This week is the first time in about a fortnight that I’ve begun to feel normal again. Why? you ask? Have you been ill? Well, yes I have been ill, but the reason for the poor health, sleepless nights and pain is due mainly to two eating establishments, who shall remain nameless, who made me ill.
They are both places I have been before and have had good meals, ie. I have not been ill afterwards. I’m really not that fussy – if you don’t poison me I’d return. So this has been a lesson for me, a hard lesson, on how to analyse situations.
The first one, two weeks ago, was in a local pub. Food was being returned left right and centre. The chef was having a bad night. The waitress was doing a grand job trying to cope, so when I ordered with my strict instructions and questions, I did have a moments worry. However I was assured that they could do me some chicken with just honey and mustard, nothing else, with chips and peas. “Are you sure?” I asked? I never want to be a pain. I can have the steak if that’s easier – but I’m wary of their steak since it arrives on a wooden board – never a good idea with meat or allergens I feel.
All seemed well until the welts arrived in the night, the hives, the blotches, the itching. I find it so hard to ever complain, because I never keel over in a restaurant if it’s just a trace, and how do I prove it was that place that made me ill? What else had I come into contact with? I can react to dust and latex, so perhaps it was that. Oh well. We move on. It was a mild reaction and I can cope with that. I’ve had worse.
The second time was the middle of last week is my favourite restaurant. They know me. They always look after me, but this time none of the usual staff were there. Should this have rung alarm bells? I know now that I should have gone to speak to the kitchen staff but I always feel such a fool, such a pain, such an idiot. I hate to draw attention to myself.
The waiter was young but wrote down my allergy. I stressed how important it was, ordered a steak, which is fairly safe, but stressed that even tiny traces would make me really ill, and to ask them to make sure no butter or any dairy goes anywhere near my steak. He nodded, made all the righ noises, but all was not well later that night.
But I also had a few glasses of wine. Not too many, I was home before lights out but I knew in the night that something was up. I get horrible hard lumps on my skin across my back, my neck and forehead. On this occasion I had hives all over my body. I was in a bad way. My face was red, purple in fact, as if bruised and – it – hurt! Most of all was the pain.
So the lesson is, don’t just believe a waiter/waitress, even if you’ve eaten somewhere regularly and they have been very obliging in the past. Alwatys trust your instincts and eat with your eyes. Mistakes do happen in busy restaurants so be safe, be careful and always, always check and ask, and ask again if you feel at all uneasy.
I find getting out my EpiPen and making it clear I might die if I eat the wrong thing usually gets waiters and waitresses moving and checking things properly for you. But it’s so annoying having to ask EVERY time you eat out, and having to make a bit of a fuss when you aren’t taken seriously. I just long to be able to stop worrying, order anything on the menu and not have to quiz the staff. For now that isn’t possible, so here are a few things I do that should help keep you safe:
My top tips for eating out safely
- PHONE: Always phone in advance and email if too if you can to let the restaurant know about your specific allergies. Make sure you speak to the right person, the manager or chef, and stress how dangerous it could be if you are given the wrong food.
- FRIENDS: Let your friends know before the date of the meal that you have allergies and ensure they know where your EpiPen is and how to use it. This way you avoid having to discuss your allergies at the dinner table, which can be very tiresome, and helps ensure a more stress free meal.
- EPIPEN: Always, always make sure you have your EpiPen, antihistamines and inhaler with you and don’t be scared to use them.
- ALERT: Alert staff when you arrive, and always make sure your waitress understands what you can and can’t eat.
- PREPARE: One friend of mine has asked the restaurant to use her own pan and utensils to avoid cross contamination. A good restaurant won’t mind doing this for you.
- PRE-COOK: You could even ask them to not only use your pan and utensils, but to prepare your food in advance and just heat it up when you arrive. I’ve done this at an Indian restaurant, not always easy to achieve but gives you much better peace of mind.
- CHEF: If you’re not sure ask to speak to the chef. Most chefs won’t mind at all and will be concerned that you have an enjoyable experience and are not made ill by the food they prepare. Ask him/her to suggest what they think would be safest for you.
- NO SAUCE: I often ask for sauce and dressings to come on the side, and then if I’m not entirely happy with their explanation of ingredients or assertions that it’s OK for me I don’t have to eat it.
- EYES: Eat with your eyes! If you aren’t sure when food arrives – don’t eat it.
- NO BEER: Don’t drink too much alcohol, it can speed the allergen through your blood stream, increase the speed of an attack, and you won’t be best able to cope if the worst happens and you’re also a bit tipsy.
- CARDS: Carry translation cards when abroad – I find even English ones can help. You can have quite a bold shocking statement written here and hand it politely over to the waitress. Much easier than having to say. “I might die if I eat any dairy whatsoever.” in front of all your fellow diners. It gets the point across quite well. It can also have a list of possible allergens. For instance some people don’t automatically think of all the types of dairy. So the translation card would have the translation for; milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, cream, whey, lactose etc.
- ACT FAST: Notice any itching or tingling, or feelings of being short of breath quickly when eating out – they could indicate you’ve eaten the wrong thing. Act fast and take your EpiPen if you think it might be anaphylaxis. Don’t be embarassed to do this in a restaurant.
- BE PREPARED: If you’re just out for coffee, have some allergy friendly biscuits or cake in your bag so you don’t have to miss out when your friends all order a piece of cake and there is no allergy free cakes available.
- BRING YOUR OWN: You can also take your own bread or butter, then you won’t feel you’re missing out as most restaurants will not have an alternative for you. Or even a flask of your own safe hot gravy!
- KEEP IT SIMPLE: Stick to simple options which are easier for the kitchen to get right, and safer for you too.
- EAT WITH THOSE EYES: Most of all though, stay safe and take care. Use those eyes of yours. They’re very clever at spotting nasty sauces and flaked cheese… If you’re not sure – don’t eat it!
I dream of the day when I can decide to go out at the last minute, choose any restaurant I like, and then from the menu I’ll have a shepherds pie, or a pasta dish with sauce, maybe even risotto, one of my favourites. Sadly it’s a different story for me. Salad with no dressing, or ham and chips, or steak. Good job I’m not vegetarian as well or I’d really struggle. Pudding is also always disappointing when eating out; no sticky toffee pudding for me with lashings of custard. Just a bowl of fruit please or maybe a sorbet if I’m really lucky.
There are good restaurants out there but sadly they are few and far between. Generally if you phone in advance and make sure staff know who you are when you arrive you’ll be fine. However increasingly I’m happier to eat at home. I know I’m safe then.
One reason I keep coming a cropper could be that research shows that 1 in 5 waiting staff and chefs think that small traces of an allergen is OK for allergic diners! Yikes! This is truly frightening and just goes to show we have a long way to go to educate people in restaurants. To read more about this research click here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110414131838.htm
Remember, always play it safe and if you’re not sure, don’t eat it. Eat with your eyes!
Have you had a similar experience? Do you have any tips for eating out safely? What should I have done on these occasions? Walked out? Complained? I always find it so hard to get in touch because I never know what it was that got me! and by that time, after the event, how does the kitchen know what it was that ‘got’ me?
For me? I’m planning lots of tasty and interesting meals for us at home. The cookery book I got for Christmas will come in very handy.