Allergy Shmallergy

Simplifying life for families with food allergies.

Best (and Worst) Practices of Some of Our Favorite Restaurants June 12, 2017

Restaurants need to pay attention to food allergies.  Aside from the obvious risk of health complications, misunderstanding of such common and serious conditions comes off as uninformed, unsympathetic, and negligent.  Sometimes even the best restaurants aren’t well-informed or trained about handling food allergy requests.  But when a restaurant gets it right, it earns a customer’s loyalty forever.  Below are some of the best and worst practices among our experiences.  I’d love to hear some examples of BEST practices from YOUR dining experiences by commenting below.

 

To understand what’s happening behind the kitchen doors, read Allergic Living’s Special Report, What Restaurants Are Getting Right and Wrong on Food Allergies.  And if you work at a restaurant, please read Simple Strategies for Restaurants to Manage Food Allergies for easy ways to improve food allergy service.

 

 

Hops (Greensboro, NC)

Hops 2015-07-20 19.37.22

The reputation of this burger joint was impossible to ignore.  And, we knew from our first year eating here that it was well-deserved.  In fact, I had been impressed that they offered gluten-free beer and buns, despite the fact that we do not eat gluten-free.

However, one night, arriving with a large group of friends, we noticed that a vegetarian burger containing nuts was added to the menu.  This greatly increased the possibility of cross-contamination for our peanut and tree nut allergic son.  We asked the server if the restaurant could clean a small portion of the grill before making my son’s hamburger. No. Could they grill his burger in a pan?  No.  Would they consider grilling his burger on a piece of clean tin foil?  No.

 

So, we walked across the street and ate there instead.  Rather than thinking flexibly, the restaurant has lost our business – not just our family’s business, but that of our entire group.

 

Miyagi (McLean, VA)

This Japanese restaurant is always crowded.  Its sushi is consistently fresh and delicious.

 

When we explained that my son had a sesame seed allergy and could not have any sesame on his order, they seemed to understand.   But it was a different story when the plate arrived with sesame seeds covering the side dish.  And the replacement was sent back on the same plate with the side dish scraped off.

 

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill (Moorsetown, NJ)

Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, we all grew hungry and needed a break from the car.  We decided to stop at Firebirds off exit 4 on a whim.  And, what a great choice!  The food was great and the servers were extra careful with our food allergy requests.  The chef himself came over to our table to answer each question we had.

“I like to visit each table with food allergies personally,” he said, “so that you know I understand your concerns and we can discuss a plan so you know you’re eating safely.”

The chef watched his best friend deal with celiac disease and food allergies at restaurants and wanted to change that experience for his own customers.  The effort was enormously appreciated!

 

Clare and Don’s Beach Shack (Falls Church, VA)

This local restaurant is an experience unto itself.  In addition to its fun and friendly indoor ambiance, it has generous outdoor seating with a fire pit for the cool months and live music for the warmer ones.  The owners always make everyone feel warm and welcome.  Their quick response to our questions (even when that requires contacting suppliers or figuring out how to make something safe on the fly) is part of their natural, good-natured customer service.  And, it’s something we’re incredibly grateful for.

In fact, they’ve become so accommodating with and accustomed to my son’s orders that when the ticket comes into the kitchen, his meals often return to the table with a greeting from one of the owners herself.

 

Burton’s Grill (Charlottesville, VA and elsewhere)

This restaurant gets kids’ menus right.  Rather than ordering and substituting everything as food allergy families usually do, this menu allows kids (and their parents) to customize each piece.  And for those of us with dietary restrictions, that means more options, less hassle.  We still had a few questions for our server (safety of hamburger buns and fry oil) and were pleased to see the seriousness with which they sought the answers.  Such a great experience, we made a repeat visit within the same weekend.

 

Harvey Cedar’s Shellfish Co (Long Beach Island, NJ)

This is a perennial favorite for our family and friends.  A down-to-earth seafood restaurant with friendly staff is a no-brainer.  But nothing with food allergies is completely straight-forward.  As my son became more and more adventurous and we posed more and more questions about their menu, one server in particular took it upon himself to create an allergen menu with the help of the owner and chefs.  We were hugely impressed with this simple and easy to navigate menu.  It has encouraged my son to try even MORE menu items which has resulted in his love of swordfish, mussels, and lobster!

 

La Tela (Kiawah Island, SC)

We waited for 45 minutes to sit down at this popular wood-fired pizza and Italian restaurant just off Kiawah Island.  By the time we had been seated, it was late and the kids were STARVING.  We had a great time eating here a couple of years prior and were looking forward to a good meal.

When we told the waiter my son was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds and sensitive to dairy (because of his EOE), a manager returned to discuss the menu with us.  She had thorough knowledge of kitchen preparations and ingredients.  As it turns out, because they use pine nuts in their pesto pizza (which contaminates the oven) only salad and plain pasta were safe for him – a HUGE disappointment.  But they were willing to prepare pasta for my son in a dedicated pot to ensure it was safe.  He was not thrilled, but we appreciated the extra step.

Unfortunately, the pasta arrived covered in sauce – something my son doesn’t like and specifically ordered against.  When we pointed this out to our server, he was clearly put out.  Annoyed and not hiding it, he said that although the kitchen could prepare another batch of pasta, it would take a very long time.  He suggested that my son just eat the meal in front of him.

