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10 tips for dealing with food allergies in a restaurant

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For the 15 million people in the United States that suffer from food allergies, dining out can be a stressful experience.

As I always advise my patients,  if you or one of your family members has a food allergy, your best offense is educating yourself so you can be proactive in coming up with a defense strategy.  Of course, having your allergist help with a written food allergy action plan is also an excellent way to mitigate unnecessary risks when it comes to potential allergic reactions to foods.

So here is my list of strategies to help you take control of your food allergy and put the fun back in family dining:

1. Plan ahead: If you are dining out at a local restaurant, call ahead and make sure they are prepared to deal with you or a family member with a food allergy, and have optimal strategies in place that will allow a food allergen-free meal to keep you safe from accidental exposure.  This is particularly important during peak time periods, such as during holidays.  

2. Travel smart: If you have a family member with food allergies, pack snacks that you know are safe.  

3. Be a label detective: Remember, even prudent manufacturers may change the ingredients in a packaged food product, so stay vigilant.  

4. Get medicated: Always carry your prescribed epinephrine auto-injector, and at least two doses with a written action plan with you at all times.

5. Decontaminate: Be aware of possible cross contamination of cooking surfaces, utensils and even eating surfaces.  

6. Rate your risk: Be aware of high-risk cuisines including bakeries, dessert or ice cream shops and Mexican or Asian cuisine -- where exposure to peanut and nut allergens is more likely.  

7. Wipe it off!  Some individual families may carry disposable wipes to decontaminate a table area before dining in the hopes of removing residual protein residue.

8. Get educated: Teach your family and friends about the food allergy in question and get them on board to never make suspect foods immediately available, especially for food-allergic children.  At home, kitchen magnets and/or signs can serve as a reminder for friends and guests, too.

9. Keep an eye out:  Cozy and intimate lighting is not cool if you are dining out with someone with a food allergy.  It is essential to be able to see your immediate environment for possible triggers.

10. Work it out: Talk to the restaurant manager and chefs to review all ingredients used in the preparation of a meal item so you can avoid any unwanted surprises and have a safe and enjoyable meal.   

Dr. Clifford Bassett is an adult and pediatric allergy specialist, and diplomat of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. He is the medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY.  Bassett is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and on the teaching faculty of NYU School of Medicine and NYU Langone Medical Center and assistant clinical professor of Medicine and Otolaryngology at SUNY LICH. Follow him on Twitter.