut-free, gluten-free meal at a cafe. I question the accuracy of that statement but… message taken. Look elsewhere.
This point was further reinforced when I tried to book a snorkeling excursion a few weeks ago. A lunch and snacks are provided on the boat. I asked if they served peanut products. The response was “sometimes we do.” So I asked if there was any way that they could refrain from that on the day of our excursion — over one week away. The woman on the phone fussed about this some but said she would ask the owners and get back to me.
She called back promptly to report that they cannot accommodate this request. AND they would not be able to “accept” our reservation. I was speechless.
Isn’t that our decision — whether or not to book a boat tour with a company that may serve peanuts? This really hurts. It felt like: You and your kind aren’t welcome here. And we weren’t.
“I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to accept your reservation for this snorkeling excursion (because of your peanut allergy).”
Lesson 7: If a restaurant — or other business — doesn’t want you, then (trust me) you don’t want them.
After the rejection cited above, I reminded my husband of this conclusion. He had suggested that perhaps he’ll call back and book it anyway — under his name! We had a good (and much needed) laugh.
No, we definitely don’t want that particular boat excursion. The next company was happy to accommodate our request. We went with them and had a wonderful time.
And speaking of businesses that get it right…
Write reviews! Let’s encourage the restaurants and bakeries that take our needs seriously. Reviews make finding a safe dining establishment so much easier. My favorite app is Allergy Eats because it encompasses allergens and gluten.
We “custom eaters” (a term coined by Freedible — a great social media site for people with dietary restrictions) spend an awful lot of time looking for food, reading labels and asking questions. Your reviews will help so many others — and it will save time for all of us.
It’s a lot of work to find a meal that will safely meet your dietary restrictions. The reward? Watching your child eat his peanut-free, gluten-free meal or treat. Or enjoying that special meal tailored to your needs… Priceless!
What are your tips that have helped you when you’re finding safe dining options on the fly? I’d love to hear about them.
What a fantastic article, Karen! It’s chock full of helpful (and specific) tips. I don’t go anywhere without my allergy cards and I really appreciate you mentioning them (and me!) in your article.
All the best,
Thanks for your feedback, Kate! My pleasure — referencing your allergy cards and blog. Very helpful post! Ordering cards is on my To Do list this week.
Great article Karen! Tips I will use for sure! The other day I ordered Gluten Free pasta dish and it came with a huge hunk of garlic break on it. I asked the server when she came back if she had used GF bread on my GF pasta. Said she didn’t even think about it! That’s happened more often. We have to be specific and adamant about these things. For some of us our life depends on it!
Glad that you find my suggestions helpful, Tamara! You are right, lives are at stake here. Your story is so alarming. We really need widespread education in the food service industry!
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