Eating out with food restrictions

“I’d like to order the pasta with the meat sauce with no cheese on top, but if the sauce has dairy in it, I’ll try the eggplant sandwich with no cheese with the side of soup as long as the sauce or the soup have no dairy. If the soup has dairy, I’ll take the salad as long as it has leefy greens and no iceberg lettuce.” 

Needless to say, I usually avoid Italian restaurants. 

One of the harder tasks of living with food intolerances is eating out. If I’m lucky, the wait staff is highly trained on ingredients used in the food they are selling or are professional enough to admit ignorance and check with the kitchen staff. Too often, however, they either don’t care or make something up, or they even show off their ignorance by saying something like, “no, you can’t have the mayo if you’re dairy intolerant–it contains eggs.” (This has actually happened to me. Thrice.) First time I heard that one I was incredulous and couldn’t resist quipping back: dairy comes from cows, eggs come from chickens.

My basic recommendation for people living with food intolerances and wanting to eat out: learn to cook. Why should you learn to cook if the goal is to eat out? Because by learning you cook, you learn what types of ingredients go into different dishes and therefore have an easier time finding food on the menu you can eat.

Say you are allergic to peanuts. If you have familiarized yourself with cuisines of the world, you’d know that peanuts and peanut oil are featured prominently in most Thai dishes. Greek food relies heavily on yogurt, as does some Indian food, so if dairy is an issue, you might want to either choose a different restaurant or at least hold the tatziki. You would know that sweet and sour sauce usually contains vinegar, sweetener (honey, agave, brown sugar, etc), orange juice, ginger, and ketchup, so if either of those are problematic, then perhaps choose the chow fun instead. On the flip side, if you can’t eat soy, you’d know that sweet and sour sauce usually doesn’t contain soy sauce and you might be ok to eat it. You’d know that Ceasar salad dressing consists of eggs, vinegar, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, olive oil, and mustard. You’d know that ranch dressing is dairy based and honey mustard is not.

For me, I know from cooking dinner every day, mostly from scratch, that most brands of breadcrumbs and crutons here in the States contain whey so I know to avoid breaded foods and crutons on salads at restaurants. Likewise, I know that most Asian inspired breaded foods rely on Panko, which tends to not contain dairy, so I can usually get away with scampi tempura. I know most sauces contain butter so I have to either ask for no sauce or have the waiter ask the kitchen to clarify. I know mayo and tartar sauce tend to be dairy free so they are usually safe to eat.

Knowing how food is prepared allows me a chance to avoid eating food that usually contains ingredients that don’t agree with my stomach or knowing which questions to ask the waiter. I can eat an aged Parmesan, so if I’m at a finer Italian restaurant, I can ask them if the Parmesan is aged so I might be able to eat it, but if I’m at a lower end restaurant, I know most Parmesan served is the type from the shaker, which I can’t eat.

Some restaurants I categorically avoid. IHOP uses a cooking spray that actually contains butter (most brands from the grocery store don’t) so there’s really nothing on their menu I can eat. McDonald’s uses some form of dairy and/or lactic acid in every item on their menu except the fries, and even them I sometimes react to, probably due to cross contamination.

In some restaurants the staff is trained on food intolerances and made to memorize the dishes that contain no egg, wheat, or dairy. That was the case when I worked at Buca di Beppo eleven years ago, so if anyone asked, I could immediately tell them which meals were safe to eat. It’s not the case everywhere, unfortunately, so here are the main things I look for on the menu and ask waiters about when ordering food:

  • Is the food cooked in oil or butter?
  • Is there any type of cheese, milk, or butter in the dish (I have found that being specific–instead of just asking for “dairy” is key)?
  • Likewise, I ask specifically about components of the dish, such as “is there any cheese or sour cream in the guacamole?” “Is there cheese in the Italian dressing?”
  • Is there a sauce? Does the sauce contain butter or milk?
  • Can I substitute a side dish? Can I have rice instead of mashed potatoes?
  • Unless the restaurant has sorbet (not sherbet), I never even look at the dessert menu as just about every dessert for in the States contains dairy.

Because I cook from scratch so much at home, I am better prepared when going out to eat as I can scan the menu and right away pick out likely candidates and formulate specific questions about each. 

I usually go out with the kids, which means I have to order quickly, so when ordering, I give the waiter two menu options so if one can’t be served dairy free he’ll know which item to order instead without having to bring me a new menu and leaving me time to find a replacement. 

The bottom line is that eating out can be hard, but as long as I’m prepared and know which questions to ask, the ordering process will be smoother and my tummy happier. 

4 thoughts on “Eating out with food restrictions

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