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.

 

Halloween Snacks: Safe and Perfect for the Classroom or Party October 27, 2016

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I had so much fun prepping for our Day of the Dead themed Halloween party!  Not only was it fun to lay out the decorations and style the table, but I loved coming up with fun and festive food to serve.

 

I planned carefully to create snacks that reflect the season and are fun – food that fits right in the spirit of Halloween!  The Halloween table – like all dining tables – is meant for everyone to be included – for me, fun, festive and inclusive food is especially important because my oldest son’s food allergies sometimes leave him without a candy option as he trick-or-treats.  As such, I needed to serve things that are food allergy-friendly.  And themed, safe food can be hard to come by.

 

First, I put our pumpkin innards (“pumpkin guts”) to good use.  We scooped and separated out the seeds. In a bowl filled with water, we strained out the rest of the pumpkin core and dried the seeds in a kitchen towel.

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Above, you’ll see two versions of pumpkin seeds – both are nearly everything-free.

 

 

The Classic:img_5770

Pumpkin seeds (approximately 1 1/2 to 2 cups)
2 Tablespoons dairy-free butter, melted
pinch of sea salt

Preheat oven to 300 F degrees.

 

With your pumpkin seeds already in a bowl, pour the melted butter substitute over the seeds and stir to combine.

Arrange the seed mixture on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Roast the seeds slowly, stirring occasionally.  At 25 minutes, add salt.  Roast for another 15-20 minutes, bringing the total roasting time to approximately 40-45 minutes.

 

 

Salty Sweet Pumpkin Seeds:img_5775

 

1 1/2 – 2 cups pumpkin seeds
2 Tablespoons dairy-free butter
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

 

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

 

Combine sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

With your pumpkin seeds already in a bowl, pour the melted butter substitute over the seeds and stir to combine.

Arrange the seed mixture on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Roast the seeds slowly, stirring occasionally.  At 15 minutes, add sugar mixture and stir.  Roast for another 20-30 minutes, bringing the total roasting time to approximately 40-45 minutes.

 

 

Next, I threw together some easy, no-brainer jello.  Good ol’ fashioned jello.  But check these out…

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…using the Skull and Crossbones mold, I made fun shapes that my kids gobbled down.  Tip:  spray the inside of the mold with cooking spray before pouring in the jello.  Use a little less liquid than recommended to keep the jello firm.  My larger sized box called for 2 cups of water – I used 1 1/2 cups instead.

 

And, finally, my favorite snack of all….  Stay tuned!  It’s worth the wait!

 

Vote for Your Favorites! Best of 2016 May 5, 2016

All this talk of primaries and politics has gotten me thinking:  let’s vote!  But let’s vote for something a lot more fun and delicious:  allergy-friendly food!

 

Please take this incredibly quick survey and let me know what foods your family loves and I’ll share our collective favorites.  Maybe you’ll suggest a new product to another food allergy family – or maybe you’ll find a new favorite yourself!

 

 

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VDZMVHS

Thanks, everyone!

 

Play Ball! March 30, 2016

I love seeing more and more stadiums adopting the peanut-free game concept.

 

Lucky for us in DC, the Washington Nationals just released their peanut-free game schedule.

Sat. April 23 at 1:05 vs. Twins

Sun.  May 15 at 1:35pm  vs. Marlins

Sat. June 11 at 12:05pm vs. Phillies

Fri.  July 1st at 6:05pm vs. Reds

Sun, Aug. 14 at 1:35pm vs. Braves

Sat. Sept. 10 at 7:05pm vs. Phillies

 

Call or contact the stadium directly for ticket pricing and further information.

 

Not a Nats fan?!  (What’s wrong with you?!  Just kidding.)  Check your local team’s website for their own schedule of peanut-free games.  Don’t forget minor league teams who are awesome about getting in on the action and making baseball fun and safe for everyone.

 

UPDATE:

Rejoice, Seattle fans!  I just heard from the Mariners!

For the past several years, we’ve been offering the opportunity for fans with peanut allergies to come to games at Safeco Field and sit in sections with a reduced risk of exposure to peanuts.  Information about the games, the precautions we take and a special ticket offer is all available at Mariners.com/NoPeanuts.

 

“Take me out to the ballgame.  Take me out to the crowd! Buy me some pretzels and cold snow cones…”

 

 

 

 

Girl Scout Cookies Allergen Reference February 24, 2016

Thanks-A-Lot Girl Scout Cookies

I remember being a Brownie.  To me, selling Girl Scout cookies was kind of intimidating.  I didn’t like going door to door and asking people to buy things.  There wasn’t any opportunity to set up a stand with friends in my town.  I might have been braver in that case:  you know, power in numbers.

