[I've been working on this post for four months. Don't laugh. Sometimes I'm weary about writing about food allergies because I don't want to seem like Cindy Complainypants. My kids' allergies have followed the norm, for the most part: Landon, though he still has foods his tummy can't tolerate, no longer vomits at the mere ingestion of eggs. As the allergist hoped, he has outgrown his allergies. Lucy's due for her every-18-months testing and while we're not convinced she's outgrown her allergies we are hopeful that they're no longer life-threatening, that her bloodwork will continue to show a decline in the seriousness of her allergies. The combination of her allergies numbers declining as well as having three years of being an allergy mom under my belt has helped me to feel a little more relaxed.]
We do not eat out very often. Maybe once a month and it’s usually something low key. Part of the reason is that we chose to have a smaller restaurant budget so that we could have a larger grocery budget. But, honestly, it’s mostly just because it’s hard.
Lucy is allergic to eggs, wheat, dairy, and peanuts.
Landon is intolerant to gluten and corn.
Did you notice something up there? I said Lucy is allergic to wheat and Landon is intolerant to gluten. That’s one of our most recent findings. It was a bit of a bummer for us because it meant tightening the reigns a bit. We’ve had to become even more vigilant. Which is fine. We can do that. We’ve had him tested for celiac and we’ve had his allergies re-tested and have just come to the general conclusion that while those foods don’t pose a life-threatening risk for him, his body is simply unable to process them the way others are able. It… messes him up. And he doesn’t need that. Nobody needs that.
So when people hear about their allergies they usually say, “Oh, my gosh! What do they eat!?”. That always makes me giggle. Fruits, vegetables, and allergen-free stuff I make from scratch. Honestly, it’s not a bad gig they’ve got. And, really, feeding them at home is easy. It’s feeding them out on the town that’s a problem. I have a few tricks for how to find things on the menu [it would be so easy if I could get my toddlers to eat salad]. I also thought I’d share some experiences we’ve had at specific restaurants and maybe if you’ve had a really positive or really negative experience you could share it in the comments.
To start with, we have to decide where we’re going to eat before we go there. That way I can go online and look at the corporate information regarding allergens [assuming it's not a local place]. I learned this after a trip to Mellow Mushroom with the kids this year. I was talking to my waitress about what they offered. I told her the specific allergies the kids have and she said, “Oh, we have a gluten-free crust and vegan cheese!” I was so excited! It was the first time they’d ever ordered off the menu. Their stomachs were upset later but we were on vacation, so I just hoped their little systems were trying to adjust. I began to get suspicious when Landon had some eczema pop up. So I looked at the company’s website and egg was an ingredient in the crust! There is nothing that will give you mom guilt quicker than giving your child a food they can’t have, assuring them it’s safe, and then having to help them through the reaction. Major fail. So now we check corporate websites and talk to managers.
Talking to a manager is always the most important step. The best experience I’ve had with this was at an Olive Garden in Atlanta. We told our waiter of the allergies. It’s frustrating, and a bit challenging, to feed allergen kids because there’s almost never an option on the kids’ menu that’s not fried, breaded, or cheesed [that doesn't say good things about kids' menus]. When Lucy was the only one we were buying meals for we’d have to either split a plate with her and make our meal something she could eat or pay for her to get an adult meal.
After we found, and modified, an item on the menu to fit her needs, the waiter alerted the manager and the chef that someone at our table had food allergies. The manager came over and was pretty sympathetic that it was hard to find something on the menu. I thought that was nice because sometimes we’re treated like our allergy issues are inconveniencing them. Next the chef came over with a pen and wrote down the details of Lucy’s allergies. I love that because otherwise they’re sending the waiter out to double check things a few times and that makes it hard to relax. I also like this idea of having a card ready, we’re totally going to start doing that. Oh, and if you are wondering what we can order at an Italian restaurant, it’s plain chicken breast and vegetables cooked by themselves. That’s right. The kitchen has to stop what they’re doing and clean work surfaces to avoid cross-contamination, get out new pans and utensils, and keep all of the food separate [okay, so maybe it's super inconvenient for them but a kid's gotta eat].
At sandwich restaurants we can usually just order some extra meat for our sandwiches and have them put it on a separate plate. Mexican is our favorite because it’s pretty easy to find dishes that work. Chinese would be okay but there are so many egg dishes that it’s hard to feel safe. The hardest, though, is “American” food. For example, tonight we went to Culver’s for burgers and there was not a single thing the kids could eat. They didn’t have dedicated fryers so their allergen statement said the fries contained gluten. When I tried to ask the cashier about it she directed me to…the allergen statement. Of course, I’d brought food for them, the fries would have just been a bonus treat. But I got a little sad. Not one thing for them on the menu. I could’ve probably just ordered them a plain burger but it doesn’t do much in the way of filling them up and it didn’t seem like they’d take great care to keep them away from the buttered buns back there.
The kids had a blast. They ate rice cakes, pineapple, and peas. They just loved the experience of sitting in the booth. Some place new. I brought along some coconut milk ice cream so they really got the whole experience. It was a great dinner, even if Lucy was just there for the ketchup [yes, she did dip her pineapple in the ketchup and use it for a filling on her rice cake sandwich.
It helped that we'd set them up with our expectations. We told them beforehand what kind of behavior we'd like to see and told them the restaurant only served fries that made them sick.
After dinner we made it an official family date night. We saw some favorite friends at the store where I used to work and they gave the kids some "baboons", totally making their night.
Then we wandered around a nearby sculpture park for a bit and had a great time playing tag, hide-and-seek, and pretending we were birds. I guess that makes little dining annoyances seem like no big deal.
I feel like there are two camps of allergy moms [and maybe really all moms]. You can choose to get upset that restaurants won’t cater to your family. You can get frustrated that something in your life is “harder” that you think it should be. You can even get angry that you don’t have “normal” children. But I’m allowed to treat them however I want [I can make them think the way we eat is totally normal]. I can be calm about food allergies and take it in stride or I can make them feel like they’re an inconvenience. I want them to think this is okay. That it isn’t a big deal. I want them to think they’re special even. And that these allergies have helped our family eat so much healthier. That I don’t mind making things from scratch for them. That they’re worth it. And food allergies are cool! [Too far? ;)]
And somehow, as much fun as the dining in a restaurant booth experience was, when I show Lucy these pictures all she can talk about is running like an airplane, skipping on the ramp, and “the park that didn’t have a playground but was still fun.”