Check out the courses we offer
Knowledge Base » Food Hygiene » Tips for Dining Out Safely with Food Allergies

Tips for Dining Out Safely with Food Allergies

Dining out should be an enjoyable experience for everyone, but for individuals with food allergies, it can sometimes feel like crossing a culinary minefield. From hidden ingredients to cross-contamination risks, the prospect of eating at a restaurant can be daunting. There are over two million people in the UK who are affected by food allergies and it has been reported that 95% of them struggle to eat out. Moreover, allergies are becoming increasingly prevalent. Nevertheless, with careful planning and preparation, dining out with food allergies can be safe as well as enjoyable.

Preparing for Dining Out

Sadly, for those with food allergies, especially if they are severe, there is not much room for spontaneity when it comes to dining out. Preparation is a must. Taking the time to plan ahead can mitigate the risks and ensure a smoother experience once at the restaurant. 

One of the first steps in preparing to eat out is in making the reservation. Not only does this guarantee you a table (which means you won’t end up somewhere you haven’t prepared for if there’s no space) but it also gives you the chance to let the restaurant know of your dietary needs ahead of time. This means that you can have a discussion about whether the kitchen and chef can accommodate your dietary restrictions and you can discuss menu options and ingredient substitutions and also ask about their kitchen practices to minimise any risks of accidental exposure. 

Of course, if you have a serious food allergy, you’ll no doubt be equipped with emergency medication in the form of an Epi-Pen which contains a drug called epinephrine. It would be remiss not to bring this medication with you to an eatery as accidents can happen despite planning ahead and taking all the right precautions. 

To summarise preparing to eat out, you should always try to:

  • Make a reservation.
  • Inform the restaurant of your dietary requirements.
  • Ask the chef/staff member if they can meet your requirements and discuss any substitutions and kitchen practices.
  • Have your emergency medication with you ready to take just in case.

By planning ahead, you can dine out with more confidence knowing that you’ve taken some proactive steps to safeguard your health. Let’s take a closer look at how this works in practice so that you can enjoy dining out safely.

dining out safely

Researching Restaurants

A crucial step in ensuring a safe meal for those with allergies begins with carrying out some research. For those of us lucky enough to be free from allergies, we research restaurants primarily based on cuisine, location and recommendations. Spontaneity is exciting. For allergy sufferers, this is not their first thought, and spontaneity may be exciting but if it involves using an Epi-Pen or calling an ambulance, that’s a whole other lever of ‘excitement’.

Allergy sufferers need to ensure their safety before all else and that can involve forgoing the latest trendy eatery to open or avoiding a specific cuisine that tends to use their allergen in most dishes. By carefully choosing restaurants that prioritise allergen awareness and are accommodating, allergic diners can minimise their risks.

One valuable resource for researching allergy-friendly restaurants is in using apps.

  • The Allergy Menu app allows diners to look up restaurants and menus that align with their intolerances and allergies. The app is already used by some major chains including Bannatyne’s.
  • Another option is the Served App. This app is partnered with the Food Standards Agency and Anaphylaxis UK. Served helps people with allergies to eat out as well as restaurants to cater for them too. These apps are designed to quickly identify restaurants that offer suitable menu options for those with allergies.

The next step in researching restaurants would be to read online reviews and testimonials from other diners with allergies. These reviews can provide valuable insights into the dining experiences at various restaurants. These first-hand accounts can offer information about the level of allergen awareness among staff, the availability of allergy-friendly menu items and the overall atmosphere of the establishment. By learning from the experiences of others, diners can make informed decisions about where to dine out safely. 

Ultimately, researching restaurants allows those with food allergies to be proactive in assessing their options and choose establishments that prioritise their health and safety. By using technology and community feedback, diners with allergies can access restaurants knowing that they have taken steps to minimise their risk – and maximise their enjoyment – when eating out. 

Communicating with Restaurant Staff

People with allergies have to have a sense of confidence in being able to talk to restaurant staff to ensure that they can eat safely. By conveying their dietary needs accurately, they help restaurant staff understand the importance of avoiding allergens so that they can take appropriate precautions in the kitchen. 

