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Eating Out with Allergies and Intolerances

You all know that I follow the FreeFrom Food and FreeFrom Skincare Awards. I am certainly very interested in the recent addition of The FreeFrom Eating Out Awards. Back in September (click here) I wrote about changes being made to how food allergens are labelled on products. The new requirements come into force this year, in December. Along with how packets are labelled it also effects the information given to us when dining out. The new regulations allow allergen information to be provided orally by wait staff. This concerns me a great deal.

I enjoy eating out but it can be a little daunting when you have allergies/intolerances. There are many restaurants who do a good job at providing information and others that fall short. I stick to the same restaurants where I have gained knowledge of the food on offer or they provide separate detailed allergy menus. For me, Wagamamas is a shining example of how it should be done. Yes, they are not 100% perfect and I've encountered some hiccups but wait staff always seem attentive and assist with difficulties or mistakes. However, I have come to noticed that it does depend on what allergy/intolerances you have or maybe the branch you visit. I remember my Twitter timeline singing the praises of Nandos, Zizzi and Pizza Express but they were Coeliacs. I've had terrible experiences in all of these restaurants and will not go back. I know Italian food traditionally contains egg and dairy but I manage to not starve when I visited Rome. I ate my own body weight in dairy free gelato and no one questioned me when I ordered cheese free pizza. I can order from Papa Johns without a fuss but how come when I'm in Zizzi and Pizza Express wait staff look at me like I just asked them to poop in my shoes.

A recent email grabbed my attention and I wanted to share the findings of a survey conducted by the Freefrom Eating Out Awards team at the Allergy and Free From show in Liverpool in October. According to the survey, only 17% felt that asking their wait-person or the front of house staff about allergens would be a safe and reliable way to go. 54% thought that talking to the chef was the safest option although many of those (45%) also wanted to see a written list of ingredients for each dish, or to be provided with an ‘allergen-free’ menu. I have to agree. Whilst I don't feel the need to speak to a Chef, I do want to see an allergen menu as I would like to take responsibility for ordering and not be reliant on second hand information. Also, if you are in a noisy and busy restaurant, it allows me time to select my meal without a fuss, especially if a number of items on the menu take my fancy.

Other findings from the survey were -

Asked how often they ate out:
19% ate out twice a week and 18% only ate out once a week
25% ate out twice a month and 19% only ate out once a month
(A Survey of eating habits in London conducted for the Zagat Restaurant Guides in September 2013 showed that, in the London area at least, people now eat out, on average, four times a week)

Asked why don’t they eat out more?
67% said there was not enough choice to make it worth their while eating out.
53% said that they did not trust most restaurants to understand their allergies or special dietary needs
44% said it ‘was too much hassle’
16% said that they did not like ‘to feel different’

Asked which were the best and the worst places to eat if you have an allergy or coeliac disease: 
Best were fine dining restaurants and family run restaurants, scoring 3-5/5
Worst were sandwich bars and Indonesian and Indian restaurants, scoring 1-2/5.

Asked what precautions they took to ensure that they get safe food:

53% phoned in advance to discuss their needs
50% asked to speak to the chef on arrival
(32% both phoned in advance and asked to speak to the chef when they arrived.). However, the largest number, 75%, whether or not they had phoned in advance and/or spoken to the chef, just chose to stick to simplest menus anyhow.

Of those who filled in the survey: 46% had coeliac disease, 20% suffered from wheat allergy/intolerance, 14% suffered from dairy/cow's milk allergy/intolerance, 20% suffered from a range of other allergies/intolerances

I would be very interested to hear if you agree or disagree with the findings of this survey. What would your answers have been to the questions? Do you have good or bad experiences when dining out with your allergies/ intolerances? Do you have a favourite restaurant/cafe that caters to your needs?

Sarah x

Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. It's definitely a difficult one and I think it makes the situation more complicated. My allergies and intolerances have really grown in the past couple of years and I don't eat out half as much as I use too - I definitely feel like a bit of a 'nuisance' in some places x

    1. I cut back after a few incidences of feeling unwell after eating out. You are right there are some places that make you feel very uncomfortable or that its a hassle to feed you

  2. I find it a nightmare going out. There are few places I go to and know I'm safe there, but that's it.

    I find a lot of places are still quite ignorant towards my intolerance. I try to explain about it and they always seem to assume it's gluten! I usually just ask if they have a vegan option now, safer.

    I don't tend to go out as much either, I was sick of eating chips!

    It think my intolerance drives my husband mad sometimes as Indian food is a big no-no for me and he loves it!

    1. aah yes the moment everyone assumes you are gluten free grrr! annoying. I definitely see frustration in some people around me but I always emphasis I don't want them to miss out. I'm not sure what you are avoiding these days but my local Indian is very helpful and I can have a veggie biriyani. Perhaps because cross contamination isn't a big worry for me that makes it a little easier. Although I may need to consider it in the future there are times when you feel unwell but were eating a "safe" meal.

  3. Wow that's really interesting! I can relate in the sense that I often find eating out or in groups difficult because I am always the only vegetarian, and I am a strict vegetarian so I will not often eat eggs or anything with gelatin, and even certain cheeses I would shy away from.

    1. I also don't eat meat so that means I require a Vegan meal since I have the dairy and egg allergy. You can usually find a Vegetarian option on the menu but meals are full of cheese, why oh why do people think that Vegetarians live only for cheese lol

  4. Interesting post :)! Eating out with food allergies has been a roller coaster ride for me and my family. Sometimes we have a great experience where the restaurant staff are eager to help us and their are lots of options on the menu. However, at other times, we find ourselves in situations where the definition of gluten-free/dairy-free to a restaurant means a hamburger without the bun with a salad on the side. Like you, I like to eat out at a limited amount of restaurants where I feel that my needs are being met. We have this amazing Chinese food restaurant that my family continuously eats out at, as we never feel deprived or like "those allergy people". I think like at least 70% of the menu can be prepared gluten-free, it's awesome :)! While eating out with food allergies has its challenges, I overall think that it is much easier now than it use to be. Many restaurants are educating themselves about food allergies and preparing meals without them. I can now usually go into any town and find a restaurant where I can find something on the menu that caters to my allergy-free diet. Five years ago (when I first started going 100% gluten-free/dairy-free), I don't think I would be able to say that. While I can be frustrated with the limitations I have sometimes, I realize that I have a lot to be grateful for and know that things in the allergy-free world can only go uphill from here. :).

    1. It's great that you have a local restaurant you have confidence in and more places should learn from them. I agree things have improved in the last 5 years, awareness is spreading and people are listening. I do think as with most things in life there is still some way to go yet. Rome wasn't built in a day as they say :-) Thanks for your comment, it's interesting to hear how other people manage the situation.

  5. Interesting survey! Sad but true percentages... I dread being asked on a night out with friends or work as my first thoughts are what am I going to eat? So, I usually make sure I eat before I go! There isn't much choice up where I live, it's really just traditional type cafe & pub type restuarants, plus Chinese and Indian. I tend to stick to the bland, unbreaded & veggie options. There is a great new cafe that's opened locally who serve GF & DF, but it's only open during the day. Bummer! The addition of that cafe though is finally telling me that people are starting to realise they need to cater for everyone. So, one up, many more to go! :-)

    1. I am hoping that the new regulations will perhaps bring a bit more awareness to the situation & we all need to shout loudly that we are not being catered for. Good news about your cafe but sad it's only a day time place.