Have you ever ordered food at a restaurant and not been able to eat it? Like any of it? You have to send it back and wait what seems like eons for your food to come back out. I think many of us have been there.
But have you ever been to a restaurant and not been able to eat a single thing on the menu?
Today we aren’t going to talk about fitness, but another very important part of my life – and many people’s lives – food allergies and intolerances.
For me, it has been near a decade of learning about food, dealing with the pain and discomfort of getting sick when a restaurant forgets to mention they added butter to the dish, and explaining why you can’t have something to other people.
Now, I was very fortunate in a way. The majority of my immediate family has the same food allergies that I do. Although we all differ in what we react to the most, we stay far, far away from: gluten, dairy, soy and specifically for me: peanuts, shellfish and chicken eggs. I say that I was fortunate because I never really had to feel like I was totally “alone” as a kid growing up.
Never being able to eat what everyone else was eating, always having to carry my lunchbox around, but I still got to come home and eat with a family that had to watch the same things that I did. It was our sort of normal.
My mom was the first one to get tested for and start making the dietary changes necessary to be kind to her body, to avoid these foods. My brother and sister were tested next, and then I was just a few years later (I was a stubborn child, some things never change.)
It wasn’t easy at first. I remember rarely eating out because it was so hard for my mom. People didn’t understand what “gluten-free” meant and there are several times that I can remember her getting very, very ill afterwards because of this. It was frustrating for her, and for all of us. No one likes to see a loved one get so sick. But, as time went on, things became easier. For me, I have found that living near the Twin Cities has helped a lot. There’s a little bit more hype surrounding words like “celiac”, “vegan”, “soy-free”, etc. But growing up in the small town of Wausau, Wisconsin didn’t leave for many options back then.
When eating out, a waiter/waitress can really make or break your situation. As I just said, people are much more respectful and understanding now than they were 10 years ago. But it’s almost kind of funny that just last week, for the very first time, I went out to eat with my friends and could not order a single thing off their menu.
Well, I could order sweet potato fries as a side but when they came out there were like four fries on the plate, so we’ll just say I couldn’t order any real food, like an entrée or main dish. Now, I know what you’re thinking … “Nicole, you should have done your research ahead of time.” And I did. I called ahead and was assured that some of the sauces on the entrees at this Japanese restaurant could be left off so my food would be like a clean stir-fry. I looked up the website and found that they had an online chat system, and I talked to some gentleman about my concerns and was reassured that I’d be fine.
But, when I got to the restaurant that night they had new staff on because of a shift change. Two waitresses tried their very best to help understand what I was looking for the kitchen to do for me – just simply leave the sauce off of my food – and after 7-8 minutes of going back and forth they said they were unable to do that for me because they still didn’t really understand what I needed or why; they didn’t know how it would taste without the sauce, and they had never done that before.
This wasn’t my first issue with ordering food or eating out. So I had already had the backup of the sweet potato fries in mind. I cancelled my other order of the stir-fry and just went with that. I’m not saying it’s the waitress’s fault that I couldn’t eat an actual meal that night. I’m just saying that a general understanding of your menu and the ingredients included in those dishes can go a long way. Especially when you know you did your research and were reassured you’d be able to eat at a restaurant no problemo.
I can remember several different situations where my waiter/waitress was absolutely clueless and quite honestly not interested in what went into the entrée that I was eyeing up on the menu, and let me tell you – when you know that you’ll get extremely ill for up to a week or more from him/her being wrong, it certainly does not comfort you.
I understand that it must be hard to keep track of everything on the menu, and I’m not here to bash restaurants. I want to do the opposite.
For as many of these “bad” situations that I can remember, the waiters/waitresses that stick out the most are the ones who are genuinely concerned and “get it.” They really do go above and beyond to make sure it’s a safe meal for you. I understand it’s a lot to learn, especially if you’re new to the food industry or have no allergies/intolerances yourself… but to the people who go out of their way to help us, the ones who do have these issues, I just want to give you a giant hug. Because a lot of the time we’re just thrilled to feel “normal” and eat something out and about with friends, worry-free.
I’ve said it a million times – I’m actually very grateful for my food allergies and intolerances. I know I make them seem like a burden, and a lot of the time they really do seem like it. But, they have helped educate me on what’s going in my body and share that information with others. I guess I love the thought that this column might inspire others to dig in and look up some of this stuff so they understand a little bit more about what their customers, friends, or loved ones are going through. The more people that know a little bit about it, the better.
Another really good thing about these allergies of mine is it encourages me to tap into my creative side in the kitchen and cook up some of the things that you can find at the places below J, which brings me more joy than I could have imagined. Everything happens for a reason.
If you want any of the recipes, feel free to reach out to me at …
By Nicole Sweeney