Here are a few communication tips:

  • Clarity
    Waiting staff and chefs need to understand the severity of the allergies and the potential consequences of exposure. Be clear and use straightforward language to emphasise the seriousness of the situation.
  • Use Allergy Cards
    Some diners prefer to use allergy cards which clearly list their allergens and dietary restrictions. These cards can be presented to the waiting staff or chef, serving as a visual aid to ensure that there is no misunderstanding about which foods to avoid.
  • Ask Questions
    Asking questions is a crucial part of the dining out process for those with allergies. Ask about safe food preparation, ingredients, cooking methods and potential cross-contact with allergens. By being proactive and thorough in your communication, you can help the restaurant staff take the necessary precautions to accommodate your needs.

Reading Menus Effectively

If you’re accustomed to dining out with allergies, you’re probably used to reading menus very carefully. Today, food businesses must declare the 14 most common allergens by law. These are:

  • Celery.
  • Cereals containing gluten (wheat, barley and oats).
  • Crustaceans (prawns, crabs and lobsters).
  • Eggs.
  • Fish.
  • Lupin.
  • Milk.
  • Molluscs (mussels and oysters).
  • Mustard.
  • Peanuts.
  • Sesame.
  • Soybeans.
  • Sulphur dioxide (if at a concentration of more than ten parts per million).
  • Sulphites (if at a concentration of more than ten parts per million).
  • Tree nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).

To make things easier for consumers, many restaurants display their allergens on their menus. Some menus will have symbols with a code, while others may just have a list of allergens next to a particular dish. Other restaurants may have allergens listed in a separate folder or on a separate document. 

When accessing a restaurant’s menu, be sure to look out for the allergen labels and, if there aren’t any, ask the server for the allergy information, as, by law, they need to be able to provide it. Additionally, it’s important to be aware of (and ask about) cross-contact when looking at menus. Even if a dish does not contain an allergen as an ingredient, it could still come into contact with allergens during preparation. Some common sources of cross-contact include shared cooking surfaces, shared utensils and shared fryers. If you have concerns about this or just want reassurance surrounding it, be sure to ask the restaurant staff. 

When looking at the menu, it’s also wise to look at how the dishes are prepared and cooked. Opting for simple, unadorned dishes reduces the risk of allergen presence or contamination as they are less likely to contain hidden allergens or be at risk of cross-contact.

dining out with food allergies

Choosing Safe Options

When dining out with food allergies, as mentioned previously, choosing dishes that are less likely to contain allergens can help reduce the risk of exposure. This often means choosing simple dishes, as explained above, without any sauces, garnishes or adornments. Essentially, you are choosing a dish with as few ingredients as possible. Grilled items are often a safer choice, such as grilled chicken, fish or vegetables, as they are less likely to contain hidden allergens and the cooking method tends not to use oils. These dishes are usually seasoned with basic herbs, reducing the risk of allergen contamination. 

Fresh salads can also be an excellent choice for those with allergies, provided that they are carefully selected and customised. Choose salads with simple dressings (or no dressing is even better) and ask for ingredients to be omitted or served on the side if there are any concerns about allergens. Additionally, be cautious of salad toppings such as nuts, cheese and croutons, which may pose allergen risks.

Plain rice or steamed vegetables can serve as a safe and allergen-free dish option at many restaurants. These dishes are typically prepared without added seasoning or sauces, reducing the likelihood of allergen cross-contact. However, it’s always advisable to confirm with restaurant staff that the dishes are prepared in a way that avoids potential allergen exposure.

When dining out, it’s important to be aware of avoiding shared fryers and buffet-style restaurants, which can present heightened risks for those with food allergies. Shared fryers may lead to cross-contact with allergens from fried foods. Similarly, buffet restaurants pose risks due to the potential for cross-contact between different dishes and shared utensils. Additionally, in a buffet-style restaurant, you are not relying on trained staff handling the food; you are relying on the general public who tend to be much less aware of allergen and cross-contamination risks than others, especially if children serve themselves.

