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How to dine out safely with food allergies

Last Modified: March 11, 2021

Family Medicine

Food allergies

This post was written by Heather Willison, MSN, FNP–C, PPG– Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

An estimated 32 million Americans have been diagnosed with a food allergy. But just because you have to adjust to new dietary restrictions, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a meal out with your friends and family.

Signs and symptoms

Food allergy reactions send 200,000 people to the Emergency Room each year in the U.S. Signs of a food allergy may include rash, hives, itching, tingling or itching of the mouth or throat, swelling of the face (lips, tongue or throat) or other parts of the body, difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness, or gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, vomiting and/or abdominal pain). 

The keys to dining out

I have been in the allergy field since 1999 (dating myself here), and have heard many stories about accidental food allergy exposures while dining out at a restaurant without planning ahead. Some have occurred despite preparation! 

Handling food allergies can be challenging enough at home in the privacy of your own kitchen, so imagine the worries that come along with dining out. Here are some tips for managing food allergies while dining out, making it a safe and enjoyable experience for all:

  • Plan ahead – Don’t hesitate to contact the restaurant and ask what protocols they have in place regarding food allergies. In fact, there are now online sites that can help you investigate for yourself. For instance, allows you to search for a restaurant by zip code or name to review their allergen program. You can input your specific food allergy to tailor the search to you own needs. Once a restaurant has been located, there is an interactive menu that shows you all of the safe menu items. 
  • Speak up – Keep in mind that planning ahead is not a substitute for discussing your food allergy directly with the waitress or manager. Be specific about your allergy.
  • Check it twice – Once your order arrives, verify that your plate does not contain anything that could trigger your food allergy. 
  • Time it right – Consider dining out during a time of day that the restaurant is less busy. Both the wait staff and kitchen staff will be less hurried, and more likely to be attentive to your specific requests.
  • Play it safe – Chain restaurants tend to have consistent menus so, these may be a safer choice, especially if you are traveling. 
  • Preparation matters – Be aware of the potential for cross contamination, which can occur when a food allergen accidentally touches another food. Even a seemingly small exposure can lead to a severe allergic reaction for some people. Bakeries and buffets are rife with opportunities for cross contamination!
  • When in doubt, walk out – If you feel uncomfortable with the response you receive to your food allergy questions, then leave. Never compromise your safety because someone else is not taking your concerns seriously. 
  • Plan for the worst ­– Be prepared for an accidental exposure to a food allergen. No matter how careful you might be, accidents do happen. Always keep injectable epinephrine and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) on hand. If a severe allergic reaction occurs, or if you have to use injectable epinephrine, please seek emergency attention. 

Remember, the key to a successful dining experience with food allergies is to lay the foundation and be your own advocate. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” 

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