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Dining Out Can Fray the Nerves

It is usually a special treat for most families to go out for a meal, but not for anyone who has a severe food allergy. Since research suggests that almost 50% of fatal food allergy reactions are being triggered by food consumed outside of the home, we tend to err on the side of caution and prepare most of our meals at home.

The issues we have faced with many restaurants include lack of education, unknown food sources or risk of cross-contamination during food processing, preparation and serving. It is very un-nerving to walk into a restaurant and ask “Can you accommodate a child with a severe tree-nut allergy?” to receive a response, “what is a tree-nut?” Every time this happens, we just turn around and walk right back out the door.

As we continue to reflect on this situation, several questions come to mind. How is anyone in the food service industry lacking the basic understanding of food allergens? Where are the regulations that should require this type of training for anyone who serves food for public consumption?

We have found that the resources for those suffering with food allergies are limited when evaluating restaurants. Anytime we decide to try a new restaurant, it always requires a call to the restaurant and a conversation with the manager and/or chef to understand the allergen protocols and the origin of food sources. As we review the menu, we typically ask about how the food is prepared. Is there a separate prep area or a separate oven? Do they know the source of the food? Can they confirm that the food is safe for my child to eat? After numerous conversations, we continue to be surprised by the lack of allergen protocols where food sources are processed, prepared or packaged.

However, in our search, we have found three Henrico County restaurants that do an amazing job as it relates to food allergens including Red Robin, Maggiano’s Little Italy and Nonna’s Italian Pizzeria. When you enter Red Robin, let the hostess know that you have a food allergy. Once seated, the wait-staff will bring an Ipad to your table. Enter your food allergies into the Ipad application and a custom menu is then presented with everything you can eat. In addition to the really cool app, the staff at Red Robin is very knowledgeable (due to required training) and they have a separate prep area in the kitchen to ensure cross-contact does not happen during food preparation.

In addition to Red Robin, we have also had a great experience with Maggiano’s. After being seated, the first question we are asked by our waitress was “Are there any food allergies?” We were stunned! Once you indicate that someone in your party has a food allergy, the chef will come to your table to discuss your food options. The chef then oversees the food preparation to ensure the food is not cross-contaminated during preparation. Furthermore, Maggiano’s maintains a record of your food allergy for upcoming visits to their restaurant. When you make a future reservation, your food allergy will be flagged to alert the staff ahead of time.

Finally, Nonna’s Italian Pizzeria does a fabulous job with food allergens. Many of the menu items are homemade including the pizza crust and sauce. As a result, they can control the food source for almost all of the items they serve with the exception of a couple of desserts which are made elsewhere. For our family, we really like Nonna’s as most of the menu is completely nut-free and they even make a gluten-free pizza. Our boys love the pizza and as a result, it has become one of our most favorite restaurants that we frequent often.

If you have restaurant experiences to share, please comment to our blog.

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