I have food allergies. Much more than you care to know, but I’ll tell you anyway: Fish or shellfish send me to the hospital with life-threatening anaphylaxis, hives, and terrible swelling. Raw tree nuts such as almonds or cashews provide a similar but less severe reaction. Quinoa is a newly emerging allergy for me that caused a recent outbreak of hives. Same for a coconut-heavy yellow curry. My most developed muscles are my histamines.
This doesn’t even get into the food intolerances (there’s a difference). Red meat not braised or well done won’t stay long in me. Same for oats and many wheat breads. Certain raw fruits and vegetables in large quantities cause severe throat discomfort. I can’t drink a glass of milk, but I can have cheese and butter... as long as I’ve taken medication. Eggs must be hard boiled or over-hard to be eaten alone.
Those are just mine. The near-limitless combinations of allergies, intolerances, and severities make accommodating the 15 million Americans with food allergies tricky. To add complexity, all of these permutations should be treated as life or death situations if encountered. No pressure!
Having two paragraphs worth of dietary restrictions can be inconvenient, but it’s not a death sentence for fun. I love great restaurants. My wife (sesame allergy) and I dine out frequently. Any reactions we’ve experienced have been the exception, not the norm. With preparation and communication, you raise your probability of a great dining experience, and avoiding something terrible happening.
The primary success factor for a reaction-free night out is clear and honest communication between the guest and the hospitality provider—this could be a restaurant, a caterer, or the host of a dinner party. The absolute dumbest and worst possible thing you can do is be sheepish about what you can’t eat. If you have the allergy, check your pride at the door and speak up.
This doesn’t mean you have to print T-shirts with “Nut Allergy!” emblazoned. You can do this discreetly. I highly suggest going to The Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website, where you can download and print out a card that can be presented to restaurant staff specifying allergies or intolerances—these cards also come in multiple languages. Speaking of eating internationally with allergies, my favorite tactic is to type “if I eat (insert allergies), I will die” into Google Translate, then show to the restaurant in the local language.
Stateside, I rely on two tactics: the restaurant’s reservation system, and the host stand. Platforms such as OpenTable allow you to type in your allergies. It’s best to mention this again if the restaurant calls to confirm the reservation. When you arrive, mention your allergies again to the host (they should know already), and the waitstaff when they greet you initially. I usually say “before we order, I have to mention some allergies.” Then offer your card or your descriptions. Do not afraid to hammer this home.
If you’re at a dinner party or catered event like a reception, again, the earlier you can communicate the better. At any offsite reception, seek a manager. I’ve had more than one reaction at a wedding where the servers didn’t understand the allergy request—shame on me, in hindsight. If there’s nothing you can eat, that’s unfortunate. But given the choice between hungry at a party versus full at a hospital, I’ll choose the former.