Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Eating out - Mission Possible

There's always chips!

Where there's a will...
I'd be lying if I said it was easy, 'cos it's not. But, it is indeed possible to eat out dairy free - sort of. I kind of feel you have to be brave, take the plunge and give it a go. Okay, you might not have such a big range from which to choose (as you used to) and you may have to forego a few puds, but if the worst comes to the worst, you can usually find somewhere that does chips (as long as they don't stick some coating on them)! 

It's easier, of course, if you're able to cope with that magical phrase, 'traces of milk,' than if you're not. The main thing is to plan ahead and do your research. Unfortunately, a number of times we've thought we'd covered our bases, and done our research, only to come unstuck. However, usually this has been down to misinformation, rather than our lack of preparation. Fortunately, for us, it has not been life-threatening but it has been upsetting nonetheless.

Of course what is possible all depends on the kind of establishment at which you're planning to eat. If you're planning on fine dining (where they cook to order) I think there's a bit more leeway, especially if you phone ahead and warn staff in advance. However, if you're planning on dropping in on a high street establishment, (without naming too many names) here's a few things we have learned through bitter, and some not so bitter, experience:

Never be afraid to ask
Remember never be afraid to ask. I've had to become a lot more assertive. There's nothing to be lost by asking. I've been places, where they've agreed to cook my order in oil rather than butter, which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't asked what they could do for me. Ultimately, if staff can't answer your enquiries, then, 'If in doubt, leave it out,' definitely applies!! 

Make your needs clear
Make sure waiting/serving staff understand your requirements, especially if the nature of your need is such that the smallest particle of dairy is a problem. A restaurant that truly caters for the allergic customer will understand the need to avoid cross-contamination and will cook/prepare your food using separate utensils.

It is possible to get cards, which list your dietary needs, to hand to restaurant staff, in order to make things clear. I've not used them myself, although I think I would almost certainly use them if eating out abroad. I did look into them at one point. You can buy them online, although some sites also offer them for free. 

Don't turn up at the last minute
If you turn up when you are all hungry (and your child is at their most fractious) only to find that the staff can't accommodate your needs, small children won't understand. At that moment in time, their hungry howls will make your life even more miserable than it is already.

Research in advance
Visit restaurants when you/they are not busy to find out what they can do. Phone ahead. Check out in advance which chains publish their menu online. Most do, but they may not make it clear what they can offer in the way of dairy free. McDonald's do, but the website is a bit unwieldy - you have to select an item and then look up it's nutritional information. 

Wagamama's also have an online menu and we find it really helpful. Being based around South East Asian cuisine (which tends not to use dairy) there's quite a fair choice of milk free main dishes to choose from. We look online and choose before we go (speeds up the ordering process too). Don't expect too much of their desert menu though - sadly mostly dairy!

The other thing we like about Wagamamas is that you can also get take away. If you have internet access you can order in advance and pick it up when you get there. Even better, if you have a smartphone, you can (as they say) 'get an App for that!!'

The only thing to watch is that some chains with online menus seem to want you to provide a location, when you try to examine them. This may well mean that they don't have the same options available in different places - something to watch out for, if you're travelling around.

Be aware that claims made on the phone, online or even on the door may not match up to your experience! 
The ability to deliver what you want/need/expect may depend on whether the staff have been properly trained/briefed in regards to what they can/cant deliver. Or it may depend on how much food has been prepared in advance. If it has just taken out and reheated, then, even with the best will in the world, there's not much anyone can do about it. 

At one Italian chain I encountered staff who gave the impression that they understood my needs (when they were trying to coax me through the door) only for me to find that they only had one suitable option for Baby on the children's menu (pasta with tomato sauce - hardly what I would call a balanced meal). Not only that, although I had clearly stated that I couldn't have wheat/gluten, the waitress still brought me complimentary breadsticks!

Choice of cuisine can help! 
As aforementioned, South East Asian cuisine (Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Korean, Thai etc.) tends not to use dairy. In which case, Ping PongCosmos, and Wagamama's are all good options. However, not all Asian food is the same as Indian cuisine, on the other hand, does use quite a bit of dairy. 

I find French and Italian restaurants (former favourites of mine) are sadly not a good choice, as much of their food tends to be made with an awful lot of dairy, in the form of butter or cheese. 

At one large French chain I thought my luck was in when, on enquiry at the door, I was handed an allergy information chart. After a fair amount of study, I discovered there was pretty much nothing on their menu that I could eat apart from olives, nuts and salad (mind you, I'm not just dairy free)! Thankfully I was only scouting them out at the time and wasn't relying on eating with them there and then!

I have heard that Pizza Express try to accommodate people with allergies, but not being able to tolerate wheat/gluten at the moment, I haven't given them a go. Apparently, they can offer Pizza without cheese but that just sounds a bit disappointing, from my point of view. 

Good (and I stress 'good') pubs can be a good place to grab a bit to eat but beware of hidden dangers! Once you think you've made a fairly safe choice, don't forget to ask staff whether food is cooked/basted/roasted in butter. We've made the mistake in the past of thinking that a roast is a fairly safe bet but there can be pitfalls - chicken gravy may contain milk and so may any sausages that arrive on the side. 

Once I ordered the roast, only to find that it was impossible to separate the meat from the gravy. However, usually I order the roast and ask them not to add gravy. Then (being wheat/gluten free as well) I leave the accompanying sausages/Yorkshire pudding or pass them to a companion to eat! 

Another thing to watch out for, is that sometimes chefs add a small knob of butter to veggies to glaze and flavour them slightly. This occurred at a carvery which we visited once. It only became evident when Baby had  reaction - our fault, on this occasion, for being unprepared. It did explain, though, the unusual amount of enthusiasm with which Baby ate her carrots! 

Some chain pubs you might want to consider are places like Table TableBeefeater or HarvesterYour choices may be fairly limited (I'm usually chicken and chips at a Harvester) but it's better than nothing. Avoid carveries though, in my experience, as everything is produced en masse - not much room for manoeuvre. 

Deli style sandwich bars
These are the kind of places where they assemble the food in front of you. Depending on the establishment, they can be quite good for grabbing a light bite. I've asked staff to leave off spread (and mayonnaise, if staff are unsure) and just give me the bread and the filling (you can always take a tub of your own spread  with you. The only drawback is that some breads are made with dairy, so you need to check this out with staff too.

Deli style bars often offer things like soup and baked potatoes too. However, check the soup ingredients and when ordering baked potatoes make sure they don't put the butter in the potato before serving it to you. Tuna and mayonnaise jacket potato has become a good lunchtime friend of mine - some places, it's the only thing on the menu that I can eat. Mayo can be dairy free - Hellman's Original is, whereas their light version isn't! Quite often, when I ask, staff offer me the tub to check the label for myself.

Supermarket Restaurants
I've not tried many, but the Sainsbury's near us can be quite useful. The only guaranteed Free From food they currently sell is a chocolate brownie by the till, but if you can cope with 'may contain...' then they have a folder to inform staff about the ingredients in each dish. Usually, the staff come up trumps and produce it for you. Best done, when the restaurant is not too busy, in my experience!! 

Fish and Chips
However, if nothing else is available, good old-fashioned fish and chips can usually be found on most high streets. The only thing to check may be the ingredients of any sausages or batter. I'm just guessing, but I suspect the pies are a complete, 'No, no!'

If you have been prescribed antihistamine or an epipen, you're probably already only too  well aware that you need to have this on hand - just in case!!

And finally...
Relax (if you can) and enjoy (what you can)!

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