The last thing you want to do is tell a food allergic child (or anyone with a medical condition) to just suck it up.  We left frustrated with our mixed experience.  While the restaurant itself was great, this visit emphasizes how much of your experience lies with the individual you are working with.  In our case: the server.

 

Sandbox (Long Beach Island, NJ)

Breakfast is tricky for those with dairy allergies.  So much of what kids want to order in the morning (pancakes, waffles, even scrambled eggs) is made with milk.  My son has become used to having fruit and bacon when we’re out at breakfast.  But on this one morning, he really wanted French Toast.  There were a lot of hurdles to overcome before we could safely order this: safety of the bread and preparation surface, can they coat it only in egg…?    Yes on all accounts.  This specially prepared French Toast – made in a separate pan – makes my son SO happy.  Sandbox’s flexible thinking makes him feel great and relaxed.

 

But, when we spoke with the owner, we experienced a funny lack of awareness.  While we complimented her restaurant at being so good at handling food allergies, she made a few insensitive comments.  We told her about my son’s many food allergies. Having been a former teacher, she said, “Oh!  I would have HATED to have you in my class!”  Later, my son asked, “What’s wrong?  Why wouldn’t she have wanted to teach me?”  Not the message you want your customers leaving with.  Also, you wouldn’t say that to someone in a wheelchair or with a serious illness.  Why say that to a child who similarly didn’t choose to have food allergies?

 

Rocco’s Tacos (throughout Florida)

Rocco’s Tacos is our Florida obsession.  My whole family loves eating at this festive and delicious restaurant.  It’s made even easier to love because across locations, Rocco’s takes food allergies seriously.  They seek out ingredients and are creative at work-arounds when necessary.  At our most recent visit in Boca Raton, the server approached us to let me know that his brother had food allergies, conveying that he understood our questions and concerns whole-heartedly.  That kind of information is so helpful when explaining what you (as the food allergy family) are looking for.

And, look!  They flag food allergy orders from the kitchen to table so that mistakes are avoided.  Love that system!

 

Sakura (Vienna, VA)

Japanese hibachi restaurants, as it turns out, can be a fantastic place to eat with food allergies.  Many do not use any dairy.  And their prep surface is diligently cleaned right in front of customers.

 

Sakura’s menu clearly states that they don’t use peanuts or peanut oil in any of its menu items.  They take time to understand the food allergies at our table and craft a careful plan to cook each meal in the proper order to ensure its safety.  When we eat with our extended family, as we often do, we need to avoid my son’s food allergies as well as my in-law’s – that means, no peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, or shrimp.  They prepare everything with ease (and great skill!) right in front of us.

 

Panzone’s Pizza (Long Beach Island, NJ)

Panzone’s boasts some of the best pizza on the Jersey Shore.  But it was when we began ordering their other menu items that we realized how easy they made things for food allergic families like ours.  The owner pulled out a binder filled with ingredient lists for all menu items, including those from her suppliers.  Stock from suppliers is typically our biggest roadblock for information.  Restaurants often have no idea what is in a supplied item and cannot take the time to call to inquire.

 

Perusing Panzone’s ingredient binder allowed us to partake in items that are usually not safe elsewhere: like (cheeseless) cheesesteaks, amazing breaded wings, and fish tacos.

 

Simple Strategies for Restaurants to Manage Food Allergies June 6, 2017

food-1685942_1920

 

Dining out is stressful for those with food allergies.  Very stressful.  We carefully put our lives in the hands of wait staff, cooks and chefs in order to participate in the social aspects that surround food.  A well-educated waiter, manager or chef can create life-long patrons of a food allergic customer.  Negligent or ignorant staff could send that same customer to the hospital (or worse) and impugn their business’s reputation.

 

When dining out goes well, it’s the backdrop of a happy memory (and stomach!).  But when restaurants get it wrong, they don’t just lose a food allergic customer; they lose that person’s entire family and friends.

 

So many pitfalls surrounding food allergies at eating establishments could be easily avoided.

 

Food Allergy Training

It all starts with thorough training.

 

Food allergies and food preferences are NOT the same thing.  Understanding the consequences of ingestion in both cases is important.  Wait and kitchen staff also need to understand what each food allergy means.  I can’t tell you how many times we announce my son’s dairy allergy only to have the waiter return and assure us the meal we inquired about is, in fact,  “gluten-free” or doesn’t have any eggs in it.  This is both unhelpful and makes a customer feel as if the staff doesn’t understand food very well – not to mention food allergies.

 

 

In addition to reviewing how to handle a food allergy request in the kitchen, it’s important to relay some of these solutions to the waitstaff.  They should be able to help the customer think creatively and to reassure them that your restaurant understands their concerns and can prepare a safe meal for them.

 

At one restaurant with a large group of friends, we noticed that a vegetarian burger containing nuts was added to the menu.  This greatly increased the possibility of cross-contamination.  We asked if the restaurant could clean a small portion of the grill before making my son’s hamburger.  No. Could they grill his burger in a pan?  No.  Would they consider grilling his burger on a piece of clean tin foil?  No.  So, we walked across the street and ate there instead.  Instead of thinking flexibly, the restaurant has lost our business – our entire group will not eat there any longer.