By choosing safer options and being mindful of shared fryers and buffet places, individuals with food allergies can make informed choices when dining out and enjoy their meals with confidence and peace of mind.

Be Cautious about Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination is a significant concern for individuals with food allergies, so let’s explore this a little further. Cross-contamination occurs when allergens are unintentionally transferred from one food to another, typically through shared surfaces, utensils or kitchen equipment. Even trace amounts of allergens can trigger allergic reactions, making cross-contamination a serious risk. Technically, cross-contamination can relate to any substance, including cleaning products, dust and microorganisms. When talking specifically about allergens, the term cross-contact is often used.

In a restaurant setting, cross-contact can occur when cooking surfaces, cutting boards and utensils are not thoroughly cleaned between uses, allowing allergens from one dish to come into contact with another. Additionally, shared fryers (as mentioned above) or cooking oils can pose risks for those with allergies if they are used to cook multiple items, some of which contain allergens.

To minimise the risk of cross-contact when dining out, you should ask about kitchen practices and protocols with restaurant staff. Ask questions about how allergen-free dishes are prepared, including whether separate cooking surfaces, utensils and cooking oils are used to avoid cross-contact. Also, you can ask about the staff’s training in allergen awareness and their understanding of the importance of preventing cross-contact.

Desserts and Special Requests

Navigating dessert options can pose unique challenges for those with food allergies as many traditional desserts contain common allergens such as nuts, dairy, eggs and gluten. However, with some careful planning and communication, it’s possible to enjoy a sweet treat safely when dining out.

To accommodate those with allergies, many restaurants offer alternative dessert options that are free from common allergens. Sorbets, fruit plates and fruit-based desserts are often safe choices for those with allergies as they typically contain minimal ingredients and avoid common allergens. Some restaurants also offer gluten-free dessert options such as flourless cake or dairy-free ice cream to cater for those with dairy allergies. 

At times, these items may not always be displayed on menus, so it’s important to be proactive and ask about making a dessert that’s allergen-free and making special requests clear. With a little communication, dessert time can be a great part of the dining experience for everyone, even those with dietary restrictions.

Always Carry Allergy Medication

No matter how diligently you plan when dining out with food allergies, you must always carry your allergy medication with you. Allergic reactions can occur unexpectedly, even when precautions are taken, so being prepared to address an allergic reaction promptly is crucial for your safety and wellbeing. 

One of the most important medications that people with allergies carry is an epinephrine auto-injector, such as an Epi-Pen. Epinephrine is a life-saving medication that can quickly reverse severe allergic reactions, known as anaphylaxis, by constricting blood vessels, relaxing airway muscles and increasing heart rate. Those with an Epi-Pen will have been trained to use it, but others must also be aware of how to access it easily in case of an emergency. 

As well as an epinephrine auto-injector, it’s also advisable to carry other necessary allergy medications such as antihistamines or corticosteroids, as prescribed by a healthcare provider. These medications can help alleviate reactions and provide additional support until medical assistance is available. 

Likewise, everyone should be aware of the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, which can vary in severity but may include:

  • Hives, itching or a rash.
  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat.
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.
  • Dizziness or fainting.

If you or someone you’re dining with experiences any signs of an allergic reaction, it’s important to act quickly. Administer epinephrine immediately if anaphylaxis is suspected, then seek emergency medical assistance by calling the emergency services or going to the nearest hospital. 

tips for dining out safely

Final Thoughts on Dining Out Safely with Food Allergies

When dining out with allergies, taking a few precautions can mean that you enjoy the experience just as much as your non-allergic counterparts. By preparing, researching, communicating with staff, reading menus carefully, choosing the safest options and making special requests, you will hopefully not need your emergency allergy medication and can enjoy the experience.

Employment Law

Allergen Awareness

Just £20

Study online and gain a full CPD certificate posted out to you the very next working day.

Take a look at this course

About the author

Avatar photo

Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

Similar posts