It seems that finding food allergy friendly restaurants is still not easy. A recent survey we carried out showed that the biggest frustration our readers face is eating out. Over 70% of our readers said that not being able to eat out safely was a major issue for them.
It appears things are so bad that many people with food sensitivities avoid eating out. People with full-blown food allergies are even less likely to take the risk of going to a restaurant.
This is understandable, after all, the consequences of eating something by mistake are serious. Someone with an intolerance can end up having to skip the show or concert they were planning to see after their meal and go home instead because they have severe diarrhoea. For someone with a food allergy eating the wrong thing can easily result in a visit to the emergency room.
However, eating out with food allergies is getting safer and easier.
In many countries, new legislation has been introduced to make restaurants, bars and caterers keep track of the ingredients they use in their foods. For example, in December 2014, all member countries of the EU introduced this kind of legislation. Compliance varies, but there are now restaurants and food chains out there that do track the main allergens and can tell you which dishes you need to avoid and which you can eat.
Tips for eating out with food allergies or food sensitivity
So, if you have not eaten out for a while why not read our tips and consider doing so this weekend.
Choosing an allergy friendly restaurant
If you have problems with eating certain food groups you do not necessarily have to let that stop you from enjoying a meal out. Things are improving, with more and more restaurants waking up to the fact they have to cater for the increasing numbers of people who suffer from food allergies or intolerances.
There are already food chains out there that take gluten intolerance and other food sensitivities seriously. They have robust systems in place to identify common allergens like peanuts, dairy products and gluten in the dishes they serve.
These are usually a good bet if you are eating out. We have started a list below to help you with this. If you know of any chains that we have missed, please let us know and send us a link, so we can add it to the list.
You can use websites and apps to find these and many local restaurants. Keep an eye out for restaurants, pubs and cafes that advertise the allergens in their foods or include them in the menu they have displayed in the window.
Be familiar with your food sensitivity
Before eating out, you need to be sure you are familiar with your food allergy. Do you know about the hidden ingredients that contain the food you cannot eat? Knowing this will help you to spot hidden ingredients that the restaurateur or staff may have missed.
Our hidden allergens posts are a good place to start to build up this knowledge.
Bear in mind that the knowledge of others is limited
It would be nice to simply sit down and trust that the restaurant will look after you. Unfortunately, you cannot do that.
You have to be realistic you are the one with the most knowledge and the person who can be trusted the most. Restaurants and pubs have a huge turnover of staff, so it is hard for them to make sure that every person that works there understands food allergies and takes them seriously.
Trust your gut
If when you go into a restaurant they give you vague answers when you ask about what ingredients are in each dish you really would be better off eating somewhere else. You need to ask the right questions and listen carefully.
Ask about allergies before sitting down
It makes sense to ask if the restaurant caters for people with food allergies before sitting down to eat or booking a table. Ask if they do and how they present the information.
Sometimes you can help people to overcome their scepticism by wearing a medical alert bracelet. If you have a full-blown food allergy you absolutely should be wearing one. That way if you accidentally ingest a foodstuff you are allergic to and you collapse there is a good chance someone will see the medical alert bracelet and realise what is going on and take the right steps to save your lives.
If you just have a food intolerance wearing a bracelet or some other piece of medical alert jewellery may seem a bit extreme, but it can help people to believe you when you say you cannot eat certain foods. Sounds weird, I know, but when I get a shrugy teenage waiter, who I know (from bitter experience) is not taking my questions re what certain dishes contain seriously their attitude changes dramatically when they see the medical alert bracelet. If you do want one, this firm offers good quality medical alert bracelets, which can be engraved with anything you want.
Read the allergy information provided on menus carefully
Even in food allergy friendly restaurants you need to take the time to read the information provided carefully. Don’t try to do it while chatting with your friends you really do need to get this right. If there is no written information listen to the waiter or manager carefully. If there is anything you are not sure about ask rather than shrugging your shoulders and thinking ah it will be OK. Nine times out of ten you will end up regretting taking that approach.
Be aware that some so-called food allergy friendly restaurants are nothing of the sort. Food sensitivity is not something many still do not really take seriously. They simply do not understand how dangerous it is for someone to eat something that contains an allergen, so they rarely train their staff properly.
Consider booking in advance
Booking in advance gives you the chance to have this discussion at a time when the restaurant is quiet and you can have the conversation with someone who is not tearing around trying to do dozens of things at once. If you do this, you are far more likely to get the right answers.
Booking in advance allows you to discuss your food sensitivity or allergy and work out if there will be enough choice on the menu. It also gives you the chance to go online and view the menu in advance.
Thank the staff and leave a positive review in allergy friendly restaurants
If you have a good meal and experience thank the staff and manager for helping you to enjoy a meal out despite your food intolerances. Doing so encourages them to continue to take the issue seriously and helps to get the message across that serving dairy-free, gluten-free and nut-free food is a way of getting more customers through the doors.
Back up what you say by taking the time to leave positive reviews on as many restaurant review sites as you can. Share the details of the allergen-friendly restaurants you find on-line to help others. By doing so, you will increase awareness in general.
Where to find food allergy friendly restaurants and food chains
Allergy friendly UK restaurants search website
Special dietary needs restaurant and hotel finder service (costs £10)
Allergen free restaurant finding apps
If you are out and about having some of these Apps on your phone could help you to find somewhere for a snack or a meal:
IEat Out Gluten Free & Allergy Free
Try a few vegan and vegetarian finders too. You will not be able to eat everything, but there is probably going to be more choice in many other eateries. Most owners understand how hard it is to find food allergy friendly restaurants. They tend to be sympathetic and will take the time to explain exactly what is in each of their dishes.
Recommend your food allergy friendly restaurants
If you know of any food allergy friendly restaurants we would love to hear about them. We are after information about local restaurants as well as chain restaurants.
Spreading the word is important. It helps people to quickly find somewhere to eat in their area. Importantly, it also helps those owners of allergy friendly restaurants to make a success of their business. We need to reward those who take the time to go that extra mile to accommodate everyone´s needs. The more we support them, and give them positive feedback the more places we will have to eat. Over time, it will become second nature for restaurants to be as allergen friendly as possible.
Know your rights and exercise them in as polite a way as possible
In the EU the law has changed recently. You can find out more about the food allergen law here and here. However, before you get too excited about the fact restaurants and takeaways in Europe need to tell you about food allergens in their food please read this article about how the new food allergen law is being enforced, in the UK.
In theory, this should mean that there are plenty of food allergy friendly restaurants to choose from, we will have to see what happens in reality. It is very likely that many restaurateurs will continue not to give the issue the attention it deserves. Therefore, in all likelihood you are going to continue to have to fight for your rights, and be a polite advocate to educate those in the catering industry about the issue of food intolerance and allergies.
Clearly, it is upsetting when you see people ignoring your needs. Unfortunately, it happens, and is likely to continue to do so. Whenever possible try to be polite, and explain the situation. People are far more likely to listen to you when you are polite but firm. If you get too upset and shout at them they will not really hear what you are saying.
Of course, should you not get the right response, or you think it is wise to do so, you always have the option of reporting the issue to the authorities. However, that may be the most effective starting point.
If you have had issues when you have eaten out, and have managed to solve the problem please tell us about your experience. This will help us all to learn more about finding good places to eat out with food intolerances, and how to effectively encourage more restaurants to cater for our needs.