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)

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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.

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Holiday Stress? 4 Tips for Celebrating with Less Than Supportive Family December 14, 2016

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I hear from so many readers this time of year who just need to vent.   Reports of disappointment and frustration frequently get voiced over extended family that isn’t supportive – or, in extreme cases, is totally defiant of – a family’s food allergy concerns.

 

These incidents often center around the holiday table – at a time of year when parent anxiety can be heightened and when all parents put extra pressure on themselves to make the holidays magical for their children.  Family gatherings are typically filled with unspoken expectations.  Which is why it can be doubly disappointing (and sometimes volatile) when things go wrong.

 

Here are a few tips and tricks to help you relax and have fun with your extended family and friends as you celebrate this season:

 

  1.  Educate:  Many adults did not grow up knowing a single person with food allergies.  What comes off as careless to those of us who live this reality, may simply be a matter of ignorance.  A little education may go a long way.  If you want to start that process before you arrive, suggest they watch the Discovery Channel documentary, “Emerging Epidemic: Food Allergies in America.”
  2. Distract and Enjoy:  Perhaps you have a history of issues surrounding meals with your food allergies. If you know your family and your food allergies will not mix, don’t forego the time spent together.  Maybe you can host or help cook the meal.  Maybe you skip the meal and instead all go ice skating or sledding or on the hunt for the best Christmas lights in town.  New traditions will forge new memories!
  3. Be Flexible:  When it comes to the meal, we know you cannot compromise on safety.  Nor should you.  But if you can compromise on other parts of your visit, that may help reduce stress for all.  Be flexible when you can.
  4. Focus on Family:  Just remember that family relationships are important.  Not just to you but to your children.  Try to strengthen that relationship by creating positive memories throughout the year.  Having strong family bonds will defuse the anxiety and expectations of the holidays.

 

For further information about how to navigate family dynamics, please read Food Allergies and Family: Disagreements Not Break-Ups.

 

Day of the Dead Halloween Party October 25, 2016

Disclaimer: Allergy Shmallergy received these goods in exchange for an honest review.  I only feature products that I use myself and believe would be useful to the food allergy community.

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Trick or Treat banner from Oriental Trading

 

 

Halloween is almost here!  I hope you are all busy painting and decorating your teal pumpkins.  Teal pumpkins are a great way to let food allergy families know that you support them by offering non-food treats.  And by now, you all know that Oriental Trading has an enormous selection of non-food treats to fill your Halloween buckets.  These trick-or-treat items have a huge impact on kids with food allergies who often cannot collect almost any candy.  Food allergic kids can feel very left out at Halloween which is why it’s important to find ways for everyone to have fun safely.

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My middle son sporting a pair of glow in the dark vampire fangs…

[Oriental Trading supports the Teal Pumpkin project.  Check out their Halloween selection here.]

 

And, don’t forget to check their coupon page (you never know!):  Oriental Trading Coupon & Promo Page

 

We have a tradition of hosting an annual Halloween party at our house.  I began this as a way of ensuring that my son had plenty to eat and lots to celebrate when he was a young trick-or-treater.  Initially, he was allergic to so many foods that I couldn’t find a single candy he could enjoy safely.

 

I’m happy to report that he has since outgrown a few allergies.  Most candy is still off limits to him.  But surrounded by great friends at a pre-trick-or-treat dinner and post-candy-swap, he doesn’t mind.   Every year, the party grows and grows to include more families and more fun!

 

This year, I’ve create a Day of the Dead themed Halloween table.

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The playful patterns and colorful sugar skulls dress up any table.  Check out the cups!

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I couldn’t resist these plates and napkins – so I infused a little of the traditional Halloween with the addition of these irresistible black and white plates and napkins.

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Just like an outfit, accessories can make a table.  This sugar skull bowl and small skulls were a great addition to the black and whites at play.

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Are you looking at this table runner?!  You can’t quite tell from the photos, but it has spiders at the center of the webs and glitters in the light.  And, that pumpkin?!  I’ll be using it on my table through Thanksgiving!

 

 

I also picked out this silicone mold – which can be used for ice or to dress up snacks!

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Here’s a list of the items I used to create my Day of the Dead Halloween table:

 

Day of the Dead Candy Dish

Glittered Spider Table Runner

Foam Orange Pumpkin

Skull & Crossbones Ice Cube Tray

Skulls

“Trick or Treat” Halloween Cardboard Pennant Banner

Spider Web Dinner Plates

Large Polka Dots Dessert Plates

Boo Beverage Napkins

Day of the Dead Disposable Cups

Glow-in-the-Dark Vampire Teeth

Colorful Halloween Spider Rings

Day of the Dead Skull Wall Decoration

 

 

Now that the table – and the mood – are set, stay tuned later this week to see what I’m serving!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gluten-Free, Nut-Free Tortilla Chip-Crusted Tilapia February 27, 2015

Kind of by accident, I created one delicious dinner tonight.  Don’t you LOVE when that happens?!  I was planning to make Cooking Light’s Chip-Crusted Cod Fillets. But a few things went wacky…

First, my husband bought tilapia instead of cod.  Overcomeable.  Second, I realized I didn’t have the kind of chips the recipe called for.  That is sort of the corner stone to their recipe.  And, then I keep reading and decided I didn’t like the idea of dipping the fish into ranch dressing. But I DID like the idea of seasoned fish. So, I took it my own direction…

…And it was amazing!    I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

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Tortilla Chip-Crusted Tilapia

Ingredients

4 tilapia fillets (approximately 6 oz each)

2 tsp of mayonnaise (or if you’re allergic to egg, try soy mayonnaise)

1 tsp of ranch dressing

Approx. 2 oz (or two handfuls) of tortilla chips, crushed

a few pinches of sea salt

medium salsa

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Place tilapia fillets on parchment paper on baking sheet.  Sprinkle fillets with sea salt.  Next, spread 1/2 tsp of mayonnaise over the top of each fillet.  Add 1/4 tsp of ranch dressing to the top of each fillet and spread.  Cover each fillet with crushed tortilla chips and lightly press into place.  Bake for 15 minutes or until flaky.  Serve with dollop of salsa and try not to eat someone else’s tilapia once you’re done with your own.

