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.

 

Essential Items for Families with Food Allergies – Portable Food Carriers March 28, 2017

Filed under: Parent Sanity — malawer @ 11:00 am
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Food allergy parents are accustomed to prepping safe food at home and taking it on-the-go to parties, school functions, and family gatherings.  Here are a few items that might make carrying safe food just a little easier!

 

Portable Slice of Pizza or Pie?

 

Take a gluten-free or dairy-free slice of pizza to a party?  Who knew there was a container just for that purpose?!  This Brick Oven Pizza Saver looks like it’s perfectly sized to transport both pizza and maybe even a slice of cookie cake or pie!

Brick oven slice saver

 

 

Individual Cupcake Holders:

 

Both this reusable (by Fox Run) and these disposable cupcake holders (both via Amazon) are the PERFECT container to tote a peanut-free, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free cupcake to a birthday party!

 

Fox Run Cupcake Holder

Cupcake Supply Co Indiv Cupcake holder

 

Removable Labels:

When sending your child with a safe snack or special treat – OR when labeling your own lunch at the office – the best way to ensure it doesn’t get mixed up with someone else’s is to clearly label it.  These removable labels by Avery do just the trick:

Avery Labels

 

Hot Lunch!

 

If your kids are itching for a hot lunch, but school lunches aren’t a safe option, then you absolutely need a thermos that will keep your meal warm for up to 5 hours and fit neatly into your lunchbox or work bag.

 

Thermos

 

And, while you’re packing your lunchbox, why not add Sistema’s four-piece cutlery set.  It connects handles to fork, spoon, kid friendly-knife and chopsticks – making it a synch to grab on-the-go.

Sistema Klipo

 

For Safe Restaurant Dining:

 

If you’re allergic to soy, you’ve probably already toted salad dressing to restaurants.  Allergic to gluten/wheat, I’d bet you’ve stashed tamari in your purse as you meet friends for sushi.  OXO Good Grips On-The-Go Silicone Squeeze Bottles allow you to do just that in a small, spill-free way!

OXO Squeeze containers

 

We want to hear from you!  What other items do you find useful for living with your food allergies? 

 

(Thank you in advance! A portion of the proceeds of the affiliate links go toward AllergyStrong.org – an organization aimed at helping low income and at risk families with food allergies.)

 

6 Sensational Books for Kids with Food Allergies December 19, 2016

The holidays are just days away!  Try giving a book that a family with food allergies will treasure.  Or, donate a book to your child’s classroom or school library!

 

Despite the growing number of cases, food allergic kids often feel alone with their allergy. It is so important for kids with food allergies to see this aspect of themselves reflected in literature and elsewhere.  Plus, these books are great teaching tools for both a child with a food allergy as well as their siblings and classmates!

 

1.The Bugabees – Friends with Food Allergies, by Amy Recob
Ages: preschool – 7
bugabees-book
Beautifully and colorfully illustrated, The Bugabees is a story about eight insect friends who each have one of the different Top 8 food allergies.  They talk about their need to stay away from various treats and lightly touch on allergic symptoms they might experience.  Importantly, the bugs each repeat a mantra for kids with food allergies which reinforces that they can have fun without their allergen!  My daughter immediately noted that her brother has food allergies and was singing along with their rhythmic mantra by the end!

 

bugybops-book

2.  The BugyBops – Friends for All Time is the sequel in which the Bugabees friends learn about why their friends avoid certain foods, what an EpiPen is and why it’s important, and what they can do to keep their friends safe.  This is a fantastic companion book to The Bugabees!  I would highly recommend for a classroom visit and school library.
Ages: preschool – 8

 

3. Joey Panda and His Food Allergies Save the Day: A Children’s Book, by Amishi S. Murthy, MD and Vivian Chou, MD
Ages: Preschool – 8
joey-panda-book

Written by two pediatric allergists, the story of Joey Panda – a kid with multiple food allergies who is nervous about his first day of school, a situation that many food allergy families face.  To Joey’s surprise, not only does he find out that many of his new friends are already familiar with food allergies but that he has the knowledge and power to become a superstar.  This is story that acknowledges a child’s fears about going to a new school with food allergies and turns it into a story of empowerment.  Just the kind I love!

 

4.  The Peanut Pickle, A Story About Peanut Allergy, by Jessica Jacobs
Ages: 3-8

peanut-pickle-book

Ben has a peanut allergy.  Sometimes he finds it hard to talk about.  But now that he’s six, he’s finding ways to tell family and friends about his food allergy.  Kids with food allergies will recognize themselves in Ben and the situations he faces – important for children who often feel alone with their allergy.  This is a great book for your child to practice what to say to keep him or herself safe.

 

5.  The Princess and the Peanut Allergy, by Wendy McClure
Ages: 5-9
The Princess and the Peanut Allergy

Centered around two best friends, Paula and Regina.  Regina wants a nut-laden cake for her birthday.  Her friend, Paula is allergic to peanuts – causing problems for them both.  The girls have an argument that is ultimately resolved when Regina realizes that having her nut-filled cake may compromise her friendship with Paula.  And, Regina surprises her friend by ordering her birthday cake nut-free.  The princess and pea analogy used to enlighten Regina works as a way of explaining that even the smallest bit of peanut could be extremely harmful to someone who is allergic to them.  Importantly, the book addresses some of the social issues that can arise from having a food allergy and helps articulate conflict resolution in an age-appropriate way.