 

Conversely, we’ve found a breakfast place that will make my son’s french toast both without milk and cook it in a separate pan to ensure it’s safe.  All done with a smile.

 

 

Prep Waitstaff to Handle Common Questions

In addition to giving waitstaff information about what can and cannot be accommodated in your restaurant’s kitchen, arm them with information about your dishes.

 

If there are only 3 dishes with tree nuts, highlight those items.  Perhaps the kitchen stocks (but does not advertise) gluten-free pasta.  Sorbet does not contain dairy – be sure to point that out!

 

Practice Answering the Customer/Understand their Perspective

 

Give waitstaff, cooks, chefs and managers time to practice responding to customer concerns.  Those with food allergies often feel as if they are imposing on others by asking a lot of questions and getting reassurances that they can eat safely.  In short, they sometimes feel as if their food allergy is an imposition.

 

Restaurants can and should respond with patience and kindness – reducing the stress of dining out and increasing a customer’s positive experience.  But sometimes, they don’t:

 

At one Italian restaurant, there was only ONE item on the menu that would up being safe for my son.  When we mentioned to the waiter that we had asked for it without sauce, he responded poorly.  After making it seem like a huge hassle to redo, he basically suggested my son just suck it up.  Wrong message.

 

You’ll read many more examples in Shmallergy’s upcoming post, Best (and Worst) Practices of Some of Our Favorite Restaurants.

 

Supplier Lists/Binder of Ingredients

Keep a binder (be in digital or paper form) that contains the ingredients of each item used in the kitchen as well as supplier information.  Remember to keep it up-to-date as suppliers and dishes often change.  This makes both checking ingredients as well as seeking answers to food safety questions much simpler.  We’ve flipped through many a supplier/ingredient book which has added a great amount of reassurance to our dining.

 

Another option is to create an allergen menu which allows waitstaff and/or diners to easily reference to allergens.  One restaurant we eat at regularly created one after my son began asking his own food allergy questions.  It doesn’t have to be fancy; just reliable.

 

 

These simple strategies to understand and accommodate food allergies will forge lasting relationships with customers and will enhance your restaurant’s reputation for service.

 

6 Tips for Traveling with Food Allergies March 7, 2017

pool-690034_1920 via pixabay

 

Spring break is on the horizon!  Can you smell the fresh air already?  Are you mentally packing your bags? (I am!)

 

Here are a few tips when traveling with food allergies:

locking-knob-883059_1920 via pixabay

  1.  Call your airline and inquire about their food allergy policy in advance.  Ask specifically about early boarding and in-flight announcements.
  2. Most airlines will allow passengers to board the plane early in order to wipe down surfaces (this includes seat backs, seat belts, tray tables and knobs, armrests). Be sure to bring enough baby wipes or antibacterial wipes (such as Wet Ones) to cover all the legs of your travel.  Again, ask about pre-boarding at the gate.
  3. Carry your epinephrine auto-injectors and antihistamines ON BOARD.  Do not pack these away in your luggage.  [*ALLERGY SHMALLERGY TIP*: Zyrtec makes dissolvable tablets which eliminate the worry over bringing liquids through security as well as anything spilling in your bags.]
  4. If you’re traveling to a warm weather destination, you’ll need to remember to keep your epinephrine auto-injectors at room temperature – even while enjoying the beach or pool.  Pack a cool pack (like this one) and an insulated bag (like this cute lunch bag).  Store the cool packs in your hotel’s mini-fridge (who needs a $15 bag of M&Ms anyway!?) or plan on ordering a to-go cup of ice to keep the medicine cool poolside.
  5. A hotel or resort’s food services manager can usually help you navigate menus.  On our last vacation, the food services manager had food allergies himself and was invaluable in hunting down ingredients and safe alternatives for our family.  Befriend this fantastic person!
  6. If you’re planning on visiting an amusement park, taking a hike or being similarly active, consider packing a backpack into your luggage (or use one as your carry-on!).  You’ll need to bring your epinephrine auto-injectors wherever you go – especially on vacation when you’re away from home cooking, familiar restaurants and local knowledge of hospitals and doctors.  Backpacks can make carrying it easier depending on the activity – simply slip the insulated bag into your backpack and go!

 

amusement-park-237200_1920

 

Two more notes:

  • Airline travelers should bring their own snacks/meals on board flights to ensure their safety.
  • Refrain from using airplane blankets and pillows as allergen residue may reside there.
  • Bring a baby or antibacterial wipe to the bathroom to wipe down door  and knob handles.

 

 

 

Allergy-Friendly Bakeries in the Metro DC Area May 31, 2016

Read below for our continually updated list of allergy-friendly bakeries in the DC metro area.

————————————-

 

With all the end-of-school, summer birthday, last sports game, graduation parties to be had, there’s no time to bake your own free-from desserts.  Let’s support these fabulous businesses who are trying to make life a little easier for families living with food allergies.