 

As an adult, I want to support those adorable, little Girl Scouts who are sometimes nervous just like I was.   Which is why I hate having to say no due to food allergies issues.

 

So, I did a little research in the hopes that it helps you all make good decisions and allows you to support your local Brownies and Girl Scouts… by buying delicious cookies!  Now that I’m armed with some information, our family may try some ourselves this year!

 

Girl Scout cookies are made by one of two manufacturers:  ABC Smart Cookies or Little Brownie Bakers.  To find out which manufacturer bakes your local Girl Scout cookies, you must contact your local council:  locate your council here.

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While Little Brownie Bakers do not list ingredients lists for their cookies on their website, their allergen statement looks thorough.  All it should take is a quick peruse of the ingredient list on the box to determine whether the box is safe for your family.  Here’s their allergen statement:

The allergen statement clearly states the top 8 allergens contained inside each package. We encourage consumers with food allergies to check the ingredient statement on each package for the most current ingredient information because product formulations can change at any time.

If the allergen in concern is not listed below the ingredient statement, we are confident that the product is safe for consumption. Please trust the labeling. We do use a may contain statement for peanuts and tree nuts when the product is produced on a line that shares equipment with another product that does contain peanuts or tree nuts. Scientific evidence has shown that consumers with peanut and tree nut allergies can have a severe reaction to amounts that are below the current detectable limits based on existing technology.

For this reason, we have chosen to warn consumers allergic to peanuts and tree nuts of the potential for extremely low levels by using a may contain statement. The equipment is thoroughly cleaned in between processes and we follow Good Manufacturing Practices in all of our facilities. Beyond the top eight allergens, all ingredients are declared within the ingredient statement. If you are concerned about a specific ingredient, please review the ingredient statement to determine if it is part of the product formulation.

 

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ABC Smart Cookies, the Girl Scout’s other cookie manufacturer, also seems food allergy savvy.  They produce gluten-free cookies in a certified gluten-free facility and have a well-educated allergen statement which reads:

 

Over a decade ago, ABC partnered with Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN™) to learn more about life-threatening food allergies and the impact of ingredient labeling and allergen warnings. We have also worked with the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program in association with the University of Nebraska to review our sanitation, handling, and training procedures.  ABC adopted what is known as “product-specific” allergen labeling. Product-specific labeling enables the allergy-affected consumer to make an informed decision based on information specific to that particular product.

Product-specific labeling requires strict compliance to good manufacturing practices to prevent cross contamination such as:

  • Segregation of known allergens from the general production environment
  • Color-coding of storage units and utensils
  • Curtained-off production areas
  • Designated lanes for transportation of known allergens
  • Swabbing and testing of allergen shared equipment

In addition, we call out all allergens on our packaging, order cards and web site and provide specific warning if a product is made on a line that also produces product with a common allergen such as peanuts. ABC’s proactive approach to allergens is an example of our commitment to producing the best quality Girl Scout Cookies possible for the millions of valued consumers who support Girl Scouting every year.

 

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A quick review of ingredients show that all of the cookies were egg-free; Thin Mints, Cranberry Citrus Crisps, Lemonades, and Thanks-a-Lots are nut-free; several were vegan and therefore dairy-free; and at least one variety was gluten-free.  Check out their sites and I think you’ll find, like I did, that Girl Scout cookies are far more food allergy-friendly than you think!  Now, get out there and say YES! to some Girl Scouts.  You’ll make their day!

 

 

Girl Scout cookies

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

Three Sweet Ways to Say “I Love You” Dairy, Egg, Peanut and Tree Nut-Free February 11, 2016

Since we have the weekend to prep for Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d suggest three simple and sweet ways to brighten your Valentine’s day.  All three are easy to prepare, GREAT for classrooms and parties, and all are dairy, peanut, tree nut and egg free.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

 

 

Cupid’s Arrows

Grab some fruit and a cookie cutter and you have yourself one adorable (and healthy – shhhh…) fruit kabob!

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Sweetheart Sorbet Pie

Trickiest thing is remembering to prep this a few hours in advance.  And, then not eating it before presenting it to your sweetheart.

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Rice Krispie Hearts

Subbing out the dairy, makes these hearts safe and scrumptious.  If you have letter cookie cutters, you could also spell out the words, “LOVE” or “HUGS” or “XOXO”.  Infinite possibilities!

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