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Eating away from home can be a big challenge with dietary restrictions. The reality is that you are totally entrusting your health to people you have never met, and may know nothing about your specific allergy. I know this thought makes me nervous when I eat at restaurants, and my daughter has a relatively mild intolerance. We don’t often eat out for several reasons – it’s expensive, I can’t control the quality of the food, and I don’t enjoy it as much as before cutting dairy and soy from my diet – but there are still occasions where we choose to go out and enjoy a meal will friends, or just a night without dishes! Over the last year or so I have learned some good information and tips that I am going to share with you.

***The following information contains things that I have found to work for me. Always ask any restaurant for up-to-date allergen information and take necessary precautions for your specific needs***

 

First of all, there is a huge difference between eating at chain restaurants and eating at small, privately owned and operated restaurants. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:

 

  Pros Cons
Big Chains Much more likely to have allergen information, which makes preparing and ordering easier The quality of food is typically lower, and usually not really made from scratch
  Often have some sort of “protocol” when a patron has an allergy/restriction The staff will probably not know much about the food or what is in it
  The plus side of pre-packaged items is that the staff can just look at an ingredient list Many times food is from a package (i.e. chicken is all pre-seasoned) so it can’t be made differently
The Little Guys Food is more likely to be a higher quality and made on site Very unlikely to have posted allergy information
  Because food is more often made from scratch, modifications can usually be made Less likely to have standard practices for patrons with allergies
  The kitchen staff should know exactly what they are putting in everything they make Without allergen information available, I feel more limited in what I can safely order

 

 

So for me, I think it’s a toss-up. I can say that pre-diet change, we almost never ate at chains, preferring to eat at local restaurants instead. Sometimes we now choose a chain because it is easier to be able to just pick something off of a preset menu. The good news though, is that I have not yet been to a restaurant where I have not been able to get something, so food restrictions don’t have to stop you from eating at restaurants. As I said though, anytime someone else is preparing your food, you are giving them a lot of responsibility. If you have a severe allergy, please take extra precautions and make sure you feel comfortable with the situation before dining out.

 

Eating at Big Chains:

 

The best thing you can do to have an enjoyable restaurant experience is to do your homework. If you are the one choosing a restaurant, do a little research before making a selection. All major chains have websites, and some publish allergy information. If your favorite restaurant does not have information on their site, give them a call and ask if they have a menu at the location, or what they can do to accommodate allergies. By doing research ahead of time, you can just enjoy your time out without worrying about finding food that you can eat. Here is a list of chains that are relatively allergy friendly, and what I have learned about each:

 

 

