As a little bit of background, I have a gluten and dairy-free diet. I am also extremely sensitive to many of the cooking oils used in industrial kitchens. This combination makes eating out at most places virtually impossible.
A large portion of our social culture revolves around food. It can be extremely isolating to not be able to eat at a restaurant, a friend’s potluck, or anywhere that is not your own kitchen. It removes the option of going out to eat and takes a menu of 100 items and narrows it down to two if we’re lucky. (And even then I have to be sure that everyone involved in the preparation of my food understands the allergy). Furthermore, not eating food at a social event is so often viewed as rude and shameful. So then how do you balance personal health with another’s feelings?
For starters, we need to start changing the narrative around food allergies. It needs to be acceptable in any circumstance for individuals with food allergies to make their case known. It’s not something to be pitied or shamed for, it’s a life-long reality for that person. You might forget about it, but they certainly will not. If our society understood a little bit more about how to help an individual with food allergies, we could create a more inclusive and comfortable environment.
1. Pre-plan: Before preparing a meal or going to a restaurant, be proactive and ask your friends if there are any restrictions they have. It might even be helpful to store that information in your notes or something of the sort so that if you forget, you’re able to double-check whether this person has an allergy and what it is to.
Some ways to ask:
i. Hey guys, I was planning on making a reservation at restaurant XYZ tonight, but I want to make sure that there is something everyone can eat! Is there anything I need to know about your diets/dietary restrictions? Or can you take a look at the menu to see if there’s something everyone likes?
ii. I think I am going to be making some food tonight, and I want to make something everyone can eat it. Do any of you have any food allergies that I should be aware of? Just want to make sure everyone is included. :)
2. Understand the allergy: This should not be a question of “well how severe is your reaction?” Instead make sure you know exactly what this person is allergic to so that you can best support them, no matter the severity.
3. Ask for their help: This person has probably been managing their allergy really well and would probably love to share a few tips. Be brave, ask, and maybe even learn something!
4. Avoid cross-contamination: This goes for any sort of food prep, but if you have something in the area, (perhaps an item going into another dish that someone is allergic to) ensure that you aren’t transferring any kind of particles, as even the smallest amount of an allergen (peanuts for example) can send an individual into anaphylactic shock. Another underrated component of this is to wash any pans, utensils, and wipe down counters/tables because as mentioned above, even small traces can have potentially disastrous consequences.
All in all, is it more work to prepare food for someone with an allergy? Or to go out to that hip new restaurant? Yes, it is. Harvard Medical School even mentions that individuals with food allergies should “dine out defensively” — but who wants to do that, right? However, at the end of the day, when so much of our culture and social activities revolve around eating and food, actually being able to include a friend in a meal is a noteworthy accomplishment that, believe me, makes all the difference.