Reading Menus

An allergy or intolerance to food doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to never eat out, but you must follow some precautions to protect yourself, including how to choose from a menu. The problem with menus is that they may not tell you everything about a meal, and if you have a sensitivity to food that can make you sick or even kill you, omissions can be very dangerous indeed.  

As even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a reaction, caution is vital. Sauces, marinades, dressings, and oils a food is cooked in—or even a pan that was used to cook something with an allergen in it—could cause a problem. So, it’s a good idea to let the staff know very clearly that you have an issue, go over the menu with your server, and ask any questions you need to before making your selection.

Try to get a list of everything that goes into a meal, not just the main ingredients, and ask questions such as:

  • Is there a marinade or sauce? What is it made of?
  • What oils, if any, are used?
  • Can my meal safely be prepared separate from other meals that contain the allergen?

Researching before you even get in the door is a good idea. Call ahead and ask questions, or make use of the internet—the restaurant may have a website with their menus posted. There are also organizations out there that list restaurants that are safe for people that suffer from particular food sensitivities.

Lauren Wuscher, of Philadelphia, is sensitive to gluten and soy, so she started her own website to help people with allergies and sensitivities, not just with food, but with cosmetics, travel and more. “I am always very skeptical about anything with a sauce or glaze,” Ms. Wuscher said. “Always ask what is in that sauce covering your meats or vegetables, because there could be flour or soy sauce or peanuts in it and you would never know by glancing at it.

“Also, it's important to make sure salads don't come with bread or croutons on them if you have a wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity,” she said. “Many times it won't mention on a menu that a salad comes with croutons or bread when in fact it does.

“Check for items with dressings and ask your server or the chef if they are made from scratch or bottled,” said Ms. Wuscher. “Many dressings for salads or vegetables contain allergens such as fish, wheat, or soy. The best thing to do in this situation is just ask for olive oil and vinegar (but not malted vinegar if you have a gluten sensitivity) and use that on your salad. If a chef makes a dressing from scratch, it normally will be safe for you to use since they will not only be able to tell you exactly what's in it, but they probably used olive oil instead of soybean oil and used natural seasonings instead of fillers.”