 

When you’re looking to buy baked goods for someone with food allergies, it’s feels almost impossible to find a safe option.  Here’s a list of some Nut-free, Gluten-free, and/or Vegan (read: Dairy and Egg-free) bakeries in the DC metro area to satisfy your sweet tooth.  (I’m salivating as I research these great places and now dying to go to each and every one!)

 

Cole’s Moveable Feast Picture
http://www.colesmoveablefeast.com/
Led by a former attorney turned home baker, Cole’s Moveable Feast serves the Northern Virginia area.  They offer custom cakes, cupcakes, cookies, seasonal breads, pastries, and pies baked to order without dairy, egg, nuts, gluten and/or any other allergens you specify.  Using custom gluten-free flour lends and egg substitutes, their biggest sellers are cakes and cupcakes made without gluten, nuts, dairy or egg, but they can accommodate nearly any allergen (including soy and corn).   NOTE:  they even have a weekly snack delivery option!
Free from:  Nuts, gluten, dairy, egg; can customize to exclude other allergens.
Phone/online orders only.

 

Baked by Yael
https://bakedbyyael.com/
A tree nut-free and peanut-free bakery in D.C.  Among their many products, they offer gluten-free chocolate cakepops as well as dairy-free gingersnaps and egg-free raspberry bars.  A great stop after a day at the National Zoo.
Free from: Tree nuts, Peanuts.  Some goods: Dairy, Egg, Gluten.

 
Dog Tag Bakery
dogtagbakery.com
A nut-free bakery and cafe with a mission to support veterans.  They serve everything from egg and cheese sandwiches to muffins, croissants, quick breads and desserts.
Located in Georgetown.
Free from: Nuts
 
 
 
Happy Tart BakeryÉclair
happytartbakery.com
We are a 100% gluten free French patisserie!  We do bread, cupcakes, tarts and other wondrous goodies! 
Located in Del Ray, Alexandria.
Free from: Gluten, Dairy, Egg, Soy, Nuts
 
 

Out of the Bubble Bakery
www.obubblebakery.com
Based in VA
We specialize in cakes, cupcakes, and cookies for those with food restrictions.
Phone/online orders only.
Free from: Dairy, Nuts, Eggs, Soy, Dye, Gluten and made without GMOs.  Vegan and organic.

Sweet Serenity Bakery
www.sweetserenitybakery.com
Based in VA
Every ingredient is meticulously checked and manufacturers are contacted for anything questionable.  We also do not use any artificial flavorings, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, or high fructose corn syrup.
Phone/online orders only.
Free from:  Eggs, Peanuts, and Tree Nuts

 
 
 

Cookies/Scooby.jpgThe Lemonade Bakery
A dedicated Egg-free, Peanut-free, and Tree Nut-free bakery.
Delivery of cakes, cupcakes, cookies, scones, and breads to the metro-DC area.
Phone/online orders only. Delivery optional.

 
 
 
Egg-Free, Dairy-Free, and Nut-free bakery  and can also make Gluten-free, Vegan, or Custom Allergy-free cupcakes.
See Allergy Shmallergy’s Happy Birthday post from December 2010.
Phone/online orders only.
 
 
   
  
 
  
 
 
 
 

Hello Cupcake in Dupont and Capital Hill, although not a nut-free facility, offers Gluten-Free and Vegan options.

1361 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Just south of Dupont Circle, across from the Metro

705 8th Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
3 blocks south of Eastern Market Metro

 
  
 
 
 
 

Fancy Cakes by Leslie, in Bethesda, offers some Gluten-free selections including cupcakes, cookies, and marzipan.

4939 Elm Street
Bethesda, MD  20814

  
 
 
  
 
 
 
 
 

 Sweetz Bakery, located in a kiosk at the Dulles Town Center mall (near the food court), is a custom bakery that makes Gluten and Dairy-free cakes as well as Vegan flavors.

Dulles Town Center Mall

21100 Dulles Town Center Circle

Sterling, VA 20165

 
 
  
 
   
  
   
 
 
  
 
 

Sticky Fingers

An award-winning Vegan Bakery, also available at many retail locations including select Whole Foods in the mid-Atlantic and DC-metro area.  Everything they make is Dairy and Egg-free, and they also offer a few Nut-free and Gluten-free desserts (but are not a nut and wheat-free facility).

1370 Park Rd NW

Washington, DC  20010

   
  
 
 
 
 
 

 Sweet and Natural

An all-Vegan restaurant, also offers a selection of Vegan desserts – some of which are also available in local health food stores.

4009 34th St
Mt Rainier, MD 20712

 
 
  
 
 

Cake Love

Offers Vegan and Gluten-Free products.

Locations throughout the metro DC area including:

DC; Arlington, Tysons Corner, & Fairfax, VA;

Silver Spring, National Harbor, MD

  
 
 
 
  
 
  
 

Dama Bakery

Serves Ethiopian and French pastries in Vegan and Gluten-free varieties.

1505 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA

  
 
 
 
  
 
 

 

Whole Foods sells “Safe For School” Nut-free cookies in their bakery section.

  
 
  
 
 
 
  

The Westbard Giant in Bethesda sells Nut-free cupcakes. According to one shopper, you can usually find them in the freezer located in the bakery (not the regular freezer section), but they are sometimes displayed in the bakery section. They carry a label stating that they were made in a nut free facility.  Convenient!