 

6.  The Peanut-Free Cafe, by Gloria Koster
Ages: 5-9Grant is a new student at the Nutley School – where everyone enjoys PB&J at lunch. As a result, he’s forced to eat by himself at a peanut-free table.  In an effort get to know him, the school offers an irresistible peanut-free cafe for anyone willing to give up their peanut butter.  This story is clever and the idea of a creating a peanut-free cafe at our house and at his school greatly excited my son!

 

 

 

(Thank you in advance! A portion of the proceeds of affiliate links go toward AllergyStrong.org – an organization aimed at helping at risk families with food allergies.)

 

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.

halloween-middle-table

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Allergies and The School Lunch November 17, 2013

I can hardly believe I’m able to write about this.  I never thought that my son would be able to participate in any school lunch program.  He entered Kindergarten allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, eggs and dairy.  Amazingly, in close collaboration with our allergist, my son outgrew that latter two.

 

We rejoiced when he most recently outgrew dairy.  Our family happily made a list of all the foods he could now taste.  And, suddenly, we realized that he might be able to sign up for our school’s hot lunch program – a program he had been hoping to try.

 

Like many schools, our hot lunch program is entirely nut-free.  That came as a huge relief.  But sesame seed allergies are tricky.  And, I would have to do a lot of research to ensure the meals were still safe for my son before signing him up.

 

I first went online to our school’s internal website.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the lunch schedule mapped out from September until winter break.  And when I scrolled on each dish on the menu, I was even more surprised to see the ingredient lists pop up.  What luck!  I made some notes on a few meals where questions remained (such as ingredients in hamburger buns, oil used to fry falafel, additional information needed in various seasoning mixes) and contacted the school to get answers.

 

The Director of Food Services at the school was amazing!  When I contacted him, he immediately made time for us to sit down in the kitchen and gather additional information.  He demonstrated great understanding of food allergies and was patient as we plodded through his kitchen reading the ingredient lists of bottles and packages.  We made a final list of questions he needed to follow up on with his suppliers and I left with a sense of confidence (and awe) that my son could try hot lunches.

 

As it turns out, there are three meals that my son can’t eat:  Falafel (they’re baked not fried, but the mix contained sesame seed oil) and two Asian-inspired dishes.  Thankfully, the cafeteria always serves two main dishes each day, so my son can choose the other on days when one of the above forbidden meals are offered.

 

How has he liked it?  Pretty good!

  • He’s 8, active and growing.  So, he’s HUNGRY at lunch.  He loves that he can eat a hardy meal and go back for seconds.
  • He enjoys the variety:  rotisserie chicken one day, italian sausage and peppers the next, chicken fajitas a third.
  • Plus, it’s hot:  roasted potatoes and meatball subs taste way better warm!
  • I love that he tries new things all the time.  Not only does he only have limited options for a main dish, but watching his friends chow down on something new, like jerk pork chop, intrigues him into giving it a fair shot.
  • And, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s certainly easier for both of us in the morning!
 

I was biting my nails with anxiety the first day of hot lunch.  Although I had checked and read the packaging, I was still nervous about him embarking on this great, big step.  But he came home thrilled – and proud!  And I love that kind of confidence and hope this transition in the life of food allergies only continues to foster his sense that he can manage anything!

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The Peanut-Free Table October 17, 2012

I’m so proud of our school and so grateful to the head of our Lower School who is conscious of and working towards improving the emotional well-being of our food allergic students.

 

I have mixed feelings about the Peanut-Free Table at elementary schools.  While I appreciate that it helps teachers and administrators keep food allergic kids safe during lunchtime, I am concerned that it may exacerbate social issues that those kids already face.

 

Kids with food allergies already know what it’s like to feel excluded.  They are excluded all the time.  From the food at most in-class parties, from dessert at restaurants, treats at birthday parties, team celebrations, holidays, from the concession stand at the movies… the list could go on and on.

 

In the meantime, I had approached the head of our elementary school last year to discuss an idea I had.  After reading, The Peanut-Free Cafe, it occurred to me that we too could create a fun, desirable environment for our food allergic kids to enjoy.  They shouldn’t feel excluded from their class/friends’ tables.  We needed to create a space where food allergic kids could feel enthusiastic to eat!

 

The head happily agreed this was an idea we could work on!  Our school recently rebuilt its cafeteria and included an area, right near the beautiful wall-to-wall windows, where our school’s new “Peanut-Free Cafe” would go.  It is a space that, by year’s end, will be filled with the kids’ own artwork;  where they can invite their friends to join them.  And, where my son is excited to sit!

 

Costco’s Getting More Allergy-Friendly September 25, 2012

Need a safe snack to send to school?  Have a class party, soccer team to feed, play group snack to contribute to?  Check out what I found during one recent trip to our local Costco!    Has anyone tried these products?    I can only vouch for the School Safe Banana Chocolate Chip bread snacks which are delicious and perfect for school lunches/snacks.  They are nut-free and freezable (bonus for shelf life!).  My son loved the bread, so naturally I’m curious how the other snacks taste.

 

Note:  The popcorn was gluten-free but made in a facility with nuts.