Ben & Jerry’s: Their website offers complete ingredient information. I’m not sure if they ever have non-dairy ice cream flavors, but they do seem to consistently carry sorbets that are dairy fee.
Boston Market: I just recently found out that Boston Market has a complete allergen menu, and their chicken is dairy and soy free, which I am extremely excited about. Their yummy sides are more limited, but I’ll take what I can get!
Buffalo Wild Wings: I was surprised about the number of their sauces that were dairy and soy free; that alone gives a lot of variety. Their un-breaded chicken without grill seasonings has been a good bet for me. Their website and locations have a grid style menu with several good options.
California Tortilla: This is by far my favorite place to eat out. They have a grid style allergen menu that makes it really easy to see what you can and cannot have. They have so many dairy and soy free options that I never feel like I am missing out.
Chick-Fil-A: On the positive side, they have complete nutritional and ingredient information on their website . Unfortunately, I’m a little disappointed with Chick-Fil-A recently. We used to get the grilled chicken nuggets, which only had about 4 ingredients. They just changed the recipe and now the ingredient list is several lines long, and the worst part is that chicken meat is halfway down the list. It looks like they are still dairy and soy free, but I’m not sure that I want to eat them any more.
Chilis: Locations (and website) have specific menus by allergy. If you are avoiding multiple allergens, you will have to compare menus to find something on both.
Five Guys: I think this is my biggest weakness for eating out – I love their fries! In addition to the fries, they have other options that are dairy and soy free. They do not have specific allergy information on their website, but their FAQ section does state that their rolls contain both dairy and soy. The locations that we have visited have been knowledgeable about their products and have been very accommodating. I get a burger without a bun and with veggie toppings, and then use my own condiments at home (we usually carry out).
Moe’s Southwest Grill: Although they are a similar restaurant to California Tortilla, Moe’s is more limited in their offerings. They also have some proteins that are available at some locations, but not others; so at our Moe’s they have no meat options that are dairy and soy free, but I can have a vegetarian burrito bowl. Their allergy information is posted on their website.
Nordstrom eBar: Our local Nordstrom has an eBar, and they have several dairy and soy free options. I have not found allergy information online anywhere, but when I have asked about ingredients in beverages, the staff has been able to tell me exactly what they use. Unlike Starbucks, they do have almond milk as an alternative to dairy. They also have fruit smoothies, some of which are dairy free (I believe others contain yogurt). In general they seem to be very allergy friendly. In our location, they even carry cookies from the Alternative Baking Company, which are amazing! You can’t exactly get a meal here, but I love being able to stop in for a coffee, smoothie, or cookie when I am at the mall.
Olive Garden: I have no idea why, but I was really surprised that they have allergen information on their website. There is a lot of dairy and soy in their food, but they have some good options. The only thing I have had so far is the herb grilled salmon and I really liked it.
Panera: Website has a nutrition section that provides complete ingredient lists and stores have a grid-style allergy menu for every item. On the one hand, this can be time consuming and overwhelming, but ultimately is nice to have all of the information available. It helps to look at these ahead of time to make ordering go more smoothly.
Red Lobster: Complete allergy information can be found on their website, which even includes the method of preparation (I think that’s pretty cool).  I have not yet dined here since my diet change, but it looks like there are a good amount of options for dairy and soy free foods. They also use canola oil instead of soybean oil, which is a little bit of a bonus.
Red Robin: Locations have menus by allergy, like at Chili’s. Similarly, you will have to view and compare multiple menus if you are avoiding more than one allergen. Their website also has an interactive allergen menu, which is pretty nice. Personally, I find the menu at Red Robin to be a little deceiving. It looks like there are tons of options until you start reading them. For dairy and soy, their burger seasoning and buns are both out. Then they have a list of burgers that are okay, if you remove a bunch of toppings. So basically, you can get an unseasoned burger patty, with vegetable toppings (and maybe some sauce).
Ritas: Rita’s website  has a link for an allergen chart, but it seems to be broken. I hope that means that it’s just down temporarily. According to the research that Go Dairy Free did, it looks like their Italian ice flavors are dairy free (not sure about ones that contain chocolate chips, though). I would expect them to be soy free, but I am not 100% sure. I think it’s worth stopping into to your local store to find out.
Ruby Tuesday: I actually have not eaten at Ruby Tuesday since I cut dairy and soy from my diet, but I just came across their allergy information, and it looks like they have a lot of options.
Starbucks: The good news is that Starbucks does publish allergen information. The bad news is that you have to click on each individual item to see the allergens included. I also really wish they carried almond milk as a non-dairy alternative, but last I checked their only alternative is soy milk.
The Greene Turtle: They offer a complete grid style allergy menu on their website, which is the largest menu I have ever seen at 34 pages. They list every single item… like 6 count wings… and then 12 count wings… so I highly recommend taking the time to peruse the menu before going to the restaurant.

 

 

As I said, there is a really big difference between chains and smaller restaurants. For smaller restaurants, or even chains that don’t publish allergen information, I have some other tips. For more on that, and some general tips for eating at restaurants with dietary restrictions, stay tuned for Part 2!

 

 

One thought on “Dining out without Dairy and Soy – Part 1: Chains

  1. Pingback: Dining out without Dairy and Soy – Part 2: The Little Guys ‹ No Milk, No Soy, No Problem!

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