  
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 

 For even more Vegan bakeries located in and around DC, check out the list at VegDC.com and Urbanspoon.com.

 

Pizza Hut – Again. February 18, 2016

 

I can’t believe I’m writing about Pizza Hut – again.  But here I am.

 

At this point in time/education, at their size, there’s no excuse for not having their act together when it comes to food allergies.  And yet…

 

My son was due to attend a birthday party that involved a trip to a nearby Pizza Hut.   Since we don’t have one very close to us AND they have a strange relationship with food allergies (see “Correction: Pizza Nut… I Mean, Pizza Hut” from 2012), I needed to do extra homework in preparation for my son to eat there.

 

I started by reviewing their allergen menu.  But since my son is allergic to food OUTSIDE the top 8 allergens, I also placed a call to double check my findings.  I don’t take unnecessary risks – especially in a birthday party-type situation.

 

It took three phone calls to get a customer service agent on the phone due to high call volume on three different days.   After waiting close to twenty minutes each time, I finally got a live voice.  I presented the facts simply, “My son is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts (so all nuts), sesame seeds and dairy (which means milk, butter and cheese).  I have read your allergen menu online but I still have a few questions.”

 

I went on to explain what my son would order (a regular, personal size pizza with only sauce) and asked my three easy questions:

  1.  Does the sauce have dairy (particularly, cheese) in it?  It’s impossible to tell from the online menu since most pizza is covered in mozzerella, but his won’t be.
  2. Is sesame used anywhere in either the crust or the sauce?  It can be ground up like flour and used as an ingredient you can’t see.
  3. Are there any cross-contamination issues I should be aware of with nuts or sesame seeds?

 

Simple, right?  Should be an easy answer there…

 

Not only could the customer service not answer the question himself, but he put me on hold while he asked a “nutritionist” somewhere in his office.  Sounded promising… until he came back to the phone and told me to go to the online allergen menu.  I reminded him that I had already reviewed it and had questions that this online menu didn’t answer.

 

I already felt that my questions (which I’d like to remind Pizza Hut concern the safety of my child) weren’t being heard and my concerns were being dismissed.

 

He put me on hold again to retrieve information from the nutritionist.  “OKAY!” he returned. “Go to the nutrition menu on our site and the calories for each meal should be listed beside it.”

 

Huh?!  It sounds like neither the representative nor the nutritionist understood what kind of information I was asking for and both were just blindly answering.

 

I repeated my questions and directed him towards an ingredient list.  “Well,” he jumped in, “concerning sesame seeds:  We DO offer a gluten-free crust.  So your son should be okay there.”  Again, WHAT?!  Back to the drawing board.  Time to education yet another person in the food industry about the difference between gluten and sesame seeds…

 

He returned to the nutritionist and came back yet again without any helpful information. But, the customer service representative took my contact info and assured me that the nutritionist would get back to me within 24 hours.

 

“Terrific,” I said – exhausted from the ineptitude. “the party is in three days, so that will be just in the nick of time.”

 

It is now eight (8!) days later and I still haven’t received a reply from Pizza Hut’s customer service OR their nutritionist.

 

Unfortunately, my son injured himself playing sports and couldn’t attend the birthday party.  But there was no way I felt comfortable with him eating at Pizza Hut if customer service AND a nutritionist couldn’t tell me if cheese or sesame seeds were in their sauce and crust.  The already hard decisions about how to accommodate my son’s food allergies so that he feels included in social situations was made that much more difficult by a lack of both understanding and a total lack of response.

 

They may no longer be referred to as “Pizza Nut” in our house (they once listed peanuts and tree nuts in nearly all of their products).  Now, we call them “Pizza Not.”

 

 

 

Mellow Mushroom: A Disappointing Case of Doing Everything Right (With a Tasty Ending) August 20, 2015

Oh, Mellow Mushroom.  Had I appreciated just how amazing you were and how difficult it would be to get to you afterwards, I would have eaten your pizza every day during college and not simply most days.

On a recent trip to Charlotteville, we decided to introduce the kids to the deliciousness that is Mellow Mushroom.  Although pizza is typically an easy food to negotiate with peanut, tree nut, and sesame seed allergies, we still ask our standard questions – just in case:

  • Is there any sesame seed flour in the pizza dough?
  • Is there anything unusual in the sauce (like pine nuts, etc) that we should be aware of?
  • What kind of oil do you use in the fryer to cook chicken wings?

I was impressed that our young waitress was completely focused on our questions, taking notes, and didn’t assume she had the answers.  She had clearly discussed our concerns with the cooks and managers by the time she returned to the table, ready to take our order.  Everything we mentioned had been cleared and deemed safe for my son, except they had one concern:  the marinara sauce listed “an oil blend” and they couldn’t track down which specific oils were in it.  (Good catch!) And, they were worried about serving it to my son without being one hundred percent sure.

This excellent attention to detail, while VERY MUCH APPRECIATED, derailed us totally.  Everyone in our party of nine had ordered except my son.  And, there was nothing else on the menu that constituted a meal that didn’t involve marinara sauce. He was hugely disappointed (also hungry and tired) and I was rapidly researching everything I could find to get a more definitive answer while we were still there.  I was thrilled to see that Mellow Mushroom has an online allergen menu that covered everything but the marinara sauce in question.  Fabulous! but grrrr….