 

 

Chilly Outside? Warm Up with Allergy-Free Game Day Chili January 30, 2015

Just as scrumptious as when I originally posted several years ago….

In the mood for chili, I decided to adapt my mother’s already-delicious recipe to be allergy-free and to include a few more vegetables.  The result was a fantastic dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, gluten-free meal that everyone loved.  [NB:  I cut the chili powder, and red pepper by about 1/3 (so 1 Tbsp chili powder and slightly less than 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes) to appease the taste budettes of my kids.]

 

Ingredients:

1 lb ground turkey

2 large onions, minced

2-4 garlic cloves, crushed

olive oil cooking spray

1 zucchini, shredded

28 oz can diced tomatoes

6 oz can tomato paste

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp crushed pepper

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 Tbsp chili powder

1 tsp cumin

1/4 cup fresh basil (chopped) or 1 Tbsp dried basil

16 oz can red kidney beans, rinsed

 
 

Spray large saute pan with cooking oil, saute onion and garlic for 2 minutes; then add turkey.  Cook , stirring and breaking up with a spoon, until the turkey is no longer pink (about 5 minutes).

Add chili powder, cumin, salt and red pepper flakes, stir and cook for 1 minute.  Add can of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and zucchini and simmer for 10 minutes.  Add bay leaf, basil and beans; cover and simmer for 1 hour.

 Grated Zucchini Ready for the Pan
 

Serve with Whole Grain Tostita Chips.  Enjoy!

 

Baby It’s Cold Outside…But, Sure, I’d Be Up For a Little More Ice! January 10, 2015

Italian Ice, that is!

I haven’t met an ice cream I didn’t like.  Yes, even in these east coast sub-zero temperatures I can’t be dissuaded away from a cold, sweet dessert.

So, the other night, while searching for a last minute dessert to bring to a friend’s house, my son found PhillySwirl’s Original Italian Ice Swirls.

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“Mom!!!” He screamed far too loudly from across the aisle, “Read this!”  Smack on the front of the box, it states that they are dairy, gluten and peanut-free.  And, they’re made in a peanut-free factory.  Jackpot!  As you all know, it can be hard to find desserts that are safe for dairy, gluten and nut allergic children. There’s always an unusual ingredient slipped in or a cross-contamination issue at play that ruins things at the last second.  So, you understand our excitement upon finding an awesome treat that’s also safe!

He was so thrilled, in fact, that he insisted we buy them just to support this awesome company.  Needless-to-say, I’ll be sure to check out PhillySwirl’s other products as well because these were DE-LISH!  Kudos go to this company for being food allergy aware!

 

Summer Resolution: Train the Sous-Chefs June 19, 2012

Ok, I realize that summer resolutions may not be as traditional as those made at New Year’s.  However, the end of the school year feels like just the right time to begin my new undertaking.

 

My resolution for the summer is to get the kids more involved in cooking with me.  I’ve given up trying to convince the boys that the healthy meal I’ve made for them is also delicious.  If they have a hand in making the meal, perhaps they’ll be more interested in gulping it down at dinnertime.  And, for my food allergic son, this will be a great way to get him thinking about what goes into different kinds of dishes so he can help protect himself when we’re not together.

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To take a tip from the First Lady, I’ve allowed my son’s to each pick a vegetable plant to tend to throughout the summer.  My younger son chose a pepper plant; the older one, a tomato plant.  Plus, we have pumpkin vines growing in the yard where our old jack-o-lanterns were ransacked by squirrels a few years ago, as well as mint and basil that keeps sprouting up whether or not I plant it.  It’s not a produce section, but it’s a start.

 

My husband and I also had a heart-to-heart with the boys one night after everyone was either very difficult about or refused altogether to try a very family-friendly dinner I had prepared.  We’re putting the kids’ suggestion for trying new dishes into practice: each week, the kids will pick a recipe of their choice for the family to taste at dinner.

 

Finally, the boys are getting in on the preparation.  They are old enough to help with the meals.  Not only does this give them an appreciation for making the meals AND give them an incentive to eat their creations, but it also teaches them how to cook.  I only learned when my oldest son was diagnosed with food allergies and commercially prepared dishes just weren’t an option.  I want our kids to see cooking as a family affair. To enjoy the process of learning a new dish.  To appreciate the culture from which it comes.  And, most of all, to feel confident in a kitchen and appreciate healthy, well-prepared food.

 

This is especially important for my oldest son, who may not outgrow many of his food allergies.  I want him to feel confident about food, not nervous around it.  I want him to eventually possess the skills he needs to prepare nearly any dish he cares to try.  And, as stated above, I’d like him to be familiar with the kinds of ingredients that are common to various dishes so that he can ask the appropriate questions and protect himself from reaction when I’m not around to do it for him.

 

I’m excited to begin next week.  And, who knows what we’ll be having.  I have some kid-friendly cookbooks handy and can’t wait to taste those peppers and tomatoes when they ripen.  Wish me luck!  I may need it….

 

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