How easy is it to eat out with a food allergy?

Updated on 30 April 2014 | 0 Comments

Wheat- and gluten-intolerant diner Jackie Mitchell asks whether it’s ever possible to enjoy a meal out when you suffer from food allergies.

I am wheat and gluten intolerant (but not a coeliac), and my husband Ray is allergic to dairy. So, as you can imagine, we don’t get asked out to dinner much by friends! But is it even possible to enjoy a restaurant meal when so much is off the menu?

As awareness for the ‘free from’ food sector has grown (there’s even a Free From Awards ceremony now), so the options for eating out with allergies have improved. Many restaurant chains have introduced ‘free from’ menus: Carluccio’s, for example, has a gluten-free menu and it’s a real treat to be able to order gluten-free pasta with a puttanesca sauce. For Ray, it’s usually Milanese de Pollo without the breadcrumbs because Parmesan cheese is mixed into them. It would be excellent if Carluccio’s put symbols on its menus, indicating which dishes are suitable for dairy-free diners, as they do for example at The White Brasserie in The Queen’s Head, Weybridge.

Setting an example

London’s Tibits vegetarian restaurant is one of our favourites, because it’s buffet style and we can see exactly what’s in the food. There’s a notice with a list of symbols for gluten free, soya free or vegan, and then each dish is marked accordingly. A simple idea – why can’t more restaurants do it?

pizzaPizza Express includes gluten-free pizzas on its menus (pictured left). A major breakthrough, as I hadn’t eaten pizza for years. I always ask for a pizza cutter though, as gluten-free crusts tends to be hard to cut. And Ray once discovered that the dough in their pizzas doesn’t contain cow’s milk… why don’t they advertise that on the menu? The kitchen is always happy to substitute one thing for another, too – Parma ham or olives instead of mozzarella, for example.

chickenOther pleasant experiences include a formal dinner at the Cobham Hilton, Surrey. I rang them and was reassured that a special meal would be made available. Sure enough, I was served breast of chicken with a gravy sauce made from cornflour (pictured left). This is tremendous progress. There have been so many events (not at the Cobham Hilton) where I have been served a dry piece of chicken and had to ask for olive oil, or a cobbled-together fruit salad for dessert while others indulged in pastry flans and cakes.

"I'll have the 'allergy', please"

Waiting staff who just don’t listen, or don’t speak good English, can also be a problem. On one occasion Ray said “I am allergic to dairy: butter, eggs, milk, cheese”, and they tried to find a dish called ‘allergic’ on the menu. At another restaurant, Ray asked for a steak without butter only to be presented with a steak with a great big knob of butter on top. Minutes later it was served to him with the butter scraped off – not quite good enough for someone allergic to dairy, I’m afraid.

pad thaiReally, the majority of restaurants just aren’t geared up for people who have food allergies. French places, for example, are usually a no-go area because so many sauces contain wheat flour, milk or cream in them. We find Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants a better choice as they don’t tend to use dairy in their cooking. Ray’s Thai dish of choice is Pad Thai (pictured left).

My kingdom for a chicken roll

Coffee shops are a grey area, but generally there’s little we can eat in them. At one point Costa Coffee sold a range of gluten-free cakes, but doesn’t anymore. My latest discovery is Caffè Nero now serves wheat-free carrot cake. If I’m lucky I can also find a gluten-free Genius bread chicken roll, but I’ve only been successful on one occasion.

Hopefully eating out with a food allergy is going to get much easier with the introduction of new regulations in December, when foodservice outlets will be required to highlight all allergens in ingredients. It’s a Food Standards Agency (FSA) initiative in conjunction with DEFRA which also necessitates that, where food is served, staff should be able to answer questions about ingredients.

And more good news... Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, who started the successful Free From Awards, which recognises free from food in the retail sector, launched the Free From Eating Out Awards this year. Awards like this will go a long way towards raising awareness among restaurateurs and foodservice outlets about the growing need to cater for people with food allergies.

Why not cook your own gluten-free meal? Check out our top 10 gluten-free recipes, and our favourite gluten-free snacks.

Do you suffer from food allergies? Does it affect your eating out habits? Have you anywhere to recommend? Talk to us in the Comments box below.

Jackie Mitchell writes a blog about eating out with food allergies called, surprise surprise, Eating Out With Food Allergies

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Top 10 gluten-free recipes

All our gluten-free recipes

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