Will I be able to take part in a group meal? Will my food allergies be an issue? Will it be too stressful? Will they think I am too difficult? Will they regret having me there? Will I have a severe reaction and ruin everyone’s experience? Will I feel different and excluded? Will they have any food I can eat? Will I feel embarrassed? Should I even go?
All of these questions have popped into my head when facing social or professional group dining situations. Like so many other humans, I often just want to fit in and be like everyone else. When food is involved, however, I can’t be like everyone. I have to take precautions and there are special considerations involved. There are many ways I go about protecting myself from anaphylaxis (as well as the feeling of being an outsider at the dinner table). There are also several ways others can help folks with severe food allergies. I have listed a few below, but first…
....let me tell you about Bonnie Big Deal and Dotty Downplay.
After years of personal research on the topic (i.e. frequent dining out with groups of friends and colleagues), I know that during a group meal there is a significant chance I will meet one of two characters: Bonnie Big Deal or Dotty Downplay. Bonnie Big Deal, upon discovering a food allergy sufferer is in her presence, requests a 20-minute monologue from me followed by a Q&A session on how my allergies are difficult as she peppers in comments of “oh my” and “wow” and “how scary!” Dotty Downplay, on the other hand, always understands about food allergies and quickly explains how she has a cousin whose lips would swell up when he ate shellfish…and then chuckles at how funny he looked. Then she follows up with “does your tongue get itchy when you eat nuts, Amanda? Is that why you can’t eat them?”
Bonnie and Dotty are both wonderful people with no intentions of making me feel excluded nor upset. What Bonnie doesn’t realize is that while I appreciate that she realizes the severity of food allergies, I don’t appreciate having my personal health issue exploited for dinner entertainment (though I would be happy to answer all of her questions in a private conversation). Dotty also means well and wants to connect with me through her understanding of my food allergies, but her minimizing assumptions make me angry. It feels like I just told her I broke my leg and she responds with "oh you have a little ouchy." I have learned how to respond to both Bonnie and Dotty in a constructive and self-saving way – but this was also learned over many years of somewhat painful practice and requires constant fine-tuning.
For those with severe food allergies who eat away from home in groups, a few recommendations:
- If you can, pick the restaurant (ask me if you need tips on ways to select “safe” restaurants)
- Email or call the restaurant in advance to discuss your allergies and give them a heads-up when you will be there.
- If you can’t pick the restaurant, still email or call the restaurant in advance to see if arrangements need to be made for your allergies.
- If you are going to a friend/colleagues house for a meal:
- Ask if the meal will include any of your allergens.
- Inquire about arriving early to help prepare the meal free from your allergens.
- Offer to bring your own food to eat if the host is unable to accommodate allergies (or if your allergies are especially complicated/severe).
- If it’s a potluck, eat only from what you brought and bring enough to ensure you are satisfied and can still share with others. I have many ideas of easy foods to bring that are satisfying, easy to transport, etc – just ask!
- If it is a catered meal or a pre-fixe menu, this is where it can get extra complicated. In these situations, I ask the organizer if they can contact the caterer/restaurant or if they prefer I do. Then, I explain my allergies and assess if I will just be joining for drinks or if I will bring my own food (e.g. if it is a catered business lunch in my city, I will bring my own lunch).
- Planning, planning, planning! This is the most important ingredient for food allergy success while dining out in groups.
For those who frequently dine out with people with food allergies, here are a few suggestions:
- Understand that they likely cannot share food with you. This is most important for restaurants where sharing is the norm, like tapas or sushi.
- Do not order for them.
- What do I mean by this? I mean let them speak to the restaurant/organizer/server etc.
- If you know they have an allergy that they don’t mention, mention it for them (even those of us with severe allergies who know the risks may forget, for example, if we have had a couple of drinks).
- Don’t cross-contaminate their food.
- If you are cooking for them, be mindful of allergens in your kitchen (e.g. please use a different cutting board than the one used to chop nuts earlier when cooking for a person with a nut allergy).
- If you are at the table with them, don't eat off their plates, don't drop or splash food onto their plate, don't insist they try your food - overall, be careful and considerate.