• Gayle Rigione, Allergy Force CEO

Dining Out & Food Allergies: Empower Your Child


two-little-boys-eating-spaghetti-pizza-at-restaurant

Part of the job of a food allergy parent is to teach their children with food allergies the in’s and out’s of managing life when they’re away from home, solo. For children, it’s a lot like learning Geometry.


In the American education system, children typically study Geometry when they’re 15 or 16, usually in the 2nd year of high school. However, the foundation for learning Geometry is built from the earliest years. Children often start learning about shapes before pre-school (think puzzles and building blocks that teach them to recognize shapes.)


What do learning Geometry and learning to manage food allergies have in common? More than you’d think.


Children need the chance to build a foundation for life success — whether it’s high school Geometry or managing their allergies when away from you — gradually, over time.

Case Study


Our oldest son’s food allergies are always a top of mind concern for our family, but they’ve never deterred us from eating out. We accepted the risk. Over the years we cycled between several go-to restaurants that understood how to accommodate his allergies.


It was Spring and our then high school senior was looking ahead to college in the Fall. Even with college just around the corner, when we went out to restaurants, we’d catch ourselves diving in ahead of our son to recite the food allergy litany. On his behalf. Still. At that point in his life.


What were we thinking? Were we operating on auto pilot? Or, were we just food allergy parents in protective overdrive?


In my mind, our son should have owned the restaurant conversation by that time — start to finish


“…there really are places in the heart you don't even know exist until you love a child...”

―Anne Lamott, Author (Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year)


The Opportunity Cost of Not Empowering


Our protective zeal, though it came from a place of deep love, took real-time learning & practice opportunities under parental supervision away from him.


  1. Mastery of an important food allergy survival skill — thoroughly explaining allergies to complete strangers who would prepare food for him — was delayed,

  2. Building confidence from the mastery of a critical skill, was delayed, and

  3. Self-advocacy skills, like underused muscles, were weak from lack of ‘exercise’.


To this day, I think our food allergy parenting zeal shaped aspects of our son’s full college experience, and perhaps not for the better. For example, he was reluctant to navigate ‘out-of-comfort-zone’ situations like dining off-campus with friends, opting out instead of in. Junior year study abroad wasn’t even a consideration, though he’d travelled internationally with us many times. Even asking the food service team for extra ‘to-go’ food for away football games didn’t happen. He often wouldn’t eat from the time the bus left campus on a Friday evening, until after the Saturday football game when we supplied food for the trip back to campus. He would always claim lack of time, football commitments and studies as reasons for opting out or inaction, but in my heart of hearts I will always wonder if he didn’t choose the path of least resistance as a way to solo cope with his allergies. Hindsight is 20:20.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

― Benjamin Franklin

Takeaways


Here are some suggestions for involving your food allergic loved one in the process for staying safe with food allergies when dining out:


  1. From your child’s earliest years, each time you dine out, model the restaurant conversation with the server and/or manager and/or chef and/or owner. Be consistent with the information you share and the questions you ask. Be the example — time and time again, over time — that you want your child to become.

  2. Try to research restaurants before you go so you know if they offer safe options. When trying to decide where to eat, have your child help with the research. Allergy Eats offers crowd-sourced reviews of restaurants’ allergy awareness you might want to check out. (Allergy Eats can also use your help adding restaurant reviews to their database – just post a review about a restaurant allergy-experience and you’ll help others make more informed restaurant choices.) Some chain restaurants provide their menus online and list ingredients. Google and see. Find Facebook Groups where you can find community support. For example, the Dining Out With Food Allergies Group (over 29K members) features posts by members looking for allergy friendly restaurant recommendations with suggestions offered by other members.

  3. Develop a family restaurant ‘script’. Write it out together with your child. Role play to practice it so your child gets comfortable with the script. Some things the script should cover include: describing the allergies, asking about the restaurant’s allergy awareness and staff allergy training, and asking how they manage allergens in the kitchen, from storage to table.

  4. Make it a habit to call before you go to make sure the restaurant is able to accommodate you. You can use the script for this call, too. Have your child listen in and eventually take over the call.

  5. As soon as you feel your child is comfortable with the script and speaking to adults (be realistic; be committed; this will likely take a few years), encourage him/her to handle the food allergy conversation at restaurants. Allow your child to order first. Give him/her the time and space to initiate the conversation and see it through. Restrain the impulse to dive in and ‘edit’, unless the explanation takes a serious detour or stops short of the destination.

  6. Take advantage of tools – low tech and higher tech – that can simplify the restaurant conversation. Use these tools each time you go to a restaurant, modelling their use for your child. Teach your child how to use these tools and provide him/her a set when they become more independent and start socializing on their own. Tools could include: a printed chef card to show to restaurant staff; an app that serves the same purpose.

  7. Try to learn as much as you can about how restaurant kitchens operate and where contamination risks might hide. This knowledge can inform your restaurant allergy conversations and your family script. Understand professional cooking methods. For example: how and when grills and griddles are used to cook different foods; how and when boiling water, broth or cooking oil are used/re-used to prepare different foods. Understand how restaurants manage food storage, utensils and cutting boards for allergens if they apply best practice principles. Understand how and where plated food is kept just prior to being served. Get your child involved in this learning journey, so they become as informed as you.

  8. Don’t ever be embarrassed:

  • To wipe down your table and chair with wipes before sitting.

  • To ask to speak to the chef or owner if the server or manager don’t inspire confidence.

  • To ask to read ingredients labels for ingredients used in the kitchen.

  • To send food back to the kitchen if something looks wrong.

  • To pull out safe food brought from home to eat if you can’t get comfortable with the restaurant and you can’t leave for whatever reason.

  • To walk out if you don’t feel the restaurant can meet your needs.

(Remember, you're modelling important steps for staying safe to your child. Always be calm. Always be polite.)


You might find it helpful to create Family Rules for dining out and stick to them. Some ideas to get you started:

  1. We never go to restaurants; We only eat ‘out’ at other family members’ homes.

  2. We only go to these # restaurants.

  3. We never go to a restaurant without calling ahead.

  4. We always pack a safe snack to carry in, just in case.

  5. We never leave home without our epinephrine and antihistamine.

  6. We always avoid eating at peak lunch/dinner hours.

  7. We order the simplest items with the fewest ingredients from the menu.

  8. If we are not confident the restaurant can prepare a safe meal, we will {fill in the blank}. (e.g. not eat, eat the safe snack from home, leave)

  9. We always check a meal visually as soon as it’s served.

  10. We always send a meal back to the kitchen for a redo if it fails visual inspection (e.g., a random sauce on the plate, unexpected garnishes, questionable bread on the side).

  11. We always treat restaurant staff respectfully, the way we want to be treated.

  12. Your choice

Empowering your child to own their allergies is all about teaching them important life skills through coaching, observation and lots of practice – how to communicate their allergies, how to assess situational risk, how to manage an allergic reaction, when to say ‘no’, to opt out. They will need all of these skills to navigate allergic living — daily and during emergencies — without you as they become more independent, on the path to adulthood.


“The most important thing that parents can teach their children is how to get along without them.”

—Frank A. Clark, American Lawyer and Politician

gayle-rigione-CEO-allergy-force-informal-outside-headshot

About the Author: Gayle Rigione is CEO of Allergy Force, the food allergy management app. She’s also an allergy mom. She’s lived the heart stopping moments when her son ate the wrong thing, second guessed reactions and raced to the ER. These experiences inspire her to create tech tools for people with food allergies. Whatever you do, do it with a full heart. Audentes Fortuna Iuvat


Photo Credit: Thank you to Wix for use of the post image

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