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A Dulles Mom’s Guide to Eating Out with Food Allergies

by Rachel Briggs

As a mom to a daughter with severe food allergies, I understand the overwhelming feeling that comes with a new diagnosis. It is estimated that up to 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies. Out of that 15-million, it affects 1 in every 13 children. It is no wonder then, the mere thought of dining out can cause sheer panic for families having to manage food allergies.

But it doesn’t have to. With food allergies on the rise, there is also a growing awareness and willingness to accommodate those with this serious and often deadly disease. Armed with proper planning and preparation you can navigate your way to a safe and enjoyable experience eating out.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
First off, it is important to know that you cannot eliminate risk, there is always a chance of being exposed to your allergen, but you can mange it. The number one thing you have going for you in terms of defense is knowledge. If you are fully-aware of your diagnosis, how your allergen affects you and/or your children, then this will carry you through all situations.

When dining out, planning ahead is extremely important. Just as you would research a hotel and any activities before you go on vacation, you will want to do the same with restaurants in and around your community. When selecting the right restaurant for you it is best to use the resources at your disposal.

• Talk with your allergist

• Use your networks. Strike up a conversation with that family in your child’s class who also manages food allergies. Get in touch with a food allergy support group like Loudoun Allergy Network. Join a food allergy community on Facebook such as the No Nuts Moms Group. These are all valuable resources because they are managing the same situation and can offer their opinion from an insider perspective.

• There’s also an app for that. Allergy Eats, an online guide of allergy-friendly restaurants reviewed by allergy sufferers just like you, has an app you can download right to your phone. FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) recently launched a website where you can search for food allergy aware restaurants near you. According to their site, in order for restaurants to be included in the SafeFARE program database they must have at least one staff member who has completed either the National Restaurant Associations ServSafe Allergens Online Course or MenuTrinfo’s AllerTrain course.

It is best to stay away from restaurants with a higher risk of cross-contamination or ones that are known to use your allergen in many of their dishes such as buffets, bakeries, ice cream parlors, Asian cuisine (for those with peanut allergies), and seafood restaurants for those with a shellfish allergy.

Once you have chosen a restaurant you feel fits your needs you will want to take a few steps before your visit:

• Preview their menu. Find one dish that you will eat. Then look at their about section. You want to see a focus on hospitality and catering.

• Call ahead and ask to speak to a manager. Best to call in between rushes. Introduce yourself and tell them exactly what you are allergic to and that you carry medication. Ask questions: How does the chef feel about handling my special needs? How often do you train your staff on food allergies? What are your allergy protocols? Do you have a separate area to prepare food for special diets? Do you make your food from scratch or is it pre-made? Do you have any specialty products for people with food allergies? Will I be able to look at ingredient labels? Will you be at the restaurant while I am there?

Note: This is not the time to discuss your feelings on food allergies. However, if at any point they say something that doesn’t sound right or you get the feeling they do not understand how serious allergic reactions can be, chose another restaurant and start the steps again.

Once you are satisfied this restaurant best fits your needs, it’s time to take your family out for their dining experience. If this is your first time to the restaurant, go early. For dinner, this will be around 6 pm. The kitchen will have just been transitioned over from lunch and, therefore, cleaner, and the staff will be more attentive because they are not busy with the dinner rush. When it comes to your server, look for good eye contact, full-attention, and an understanding of food allergies and cross-contamination. Never assume the manager or chef has relayed your food allergy information to your server.

Come prepared. No matter how well you have panned or how safe you feel a particular restaurant is, never leave home without your epinephrine auto-injector and any other medications. Wear your medical alert bracelet or consider getting one if you don’t already. Bring a chef card that lists your food allergies as well as a statement regarding the dangers of cross contamination. There are plenty of sites that offer templates of these cards for you to print out. Most have them offer cards in multiple languages too. A few of these include: SelectWisely.com, AllergyFreeTable.com, and SafeFare.org. Also, it is a good idea to have safe snacks in your purse as a back-up.

Always inspect your food before you eat it. It is a good sign when your food is brought out separately from the rest of your party. Don’t feel embarrassed in asking them to verify the contents of the dish so that you know you are being served exactly what you ordered. If at any point you do not feel comfortable with the restaurant — dine somewhere else. The safety of you, your child, and anyone else who might be dining with you comes first. Likewise, if you have a good experience let them know by sending a thank you note or giving good reviews on sites like AllergyEats.com.

To get you started below is a list of some allergy-friendly restaurants in our area. As always, this is a guide and not a guarantee. These suggestions are based on personal experience, word of mouth, and AllergyEats recently released a list of the “10 Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant Chains.” It is urged that you use your best judgment and make a well-informed decision that fits within your own comfort zone.

Not Your Average Joes
19307 Promenade Dr., Lansdowne Town Center, Leesburg, VA 20176 | (571) 333-5637
Their chefs are able to fulfill any special requests as the kitchen makes all the food from scratch. Communication between staff, chefs, and management when food allergies are involved is key to their success. Chefs will come to your table and talk with you directly. The CEO, Steve Silverstein, is quoted as saying; “It starts internally with training and education. You need to know what’s in your food – what allergens your foods contain – so when you serve a guest, you can be honest with them. We’ll do whatever it takes to accommodate our guests . . . becoming allergy-friendly is good for business.”

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
43530 Yukon Dr., Ashburn, VA 20147 | (703) 723-6005
21045 Dulles Town Cir., Dulles, VA 20166 | (703) 421-0038
When you arrive, ask for their allergy menu. It comes in a binder sectioned off by allergen and gives you a list of items that are suitable for you to eat while avoiding your particular allergens. Similarly, you can go online and use their interactive allergen menu.

Buger21
43800 Central Station Dr., Ashburn, VA 20147, (703) 726-0112
They have a gluten-free menu.

The Counter
11922 Democracy Dr., Reston, VA 20190 | (703) 796-1008
They have a dairy, eggs, fish, soybeans, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, gluten, vegetarian, vegan, and low-fat, menu information sheet available.

Mellow Mushroom
1030 Elden St., Herndon, VA 20170, (703) 707-9300
They have a gluten-free and interactive allergen menu online to help you figure out what foods best fit your needs.

Maggiano’s Little Italy
2001 International Dr., McLean, VA 22102 | (703) 356-9000

Outback Steakhouse
46300 Potomac Run Pl., Ste. 150, Sterling, VA 20164 | (703) 406-3377

Legal Seafoods
2001 International Dr., McLean, VA 22102 | (703) 827-8900
All staff receives extensive allergy protocol training as part of their orientation, as well as being provided with detailed ingredient lists for every item on the menu to help accommodate food-allergic diners.


Rachel Briggs is a writer, runner, crafter, and mother. A native of Northern Virginia, she currently lives in Ashburn with her husband and two kids where she spends her days being reminded that motherhood is the hardest, most under appreciated job, but equally the most rewarding. Her toughest challenge has been learning to raise her food allergic daughter in a food-obsessed world. She has held every position in the PTA from committee chair to President, and if there is a room parent you can bet she is one of them. When not volunteering in the classroom she can be found curled up with a cup of coffee and a good book, blogging, or obsessing over her latest creative project.


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