Sampling local restaurants is a great way for families to spend time together while getting out of the house. But if you’re the parent of a child with a food allergy, trusting the cooking to a total stranger is anything but relaxing.
“Dining out has always been a major source of stress and challenge for our family,” says Robyn Nasuti, the mother of two children born with significant food allergies. “It has isolated us from nights out with friends, and on several occasions we’ve had to walk out of restaurants after getting a blank stare from a manager or server when I mentioned all our food allergies.”
This lack of understanding about kids with food allergies makes dining out nerve-wracking for many families, but Massachusetts is looking to change that. After years of lobbying from groups like Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the New England Society of Allergy, a law called the Food Allergy Awareness Act went into effect last year, and was recently updated to improve safety. Starting this month every restaurant in the state will be required to have a food protection manager on staff, making sure special precautions are taken to keep meals free of food-borne illness like E. coli and salmonella and allergy triggering ingredients in specially ordered meals. To become a certified food protection manager, restaurant employees must watch a Massachusetts Department of Public Health approved video on food allergy.
Michael Pistiner, MD MMSc, a former fellow at Children’s Hospital Boston and Clinical Instructor in Children’s Division of Immunology, helped lobby for the bill, contributed to its implementation and spent time gathering support from local organizations like Massachusetts chapter of Academy of American Pediatrics and Asthma and Allergy Foundation of New England.
“Studies show that many people in the food industry think they know a good deal about food allergy, but based on their answers to a survey, their confidence far outweighed their competence,” he says. “With so many people suffering from severe food allergies, a general lack of awareness coupled with over confidence is a dangerous combination.”
Robyn Nasuti says the new regulation comforts her, especially as her children grow and begin to assert more independence. “It frightens me to think that Brett is approaching his teen years and on the verge of going to restaurants and ordering for himself,” she says. “But the new aspects of the Food Allergy Awareness Act offer a little peace of mind. I’ll worry a little less knowing he can speak to someone at the restaurant who is educated on food allergies and base his food decisions on conversations, not assumptions.”
The law may be directed a food industry professionals, but Pistiner says communication on the part of the patron is still crucial. “Communication is a two-way street and people with food allergies have to be vocal about what they can and cannot eat,” he says. “Hopefully the new law will succeed in increasing awareness about food allergy and normalize the condition to the point where people won’t feel awkward being upfront about their dietary needs when eating at restaurants.”
The new rules are a step in the right direction for making restaurants safer for people with food allergies, but they’re far from perfect. No matter how attentive and diligent a restaurant staff, there is always the chance that confusion or human error could lead to an allergic reaction. Pistiner says parents of kids with food allergies still need to be cautious when eating out and offers the following tips:
- Always make good restaurant and dish choices based on your child’s particular allergy.
- Call ahead to make sure the staff is capable of handling your child’s specific dietary needs.
- Be proactive in alerting servers and management about your child’s allergies; never wait for them to ask. If you carry a chef card (a small card which instructs cooking staff about your child’s allergies) present it as early as possible.
- If a dish isn’t made to specification, don’t hesitate to ask for it to be remade. Scraping certain foods off the plate or eating around an allergy trigger is dangerous, and as a paying customer it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for the food you ordered.
- Try to visit during non-busy hours, when the kitchen is less chaotic. If the staff is struggling to stay ahead of orders there’s an increased risk of mistakes being made and an allergy-inducing ingredient sneaking into your food.
- When in doubt leave. Unfortunately, even with regulation, you may find yourself in a situation where you don’t feel a hundred percent confident that your instructions were understood. In these cases counting your losses and politely leaving is your safest option.
Even with an increased awareness about food allergy in Massachusetts’ restaurants, Robyn says the mother in her still has a hard time relaxing when the family eats out. “Education is great, but I can’t say I’m not scared when I sit across from my kids at a restaurant, wondering if everyone I talked to was careful and understood our instructions or if we’ll be leaving by ambulance,” she says. “The stress is still there, but now that I’ll have the opportunity to speak with someone on the restaurant’s staff that has increased awareness on food allergy we may be able to go outside our comfort zone a little. As a family who’s been sequestered to a handful of restaurants for over 10 years, some added variety would be really nice.”
Watch a video about Robyn’s oldest son Brett, who was able to overcome some of his food allergies after revolutionary milk-desensitization treatment at Children’s Hospital Boston. You can also view the entire eight-part series.
For more video on his treatment, click here and scroll down the page.