Posted in Mom, personal
January 26, 2011

Allergy Etiquette.

I have a 3 year old son with major allergies. At roughly 2 months, he had severe eczema and when it didn’t start to clear up, we went through a series of doctors and at 6 months he was diagnosed with severe allergies to: soy, dairy, peanuts, wheat and eggs.

While society has become better about food allergies- many restaurants list allergens, food labels are more clear than ever and schools in general are more understanding. But every so often, I see public comments that remind me how little people really understand about food allergies- especially severe ones.

Last month, Chicago Tribune’s “Ask Amy” column shared this letter and response:

Dear Amy: Recently I threw a baby shower luncheon for my sister-in-law. One guest called to tell me that she is a vegetarian, and another guest called to “inform me” that she is on a strict gluten-free diet. I didn’t mind their giving me this information, but what upset me was their “you need to accommodate me” attitude. I didn’t know either lady, and neither offered to bring a dish that would suit her needs. It took a lot of extra work for me to make the dishes to satisfy their diets.

My mother-in-law told me that I should have stuck to my original menu and let the “special” guests worry about their own needs. What do you think is proper?

— Hostess Who Gave the Mostest

Dear Hostess: Sometimes you just can’t win. If guests with special diets can’t consume the offerings at a meal, hosts feel frustrated and wish they had been informed ahead of time.

If people contact you before an event informing you of their special dietary needs, it is kind of you to extend your generosity by trying to provide whatever food they can eat.

You could easily cover both the vegetarian and the gluten-free diet by providing a vegetable and a fruit salad.

I agree with you that preparing for special diets stretches your hospitality; you might have prompted these women to adjust their attitudes and also assist you by asking, “Could you give me some suggestions about specific dishes you can eat?”

If a suggestion is beyond your ability to provide, you should be honest and say so.

While this is fairly sound advice, there’s a problem. My mother’s a vegetarian, and quite often she’s shown up to family parties to discover that the only thing she can eat is the plain green salad when there’s quite the spread elsewhere. Or maybe a crudite platter. When we were planning my wedding, it was shocking how many places felt satisfied to serve a vegetarian guest a sad plate of vegetables as their entree. And while she does eat seafood, quite often people will prepare them with bacon and sort of expect her to pick around the bacon.

The easiest solution for a hostess is to say that they’re not familiar with cooking that sort of cuisine, and ask if it would be possible for them to bring their own entree. And say, “I understand it’s asking a bit of you, but I’m just not familiar with it and don’t want you to wind up only being able to have the side salad.” For most people, the honesty would be appreciated.

Honestly, I offer to bring food for my son when we’re invited somewhere (and even when we dine out at a restaurant I’m not familiar with). It’s ridiculous for me to assume that someone could easily accommodate his needs. But that’s me.

Then there’s dining out. Consider these two tweets posted by Chef Rick Bayless (@rick_bayless).

While I find myself constantly frustrated by attitudes of chefs against alternative diets (quite often allergens are hidden in foods, and it’s not unusual to find meat items hidden in dishes that seem vegetarian), I have to say that I’m proud of Rick Bayless for his attitude. He was extremely right in being honest with the guest in saying that because they use peanuts in many dishes that the entire kitchen was likely contaminated.

The guest on the other hand… I can’t think of a single person with a severe food allergy who would take this attitude. Or to insist that a restaurant have epi-pens on hand. I have to assume that this was someone who was hoping to shake him down for some money, and not just your average person with allergies.

My son’s allergic to soy. I wouldn’t dream of taking him to an Asian restaurant, or expect that somehow they would be able to make their dishes without soy (granted, he’s allergic to many other foods, but I’m trying to simplify my point). When I pick a restaurant to eat at with my mom, I usually see if they have a menu posted on their website and ask her if there’s anything that looks good to her. And after the Thanksgiving 2007 debacle (where she was brought a minestrone soup that was made in beef stock), I usually call to make sure that what appears to be a vegetarian dish is actually vegetarian.

…Now I’m getting sidetracked. This was going to be about etiquette. I propose that those of us with allergies/special diets (or who care for those with them) follow a few simple rules.

1. When invited to a party with a meal, call well in advance to make sure that the host/hostess is aware of your food limitations. If you have several, it might be difficult for the host to accommodate you. Be prepared to offer to bring a dish or two that you can enjoy.

2. When dining out, be prepared to ask questions about the dishes. So it might be wise to avoid cuisines that feature a lot of your allergens, and wise to contact the restaurant well in advance with questions. And be prepared for chefs to not understand food allergies/special diets.

3. Be patient. While you’ve learned all about your diet/allergies… it’s not always common knowledge. Many people seem to confuse allergies with a dislike of the food, and don’t understand that there are serious reactions. And most people believe that gluten-free means you can’t eat anything at all.

Any thoughts? Things you would want to add to the list – or things you disagree with? I know I don’t speak much about the Little Kidlet’s allergies, but it’s a big part of our life… and something that I’d like to hear about from you.

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