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EATING OUT WITH ALLERGIES – Is it possible for this to happen?

According to the National Restaurant Association, the average adult buys a meal or snack from a restaurant almost 6 times per week. In the past 40 years, the average person spends about 12 percent more of their budget on food eaten away from home.

This could be due to a number of things, including a shortage of time, celebrations, or the lack of desire or knowledge to cook. Eating outlets you sit back and put your meal into the hands of someone else. However, this can be anything but relaxing if you are one of the 15 million Americans with a food allergy. Research suggests close to half of fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside of the home.

Eight foods account for almost 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions (dairy, eggs, fish, peanuts, seafood, soy, tree nuts, and wheat). Since there is no cure for allergies, strict avoidance is necessary.

With the high risk, is it possible for those with allergies to eat out? Chef Matt Wilson at The State Room in the Kellogg Center was motivated to make it so. For the past 4 years, The State Room has offered special gluten-free as well as vegan menus.

“We were having problems creating dishes on the fly for special dietary requests, that met our standards of high quality. By creating the specific menus, we can better accommodate those with dietary needs”, says Chef Wilson. This is helpful for people like Amy Rohrbach, who has been gluten-free for eight years. “Eating out is a rare treat for me. I usually start by checking the restaurant’s menus or calling to see if they have a gluten-free menu”, she says. “I’m usually limited to the same five or six restaurants”.

While many ask about a gluten-free menu before dining out, Chef Wilson notes it’s still not something they expect.

“It’s such a pleasant surprise for them to have an entire menu they can order from and to be able to do so in a way that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable around others.”

As the prevalence of food allergies increases, restaurants are becoming more aware and prepared to deal with them. Chef Wilson starts with training.

“We train our cooks and team about cross-contact and the importance of how to prepare our special menu items. These dishes are handled carefully to ensure no cross-contact occurs that may jeopardize the safety of our guests”, notes Chef Wilson.

Many restaurants post their ingredient information and have substitutions that can be made to ensure safety. For example, Noodles & Co. has gluten-free noodles, and Georgio’s, Jimmy’s Pub, and Pizza House have gluten-free pizza crusts.

“Subsitutions are very helpful. Mostly, I appreciate them offering a gluten-free bun or bread”, notes Rorhbach.

“Sometimes I’ll ask about the brand to make sure, or with the limited brands available. I can usually recognize the product so I feel like I can trust it. I’ve also asked to see a package”. Along with the online information, Janet Schisler-Lulloff and her family utilize apps.

“When we arrive at the restaurant, we double-check the information we found. There are even apps that give suggestions worldwide, which was helpful for our recent trip to Scotland.”

Some restaurants, such as Chili’s, have invested in Ziosks, which are tabletop ordering systems. Using this system, guests can see ingredient lists and find menu items that fit various dietary needs or restrictions. “We were getting questions daily about our ingredients and while our team is knowledgeable, we thought it’d be best to get the information directly to our guests”, says Aisha Fletcher, Public Relations Specialist with Chili’s. “Guests can immediately access allergen information from these devices”. Red Robin offers their Customizer Hub where guests can select different combinations of ingredients to customize meals to fit their needs.

The increased awareness and precautions for allergens are allowing people who never thought they could eat out again, to experience the luxury.

Some Helpful Tips:

  • Plan ahead by looking online for menus, ingredient lists, or websites such as or for accommodating restaurants.

  • Choose a time to visit when it’s not going to be too busy so you can have more one-on-one attention and fewer distractions for the staff.

When You Are There –

  • Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions about ingredients or preparation techniques.

  • Avoid fried foods as the restaurant may share fryers.

  • The simpler your dish, the easier it may be to ensure your safety.

Afterward –

  • If you have a good experience, let the restaurant and others know.

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