Menu Nightmares: Food Allergies/Intolerances

I know it seems weird to write about going out to eat while the pandemic is still raging. Many restaurants have permanently closed and more are on the verge, but take-out (or take away) has never been more popular. For some of us though, navigating that menu with food allergies/intolerances can be a pain.

I love food and I like cooking. I have been cooking regular meals almost daily since I was eight. This ability has been indispensable in navigating my food intolerances.

But sometimes I just want to be able to eat and not have to cook.

Sweet Yams circular logo. A painting of a tree with a red heart floating in its leaves and a barn behind a farm field in the background.
Sweet Yams is an organic restaurant in San Antonio, Texas that caters to food allergies/intolerances like ours. They took the time to memorize our needs as regular customers. They even took the extra step to warn us of any temporary ingredient changes to their menu items that would affect us. We will forever love this restaurant! (Restaurant not affiliated with HHH.)

My Food Service Background with Food Allergies/Intolerances

I’ve spent 5 years in food service working in the kitchen as anything from a cook to a General Manager. I ordered our truck to stock our fridges and freezers, made sauces, and prepped meats and spice blends. I also made sure to read labels multiple times, and studied the menu for potential allergens.

Selfie style picture of Cristophe and his friend/previous manager wearing generic food service ball caps and work shirts.
Me with my friend and previous manager, at my last food service job in 2016.

I learned about cross-contamination and realized how it related to food allergies. 

If I made a mistake while prepping food I always made sure to ask the customer if it was an allergy, intolerance, or they just didn’t like it, so I knew what protocol to follow on the remake. 

Heads up, if it’s an allergy or intolerance the process should look something like this: Immediately clean the station and remove used utensils, dispose of gloves, wash hands, put on a fresh pair of gloves, restock station with sterile utensils, and THEN begin the remake. Note that the person remaking the order should be the only person to handle it through the entire line to prevent potential cross contamination from others. If they don’t do this automatically without you asking them to, you shouldn’t eat there. 

Ignorance Happens

Sometimes it’s intentional. I have fired someone on the spot for not taking a customer seriously when they said they were allergic to something. Sometimes it’s innocent and the server or cook genuinely doesn’t know. (I was never trained on food allergens.)  Sometimes it gets lost somewhere along the way from the time you order to the time your food arrives. 

Please, if you prepare food for others it is critical to take any mentioned allergy seriously.  Some food allergies are life-threatening. Someone can DIE.

I always made sure to double check with the customer if they still wanted something they ordered that could potentially contain their allergens. If a server isn’t willing to ask the kitchen, or the kitchen doesn’t know, don’t risk it. 

Items to Investigate with Food Allergies/Intolerances

Working in a commercial kitchen has given me background knowledge that makes navigating the incredibly difficult world of eating out a little easier. So, here’s some things to be wary of:

  1. Sauces. They will have some combination of soy, dairy, egg, guar gum or flour as a thickener. Some Examples:
    • Mayo: Egg & Soybean oil
    • Ranch dressing: Soybean oil, milk products
    • Salad dressing/Vinaigrette: Soybean oil
    • Aioli, Hollandaise, Creamy Sriracha: these are mayo based Sauces
    • Ketchup & Mustard: Soybean oil
  2. Gluten free items usually include eggs for a good consistency.
  3. Just because the allergen isn’t directly listed, does not mean it’s not present. Hidden ingredients have many names that are constantly changing. Be wary of vague labels like “seasonings/spices” or “natural flavors”. Here are some links if you want to go down the rabbit-hole that is soy or gluten.
  4. Vegetable oil is NOT soy-free! Soybean oil is often the main component of a generic vegetable oil. Coincidentally it’s not always required to be labeled as an allergen. See link above.
  5. Meat is not a fail-safe option. Seasoning blends often use flour as a binder to get the blend to stick to the meat. Cheap meat products use soy as a filler to stretch the product. Meat, fish, and shellfish can also be marinated in dairy or soy.
  6. Fried anything is a no-go. Milk and egg are common binders for the batter, which likely has gluten. Soybean/ Vegetable oil can be a problem here too.
  7. Grilled anything will likely have dairy, soy, or both. No one is cooking on a grill without something to keep it from sticking.

Bonus: Some surprise snacks that contain soy are chips, beef jerky, and chocolate. 

P.S.

If you are one of those awesome and inspiring people who like to be inclusive to your friends who have allergies, this book (pictured below) has been a wonderful learning tool!

Picture of the front cover of the book "Allergy Cooking with Ease: The No Wheat, Milk, Eggs, Corn, Soy, Yeast, Sugar, Grain, and Gluten Cookbook" by Nicolette M. Dumke.
Book not affiliated with HHH.

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