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Tips and Tricks to Navigate Eating Out with a Food Allergy or Intolerance

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Do you find it extremely difficult to navigate restaurants to find the “right dish”? You know, the one that fits your needs but doesn’t skimp on all the flavours and fun of eating out?!

I definitely know the someone who lives with a garlic and onion intolerance, I sometimes find it incredibly difficult to ACTUALLY enjoy myself while eating out. For the longest time, eating out caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. Oftentimes, I would just order a boring, plain salad, no dressing (potential for some sneaky garlic and onion!) to satisfy my hunger.

And I know I am not alone!

According to Statistics Canada, about 7% of the population self-report having a food allergy. And although the statistics on food intolerance isn’t so clear due to its wide spectrum of potential intolerances, the most common and widely reported food intolerance experienced by Canadians is lactose intolerance.

Before we jump into some of my tips and tricks to navigate restaurants, I think it is important that we describe the difference between food allergies and food intolerances...which are sometimes used interchangeably but are COMPLETELY different things.

What’s the Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Intolerance?

Food Allergy

A food allergy is a medical condition where the body’s immune system mistakens a food as a harmful or foreign substance and reacts to it by producing an allergic reaction.

1. Immunoglobulin E (IgE) Mediated

Immunoglobulin E mediated allergies results from the body creating antibodies called immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short, in response to a protein in a food. This type of food allergy causes anaphylaxis - an immediate, life-threatening allergic reaction where the body produces a range of symptoms that affects our:

  • Breathing (respiratory system): Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, throat tightness or swelling, nasal congestion; and,

  • Heart: weak pulse, dizziness, shock, drop in blood pressure.

Eating even the smallest amount of this food can cause this type of reaction. *This type of reaction requires the use of Epi Pen (epinephrine) and immediate medical attention*

2. Non-IgE Mediated

Non-IgE mediated allergies is when other parts of the body’s immune system react, causing symptoms, like hives, itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea, which are not life-threatening. These types of symptoms do not involve IgE antibodies, and can take longer to develop.

Although there have been over 160 foods that have been identified to cause food allergies, the 9 most common food allergies in Canada include:

Nine of Canada's most common food allergies are displayed in round white bubbles. They include: peanuts, milk, fish and shellfish, mustard, sesame, tree nuts, soy, wheat, and eggs.
Nine of Canada's Most Common Food Allergies

Food Intolerance

A food intolerance is the inability to digest or absorb a certain food. Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance does not involve an individual’s immune system, and is not life-threatening. It often is confined to the gastrointestinal tract, producing unpleasant symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, gas, or diarrhea.

As previously mentioned, lactose intolerance is one of the most common food intolerance, and occurs when the body does not produce enough lactase, an enzyme, to break down the sugar known as lactose, found in dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheeses. This causes the lactose sugar to ferment in the gut, which causes the symptoms of bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Tips and Tricks to Navigate Eating Out

Know Before You Go

A woman looks at a white menu with black writing while sitting at a wooden table. The table is set with white dishware.

Read up on restaurants’ menus and their policy on food allergies and intolerance. Yelp or Google Reviews may also provide you with more information about the dining experiences, and whether restaurants will be accommodating of your needs. If any information looks unclear to you or you are still not sure about a dish, call the restaurant and ask.

Clear Communication is Key

A couple and server discuss the menu on an electronic table. The server is a woman who is wearing a white collar shirt with a black bowie tie and vest. The couple are dressed up in formal clothing. The woman wears her long hair in a ponytail, has a black dress with mesh polka dot sleeves. Her outfit is completed with black earrings and a black bracelet. The man sports a beard and wears a white bottom down shirt. All three people in the image are smiling.

Clearly communicate to your server about the severity of your allergies and food intolerances. Ask how meals are prepared and if there are any risks of cross contamination. If the server is unsure, ask to speak to the chef, who should be knowledgeable of all the ingredients and preparation that goes into your dish. If the chef is unable to speak to you directly, provide a written list of food allergens or intolerances, and directions about cross contamination.

Plan Ahead with Safety in Mind

A woman injects an Epi-pen into the side of her thigh as she sits on a chair.

If you have a food allergy and will be eating out with family and friends, always bring two Epi-pens (epinephrine auto-injectors) - just in case - and notify others about potential symptoms of an allergic reaction, where they can find your epi-pens, and how to inject them. Make sure you also communicate that in case of a severe allergic reaction when an epi-pen is used, that 9-1-1 should also be contacted.

Use Helpful Resources Like the App

The picture displays three smartphones with different features of the app. On the first smartphone to the far left, you see a list of common diets that users can choose from. In the middle, centre smartphone is a map of Vancouver, Canada with suitable restaurants for the user to eat from. The bottom of this smartphone displays the restaurants in a list format. In the far right smartphone displays the app's group feature, where users can add friends and family members with certain food allergies, intolerances, and diets to find a suitable restaurant.

Take the leg work out of scanning restaurant menus by using helpful apps like filters local restaurant menus’ based on your dietary preferences or needs. With a list of 29 allergens and 9 diets, you can get back to enjoying eating out with friends and family without having to worry about doing all your research ahead of time. Best part of all, if you have other friends or family members with allergies, intolerances, or specific diets, like vegan or celiac disease, you can use’s “Group Mode”, which will filter restaurant menus that suit the needs of all your fellow foodies.

To learn more about and become an early adopter, use my affiliate link* to pre-order Honeycomb and get lifetime access for 75% the regular yearly rate:

Bottom Line

Eating out with a food allergy or intolerance can sometimes feel like a chore. By taking the appropriate steps before and during your dining experience, you can get back to enjoying your safe, symptom-free meal.

*Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link. If you visit my affiliate link and pre-order the app, I will receive a commission. Purchasing via an affiliate link does not cost you extra. I only recommend products and services I trust. All opinions are my own.


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