Hopefully you saw Part 1 of my tips and information about dining out, where I discussed some of the challenges of eating out, the pros and cons of chains and smaller restaurants, and some things that I have learned about eating at chains. In this post, I will share some general tips for eating at restaurants, what food I eat when allergen information is not available, and some things to watch-out for at any restaurant.
***Again, these are some things that I have learned that work for me. Please make sure to consult with a medical professional to understand what foods are acceptable for your situation***
First I’m going to start with some suggestions for ensuring that you have a good dining experience:
– Ask to talk to a manager: Sometime restaurants do this anyway when they find out that a patron has a dietary restriction. If you are concerned, don’t be afraid to ask up front. I think if you are going to ask to speak to someone it is best do so as soon as you sit down; otherwise, your server may think that you are complaining about them. You can say something like “I have some dietary restrictions that I am concerned about accommodating. Is there a manager that has some time to come talk to me about the best things for me to order to avoid those foods?” It is best to make your concerns known early, especially if you have a severe allergy or intolerance. I have been in some situations where the server didn’t seem concerned at all that I was avoiding certain foods, and didn’t even write it down. I spent the whole meal nervous and wished that I had just asked to speak to a manager up front. No one wants to be “that customer”, but remember that your health is at stake.
– Be apologetic and appreciative: Speaking of being “that customer”… I’m not saying to apologize for your dietary needs, but recognize situations where a restaurant staff may need to go above and beyond. Sometime I just say something like “I may be a little bit of a pain – I have some foods that I am avoiding – can you answer some questions for me?” It makes our waiter aware of my situation, and lets them know that I recognize it may require a little more work on their part. When a server get’s questions answered or helps in other ways, I make sure to thank them for their help, tell them how much I am enjoying my food, etc.
– Don’t be afraid to ask questions: You shouldn’t assume anything about ingredients in food. I have been surprised many times that something contains dairy or soy when I assumed it was safe (see below for more on that). I usually try to narrow down my selections based on what I think can be made dairy and soy free, and then I ask my server questions to make sure.
– Keep it simple: Look for menu items that can easily be made dairy and soy free. If you try to get something like macaroni and cheese dairy free at a “normal” restaurant, you will probably be disappointed. Focus on the items that are simple and can easily be made without things like butter, cheese, and creamy sauces.(see below for some suggestions)
What I Eat When Allergen Information is Not Available
I have not yet been to a restaurant where I haven’t been able to find something to eat. I have some go-to options that can get just about anywhere. As I said above I start as simply as possible.
– Salads: This is the first thing I look for on any menu. Some places have great salads that are not loaded with cheese and creamy dressings. I still always ask for details for any item other than raw vegetables. Most places at least have some salads with several dairy and soy free options – for these, I just ask to remove cheese, croutons, etc. And some places only make salads that are covered in dairy and soy laden foods which is incredibly frustrating. At these places, I order a garden salad or house salad, with raw veggies only (no cheese or croutons). I then ask my server what type of protein can be made with nothing but salt and pepper. For dressing, I ask if they make any in-house. If so, I will ask them to check if any are dairy and soy free. If not, I ask for vinegar or I use no dressing at all. I never get other dressings without allergen information.
– Chicken/Steak/Fish: I also usually check out the entrée section of the menu to see what they offer for basic proteins. Many places offer grilled chicken or fish, and if asked, can prepare it with just salt, pepper, and herbs. If they need to use some sort of oil, I ask if olive oil is available. Steak restaurants can also be very accommodating as steak is often prepared very simply anyway. Some times meat is pre-marinated, and I only order it this way if the staff can tell me exactly what is in the marinade. These protein options can also be used to top a salad.
– Homemade breads: We have been lucky to find a few local restaurants that make their own bread, and were able to tell us options without any milk or soy products. This is such a huge treat to me since so many breads are off limits.
– Fresh Fruit: Sides can be challenging, but fresh fruit and vegetables are good options. Some restaurants offer fresh fruit as a side for any meal, but this is especially helpful when eating breakfast or brunch.
– Steamed Vegetables: Some restaurants offer plain steamed vegetables without things like butter or seasoning blends. Others keep a small amount of unseasoned items set aside for patrons with dietary restrictions.
– Baked Potatoes: Like steamed vegetables, this is a good item to get plain and then season yourself. I have been told at some places that they brush the outside with butter or oil, so make sure to check.
Some Things to Watch-Out For
I think one of the best things about being dairy and soy free is the fact that I am now more aware of the ingredients in my food, and restaurants are a big part of that. There have been a few surprises for me so far, and I’m sure that I will find more:
– Soybean oil is not disclosed: I was initially surprised at the amount of foods that were soy free on allergen menus. I knew that soybean oil was used so commonly that I wondered what these restaurants were using instead. Then I noticed the fine print at the bottom of an allergy menu. Basically, highly refined oils, even if they are derived from common allergens, do not need to be claimed as allergens. (more info) If you aren’t sure if you can have soybean oil or not, talk to your doctor. We asked our pediatrician, and she wasn’t sure how much it might affect me or Sweet Girl. She recommended trying a small amount to see, but that is her advice for our situation. What do I do? If ordering off of an allergen menu I don’t worry about the soybean oil; and in cases where protein needs to be cooked with oil or butter, I choose oil. Why? I had already eaten food off of allergen menus by the time I found out this whole thing about soybean oil, and it did not seem to negatively affect me or Sweet Girl. I still avoid soybean oil when possible, and I never use it when I cook at home. If you determine that you cannot have soybean oil, make sure to explicitly communicate this to the restaurant staff, or you may get it without knowing.
– Be careful with pasta: I consider pasta a relatively safe food since I don’t think I have ever seen pasta at the store that is not dairy and soy free. Restaurants can be a different story, though. I have had multiple restaurants tell me that they use some sort of soy rinse on their pasta. I have tried to do some research about this, but have not found anything about why you would use a soy rinse on pasta. I don’t believe that every restaurant uses a soy rinse, and one restaurant we went to used it for penne but not angel hair. Just make sure to ask instead of assuming that plain pasta is safe.
– Watch out for seasoning blends: This is another annoying and surprising place that both milk and soy ingredients can hide. You will notice on some allergen menus that various seasonings are not safe. Most commonly I have seen some sort of soy or milk protein in the seasoning blends, but I’m sure there are other forms as well. Herbs, salt, and pepper should be safe, so I request those instead of pre-made blends. This is also a good thing to keep in mind when shopping and cooking at home – make sure to read all of your labels!
Whew! That was a lot of information. I know it seems like a lot, but eating at restaurants really boils down to a few things 1) do research and ask questions 2) Keep it simple 3) Ask for help and then thank them. Hopefully this post and part 1 have helped to answer questions you may have about dining out without dairy and soy. I would love to hear if you have other tips and tricks that haven’t been mentioned here!