In the meantime, we cobbled together a meal of yummy pizza dough pretzels, apple slices, and promised him a second dinner wherever he chose.

My son was frustrated, my husband was mad, our dinner guests were upset.  But me?  I was quite pleased with how Mellow Mushroom handled our allergy questions.  Disappointed in the answer – or lack thereof – and concerned about my son’s feelings, but pleased.  They took it seriously.  They understood the implications of a mistake or a (pardon the UVA-related pun) cavalier attitude.  Mellow Mushroom’s online menu is easy to navigate – my only wish is that it included sesame seeds as is required in Canada and the EU, thus eliminating this quandary in the first place.

That Monday morning, I called Home Grown Industries which owns Mellow Mushroom and inquired about their marinara sauce.  For the record, it does NOT contain sesame seed or any peanut/tree nut oils and would have been safe.  My kids jumped up and down upon learning that the sauce is safe AND that there are not one but TWO Mellow Mushrooms within a few miles of us at home.  We’re already planning our next meal!

Mellow Mushroom

 

Seeking All Allergy-Friendly Bakeries July 9, 2015

Baked goods that are dairy, egg, wheat or nut-free are hard to come by.  They’re even harder to come by should you want or need something custom, like a birthday cake.

That’s where our Allergy-Friendly Bakeries List comes in handy!

Do you know of a great allergy-friendly bakery?  Send us the info!

We’re compiling a list of allergy-friendly bakeries across the US, Canada, and beyond.  **Please be sure to do your own research before ordering to ensure the products are safe for you as individual’s allergies and requirements differ.**

Feel free to comment below with your information or send the details to me at erin@allergystrong.com.

Also:  Live in or near Washington?  Check out the post Allergy-Friendly Bakeries in the DC Metro Area.

 

Play Ball! How to Root for Your Home Team With a Peanut Allergy June 12, 2015

baseball-glove.jpg

Click on over to Content Checked to see my latest article about attending baseball games with food allergies.  There, I address the fears and realities of ballparks and peanut allergies specifically.
When my son was younger, we were shocked at how few options there were at stadium concession stands and how little people there knew about what they were serving.  When asked a question, they didn’t even know how to GET more information.  On more than one occasion, a leftover box of raisins bought us a little more time before mealtime meltdowns would begin.

But these days, stadiums are doing a lot better on behalf of their food allergic and celiac customers.  At our beloved Washington Nationals’ stadium (Go Nats!), there’s a whole concession stand dedicated to gluten-free eating (section 114 and it includes beer!).  Furthermore, stadiums are playing host to well-known restaurants and chains – making it much easier to ask questions or do a little research ahead of time.  The Nats have a Shake Shack, a chain whose allergen menu not only labels for the most common food allergens, but sesame seeds, sulfites and cross-contaminated products as well (see Shake Shack’s menu).  This makes it so much easier to eat safely and confidently at the ballpark.  What a difference from a few years ago!

If you are allergic to peanuts, take the precautions mentioned in my ContentChecked post to guarantee a home run experience.  If you have other food allergies, a little research before you get to the ballpark can go a LONG way in enjoying the big game.  But in either event, get out and root, root, root for the home team!

 

Visiting DC? Here’s a Food Allergy-Friendly Game Plan March 4, 2015

Despite all this snow and ice, delays and cancellations, Spring Break is really just around the corner.  And, for many people, the spring and summer seasons offer a chance to visit our nation’s capital.  There’s so much to do in Washington DC, it’s almost mind-boggling.  I’m pretty sure I could keep a visitor busy for a solid 6 months here.  So, consider the below an outline and fill in with extras that pique your interests.  And, please let me know about some of your own allergy-friendly finds via Twitter or Facebook using @shmallergy or #shmallergyDC!

Day 1:  The Mall – Part 1

See:  What ISN’T there to see on the National Mall?!  Start at the Washington Monument (and definitely go to the top, it’s amazing – even the ride back down is memorable) and wind your way to the Lincoln Memorial, passing the WWII, Roosevelt, MLK Jr., Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.

Eat:  I’d recommend packing a lunch and having a picnic right on the mall.  There are some beautiful shaded lawns, benches beside the reflecting pools and vistas along the Potomac River.  There’s a Whole Foods in nearby Foggy Bottom (2201 I St NW) that will help you accumulate your dairy-free, gluten-free and other food allergy friendly snacks.  And, Foggy Bottom also hosts a SweetGreen (vegan, dairy and egg-free dishes), dc dosa (gluten-free options), as well as Roti (some gluten-free choices), Chipotle and Subway (where you can find their allergen menus online here).

Day 2:  National Zoo

Eat: Start the day with a hearty breakfast at Open City (2331 Calvert St. NW) where you can enjoy some straightforward favorites like poached eggs and ham alongside mouthwatering brioche french toast.  They serve tofu and fresh fruit here as well if you’re avoiding eggs, dairy, or wheat for example.

