Sloane Miller on Traveling and Dining Out With Food Allergies

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Tristan and I were headed to the Big Apple to visit my sister and newborn nephew. (She’s just started her own parenting blog, please check it out!) It would be a trip of firsts for both of us – first mother-son trip, first trip by train, first time to NY (for Tristan), and first time dining out since Tristan’s first anaphylactic reaction. Needless to say I was most worried about the latter item.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I reached out to Sloane Miller, aka Allergic Girl, food allergy expert, and NYC resident.

Through her company, Allergic Girl Resources, Sloane “provides advocacy, coaching and consulting to empower individuals with food allergies and their families to engage in the world safely, effectively, and joyously.” She also provides food allergy consulting and training for restaurants, government, and corporations. Sloane graciously offered me with a condensed consultation about managing, traveling with, and dining out with food allergies in preparation for our trip. (Please note that Tristan and I were not clients under Sloane Miller’s care and I’m offering this review of my own will, without any obligations.)

In preparation for our phone consultation, Sloane asked for the following information as they pertain to Tristan’s food allergies:

  • Diet Restrictions
  • History, Onset, Reactions
  • Testing Methods and Results
  • List of Doctors and Medication

Sloane used Tristan’s medical information to customize our session, where she shared her wisdom for traveling and dining out with Tristan’s multiple food allergies. And just what did I learn?  A LOT! She was so helpful and understanding, but also persistent (as a coach should be). A few of her recommendations really overwhelmed me and she sensed this, gently pushing the issue and reminding me why it was crucial.

Are you curious? Would you like to hear some of her advice? Well then, here are some of the highlights (in my own words).

  1. Make sure all medications are easily accessible and up to date.
  2. Have an Anaphylaxis Action Plan in place and approved by your or your child’s physician. AAAAI and FARE have samples you can download. While you may feel like you know exactly how you or your child reacts to an allergen, what if your child is out of your care and experiences a reaction, how will those temporary caregivers know how to immediately recognize a reaction and understand when emergency treatment is necessary?
  3. Locate the nearest hospitals and 24 hour pharmacies to your hotel. If possible, obtain the name and number of a local physician who can assist you if allergy medication is lost and needs replacement.
  4. Create a reference list of all known food allergies. Then add common foods where these allergens can be found. For example, for soy allergies you’d list tofu, tamari, soy sauce, vegetable oil, etc. Use this to email in advance to restaurants and hotel.
  5. Look for Allergy Friendly restaurant recommendation.Some great places to look are: AllergyEats, Allergic Living’s Dining Out Forum, AllerDine, and Nosh It (a new app). AllergyEats published a list of the most allergy friendly chains in America, which you may find useful and can find here.
  6. Research restaurants of interest online. Review the “about us” section of the restaurant’s website. Look for comments about how much they love their customers, hospitality first, special food requests, and food allergies.
  7. Contact restaurants & compliment the chef. Email or call the restaurant (during off hours) with your list of known food allergies and tell them you have emergency medication on hand. Ask if they can accommodate you.  It never hurts to compliment the chef and tell them you heard great things and really hope you can try their restaurant. If you’re not being “heard” move on, it’s not worth the effort and potential life threatening mistake.
  8. Make a reservation and dine early. If possible, make reservations using OpenTable, where you can create a profile and list all your allergies and make dining notes that will be sent to the restaurant when you make the reservation. Make a dining note like this one, “Looking forward to dining with you, severely allergic to…, carry emergency medication.” Try to eat with the early crowd as the chef and managing staff will have more time to talk with you and make you feel comfortable. Fewer customers means fewer errors in the kitchen and from the wait staff.
  9. Ask to bring your own food. If you’ll be dining out with several people and it proves too difficult to find a restaurant to accommodate your or your child’s allergies safely, ask the manager if you can bring your own food while the rest of your party eats from the menu. Sometimes they are ok with it, sometimes they aren’t. So ask when making a reservation, don’t wait until you show up for meal time.
  10. Listen to your intuition. If you feel at all uncomfortable at the restaurant, with your waiter, or the chef and feel the situation is risky, never eat. Send the food back if it’s questionable or ask to see product packaging to verify ingredients. If they won’t show you the bag because they’re too busy or for any other reasons, that’s a huge red flag – just walk out.
  11. Always have back-up food/snack to last you until an allergy friendly meal is available. This will come in handy especially if you walk out of a bad situation and need to spend time finding an alternative restaurant that can accommodate you. Even more so with small, hungry children in tow.
  12. Create a Chef Card.  This is basically a list (usually wallet size) of all food allergens that is given to the chef when you arrive at the restaurant. The Food Allergy Gourmet has a list of Chef Cards from various online resources. This was a LIFE SAVER for us, probably quite literally. I started out creating the food allergy list as described in #3 above, and it morphed into a Chef’s Card on steroids. The chefs (which I spoke with at every restaurant we dined at) loved my card as it was so thorough. Here is a pdf of the card I created and laminated.
  13. NEVER EVER go to a buffet. It’s just a cross contamination nightmare.
  14. REMINDER: There are no restaurants that are completely allergen free. Every single restaurant will have an allergen someone could react to because realistically people can be allergic to just about anything. So, it is your responsibility to make sure the restaurant is safe for you or your child.  Never assume.

On top of all this great advice, Sloane gave me the name of many restaurants she’s either dined at in NY or personally trained on food allergy safety. This really helped us. I’ll share the restaurants we chose to dine with in the next post about our visit to NY with multiple food allergies. You can also see a full list of restaurants Sloane recommends at Allergic Girl Recommends.

A HUGE thank you to Sloane Miller for her food allergy wisdom and allowing me to share it with you!

Now, let’s hear from you. What tips do you have for traveling and dining out with food allergies? What lessons have you learned?