My vacation is a series of family celebrations strung together like colorful glass beads on a summer camp necklace. Each bead for me is both beautiful and breakable. You see, eating is a central element of most of my family’s celebrations, whether it is potlucks or dining out at restaurants or ad hoc affairs at breakfast around the worn kitchen table with close friends.
And I have food allergies and sensitivities.
Most of them are new. There are a lot of unknowns. Only 4 days before I left for vacation, I went into anaphylaxis for the first time. The day before I got on the plane I collected my first set of epi-pens — and I still don’t know what precisely triggered anaphylaxis the first time. In the past year and a half, food went from being a joyous, tasty celebration of life into a horrible, illness-inducing, possible cause of death. The upshot: I was going on vacation, armed with allergy pens, a hastily drawn up diet that my doctors hoped would work, and my wits. It wasn’t going to be a pretty battle.
I had my first food reaction only hours after getting off the plane.
I’ve learned a lot from the school of hard knocks and frantic research on a cell phone in the wee smas.
- Always ALWAYS ALWAYS carry your epi-pens and allergy medications with you. Pack extra if possible.
- It’s great if you have an “eating buddy” or two — someone who knows what your allergies are and is close at hand in case of a reaction or an unexpected situation. Some sites recommend having everyone in the party know, but I’m an adult and frequently travel with large groups where it’s impractical to have everyone know, or even, if someone is very squeamish or this is business travel, potentially a liability. But I do need someone to have my back. Case in point: I’m sensitive to citrus. If I go to the bathroom and a helpful waiter fills my glass with water from a pitcher with lemon slices in it — a common occurrence — I’d never know until it was too late. My allergy buddies have me covered.
- Case the restaurants ahead of time like you’re a thief planning on stealing the Mona Lisa. Check out the menu ahead of time, if possible. Some restaurants have allergen menus online, and the chain Smashburger even has an app. If there are still questions — and in the case of nice restaurants, I’ve found there often still is — try to call ahead during a non-rush time. If you get the feeling that they aren’t taking your requests seriously, go with your instincts and move on to the next restaurant. I made the mistake of dining at one spot where the person who answered rather flippantly said she was certain they used canola oil, only to have my mouth break out in sores when I ate my french fries. A call the next day yielded a different answer: they in fact used soybean oil.
- Some restaurants will allow you to pre-order meals the day before if you have to be very careful, make a lot of changes, or are going to be ordering off-menu. I pre-ordered oatmeal from the breakfast menu for a lunch date at one restaurant because I couldn’t find anything else that would work well … and the restaurant threw in whatever they thought could ever possibly go with oatmeal, carefully put in side dishes, for free. 🙂
- Be polite but firm when asking for changes to a meal. Stress that this is because of an allergy. Most places will accommodate quite gladly and mark your order as an “allergy order,” because nothing gives a restaurant a bad rap like having one of its guests carted out via ambulance. It completely destroys the ambience. 😉
- If, even after all your precautions, you start to react, follow the suggestion of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: DON’T PANIC. It makes it worse. First, medicate if you are capable. Try to make sure you are in a safe place — if you pass out, are you going to fall onto a hot grill or bang your head on a table? Get safe. Relax as much as possible; mast cells degranulate with stress. Then communicate to your allergy buddy or whoever is nearby, and follow the rest of the process… calling 911 or trying to find the nearest hospital, screaming, general mayhem, and crushing disappointment. Or skip some of those last few. 😉
- Having a list of safe restaurants already in hand is incredibly useful, even if it is just a few of your favorite chain restaurants. I, for instance, can eat exactly two meals at Panda Express, and about the same at Wendy’s. Having a list of slightly more fancy restaurants for the town you’ll be staying is also very useful when friends and family are planning events.
- Just because a restaurant has something on the menu you can eat DOES NOT necessarily mean it’s safe to eat there. Unless a kitchen has allergy protocols in place and uses designated cooking areas, traces of foods you’re allergic to can still be in your food. This is called cross-contamination. I experienced it in a “well DUH” moment of epic proportions, eating out at a dive of a seafood restaurant that regularly cooked shellfish in soy oil on the same grill I was getting my oil-less mahi-mahi cooked on. I had a burning dragon rash climbing with prickling talons up my skin in minutes and very narrowly dodged doing the epi-pen experience. Lesson learned: question before consuming. If a restaurant or kitchen doesn’t look like it’s handling things correctly, leave.
- I always carry some food with me (and have more at wherever I’m staying) in the quite likely event that wherever we go ends up not being safe for me. It’s also helped smooth the bumpy road of eating-based social interactions for my vacation thus far. At times, we’ve gone out for desert, but there was absolutely nothing I could eat. Being able to munch a fruit snack or Lara bar helped me still feel included and made my fellow party-goers feel more comfortable.
- Besides the websites of most restaurants, there are some other great websites to help you find safe food. One of my favorites is AllergyEats. https://www.allergyeats.com/. They even have apps for your cell phone. It’s dependent on user reviews, though, and can have spotty to non-existent coverage depending on where you are. Allergic Traveler has laminated cards you can order to show at restaurants: http://www.allergictraveler.net/. Or you can print out free cards at http://safefare.org/chefcard. Several sites offer translation cards for travel to other countries or dining at ethnic restaurants, like Allergy Free Table or Select Wisely. I’ve read a lot of blogs, trying to get a clue about how to protect myself. Allergic Child at http://home.allergicchild.com/traveling-and-eating-out-with-food-allergy/ was very thorough, and even though it was aimed primarily at parents with children, it was a good start for someone like me who is just now entering the world of allergic reactions. Another blogger who travels worldwide suggested bringing along pictures of what it was she was allergic too, in case something is lost in translation.
Happy vacationing, good luck, stay safe.