See:  Make your way up Connecticut Avenue to the unmissable National Zoo.  Wind downhill while at the zoo via the Asian Trail, passing by our beloved pandas and impressive elephant habitat.  And, take a rest in sight of the famous O-line, an overhead ropes course that the orangutans freely travel from one building to another.

Eat Lunch: Take a short taxi ride to the kid-friendly and ever-delicious 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria.  They don’t take reservations so you don’t need to worry about rushing through the zoo to get there.  Just sit back, and try not to drool over the amazing crust.

Then, See:  Take the opportunity to walk off lunch by strolling a couple of blocks across the street to The National Cathedral.  Between the stunning grounds and gardens, serene setting and unusual gargoyles – there’s something for everyone here.  Bonus points if you can find the Dark Vader gargoyle.

Map of Smithsonian museums on and near the National Mall

Day 3:  Back to the Mall – Part 2

See:  Did I mention that the National Mall hosts EVERYTHING!?!  Get there early and snag a ticket to the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing to see money being printed.  Then, meander over to any of the MANY amazing Smithsonian museums.

Eat:  Walk over to Old Ebbitt Grill.  This restaurant was a favorite of several presidents including Teddy Roosevelt (*read its full history – it’s like eating in a Washington historic landmark). Bonus, Old Ebbitt Grill is part of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group which takes food allergies very seriously.  I’ve found their serving staff to be knowledgeable in regards to food allergies and willing to thoroughly find solutions to allergy questions and substitutions.

Then, See:  A very short walk from Old Ebbitt Grill is The White House.  Regardless of politics, you just have to see it.

Day 4: Capitol Hill

See:  In addition to touring the Capitol building (and trying not to sing “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock aloud), be sure to stop by the Library of Congress.  Thomas Jefferson’s personal library is on display there and the LOC’s exhibitions are fascinating.

Eat:  Tortilla Coast is probably one of my favorite restaurants in DC.  It’s great for families, relaxed and a favorite of Hill staffers which is how you know it’s good!

Then, see:  Head to Penn Quarter where you’ll find the National Portrait Gallery and catch sight of portraits of all kinds of history-making Americans.  Or, cross the street and check out the Spy Museum!  Being in Penn Quarter sets you up perfectly for a night out.   Catch a Washington Wizards or Georgetown Hoya’s basketball game, a Capitals hockey game, or concert at the Verizon Center.  Or, hop a cab to the National’s Stadium.

Eat Again:  If you’re in the mood for a burger, you’re in luck:  Clyde’s has a fabulous one along with its many other offering and (as mentioned above) is very food allergy savvy; and Shake Shack is an easy go-to with a well-informed online menu to browse before you go.

Day 5:  Georgetown and Arlington

See:  Today is a day to stroll.  Georgetown is full of history from its cobblestone streets to its beautiful university.  But some of the fun in Georgetown is shopping, checking out the canals, and strolling by the Potomac’s waterfront.

Eat: If you find yourself at Georgetown University, you have to eat at The Tombs.  It’s an institution and, again, part of the food allergy aware Clyde’s Group of restaurants.  It purportedly inspired the setting for the 1980s classic “St. Elmo’s Fire” and is a great place to catch a game on TV.

Then, See:  Hop across the river to visit Arlington National Cemetery before plopping back on the bed in your hotel room and realizing you’ll have to plan a second trip to see all the DC has to offer!

 

Farmers’ Markets Might Just Be Fabulous January 26, 2015

Today, my daughter and I took a little field trip to Union Market in Northeast DC to have lunch with my brother from out of town.  Leave it to him to already be tuned into the cool DC-find that is Union Market.

2015/01/img_7584.jpg

I pulled into a ghost town of a closed wholesale food district and thought I must be lost.  But as I have a fascination with industrial areas of cities (don’t even ASK where that comes from!), I was fascinated, not flummoxed.  Making one last turn, I stumbled upon the spot.  A bright, industrial warehouse housing what is basically an upscale, indoor farmers market and series of food stalls.  I’m glad I had only brought my try-anything toddler.  I’ve long been a little leery of farmer’s markets, food trucks and small stalls because of their limited offerings and my belief that the limits of their kitchens might make for a potentially dangerous cross-contamination situation.  With my oldest son allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and sesame seeds and my middle guy going through a picky eater phase, this type of establishment can be a disaster.

But, boy was I surprised today!!  Look at some of the great things I found today:

Here was a bakery that posted the ingredients of all of their breads (and there were MANY – all delicious looking).  Notice what they don’t list:  dairy, eggs, sesame seeds, and peanuts**?

[**I did ask at the stall and the breads were made in the same facility as tree nuts.]

2015/01/img_7574.jpg2015/01/img_7572.jpg

2015/01/img_7573.jpg

While not everything fit the allergy-free mold here, they did have several dairy-free options:

2015/01/img_7576.jpg2015/01/img_7575.jpg

Vegan means egg and dairy-free!

2015/01/img_7581.jpg

Let us not forget all the fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables on hand to prepare something safe and delicious at home:

2015/01/img_7579.jpg          2015/01/img_7592.jpg

2015/01/img_7589.jpg

I can’t wait to bring my food allergic son here (below)!  I checked with the staff and their biscuits are peanut, tree nut and sesame seed-free!  Breakfast sandwiches on biscuits.  I’m still stuffed but my mouth is watering!  Mmmm…

2015/01/img_7591.jpg

And, my younger son will LOVE the bagels they import (below) from New York.  There’s nothing like a NY bagel!

 IMG_7586

Whether it’s Union Market, Eastern Market, or a farmer’s market near you, get out and explore.  These small businesses were extremely responsive to our allergy concerns and, no matter whether the food was safe or not, I LOVE supporting them!

2015/01/img_7585.jpg

Union Market, Washington DC

 

Sonny’s BBQ and the Problem with Menu Allergen Lists February 27, 2014

We recently ate at my father-in-law’s favorite restaurant chain:  Sonny’s BBQ.  It’s a southeastern BBQ chain that reminds my father-in-law of the time he spent at the University of Florida.  So whenever we’re in Florida, we “dine” there.

 

As usual, before we went, I reviewed their allergen menu and identified a few items my FA son could choose from.  And, as usual,  I verified all my information with the manager.

 

Now, let me say, Sonny’s manager couldn’t have been nicer or more responsive.  He researched the ingredients for the hamburger bun and the cornbread from his suppliers and was willing to bend over backwards to accommodate my son as best as he could.  And, as a result, we enjoyed a safe and yummy meal.

 

But I noticed something that was distressing in asking all our usual questions.  While the manager knew his ingredients and was willing to investigate further when he wasn’t sure, Sonny’s BBQ corporate may not understand how food allergies actually work.  For example, Sonny’s Corporate allergen menu shows that their fries are milk, egg, tree nut, peanut, shellfish, and SOY free.  But that’s only if you eat them UNFRIED because their manager confirmed they were fried in vegetable oil.

 

While soy is no longer a concern for my son, I can imagine this mistake would pose a danger.  If I had read their allergen menu and decided to just take it at face value, my son could have wound up with some serious problems.

 

Corporations need to take into broader considerations when publishing food allergen menus.  Their menus must reflect fry oil and cooking methods as well as supplier-driven “manufactured on equipment” issues.  More information of this kind allows diners to make better, clearer choices.  Whenever I can make more sure-footed decisions about meals for my son and other food allergic family members, I feel grateful and relaxed.  And, that’s something that will keep me coming back.

 

 

New Years Resolution? Learn to Cook and Avoid Food Preparation Problems! January 13, 2014

Eight years ago, when my son was first diagnosed with food allergies, I was a terrible cook.  Truly terrible.  If you saw the Discovery Channel documentary, you may have noticed the burnt spoon that had caught fire when I “blackened” chicken noodle soup.  That’s right:  I burnt soup.  Take a moment:  I know you’re all very impressed.

 20140112-210104.jpg

As soon as the doctor listed my son’s food allergies (at that time: peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, eggs, soy, wheat and corn), I was thrust into a whole new world.  One in which I would have to cook.  And, the result would need to be edible. (Gasp!)

 

Now, many years later, I actually enjoy cooking.  I can’t have enough cookbooks and I love the challenge of turning something that isn’t initially allergy-friendly into something safe and delicious.

 

But the biggest bonus must be the understanding and innate sense of what goes into a dish.  It has helped me innumerable times to determine what is safe for my son while we’re out enjoying the world!

 

It’s important to have a sense not only of ingredients, but also of the process in the kitchen.  A sampling of questions, I’ve needed to ask are:

  • Can you check the breading on fish?  Or, the breadcrumbs in the meatballs?  Breadcrumbs very often contain sesame seeds.
  • Are the chicken nuggets/calamari/fried zucchini coated with egg?
  • Is there egg in the salad dressing?  Some contain either eggs or mayonnaise.
  • Does that sauce contain flour?  Many are thickened with gluten flour.
  • Is there parmesan cheese in the marinara?
  • Do you add milk to your scrambled eggs/omelet/pancakes?

The more hands-on experience you have in the kitchen, the more you’ll understand what kinds of things you may need to look out for in others’ kitchens.  You’ll be surprised at how often you save yourself from a potential reaction.  So, cook and speak up!

 

Here are a few tips for starting out:

  • If you’re brand new in the kitchen, don’t feel overwhelmed by trying to make a main dish and sides.  It’s okay to try ONE new recipe and buy preprepared sides or make a new side dish and buy roasted chicken.
  • While looking at recipes, don’t be put off if they include your allergen.  Simply do a little research to see if there’s a safe alternative and/or omission.  We just omit peanuts from our Kung Pao Chicken dish.  And, we sub-in soy milk for regular in pancakes.
  • In choosing a recipe:  read the recipe in full once before you even go shopping.  It may call for “1 garlic clove, minced” which you could mince yourself or buy pre-prepared.
  • And, while reading the recipe, take note of prep time as well as cooking time.  Ingredient lists often list ingredients that have been pre-prepared like garlic noted above, a pie-crust pre-baked, or “3 cups spinach, sauteed”.   This translates to time, so simply be aware and plan accordingly.  This was tricky for me for a while.  I can’t tell you how many times I served a meal a whole HOUR after I thought it would be ready.
 

Good luck, watch your soup, and send me picts (and samples – mmmm!) of your best recipes!

photo: countryliving.com
 

 
%d bloggers like this: