Food Allergies at Weddings

a wedding pic

I get so excited when I receive a wedding invitation in the mail. I love hearing that my friends or families have found that special someone and I love joining in on the celebration!

However, there is usually one slip of paper that comes along with the invitation that brings my thoughts away from the ceremony, the speeches and the party. I’m talking about that slip that asks you to indicate your food selection for the reception.

I love seeing a few options on this slip, as there are usually a couple options I can cross off right away. I am allergic to seafood, and fish is usually one of those options. That typically leaves me analyzing the meat and vegetarian dishes. More information is always better, but sometimes it just says meat with a special sauce, or vegetables with certain fixings. What’s in that special sauce? What on earth is a fixing? With my long list of multiple allergies, I like details!

I have had experiences where this slip says “Please indicate any allergies or intolerances”, which gives me a little bit of comfort knowing this information should make it to the catering staff. The bride and groom to-be have a lot on their plate in the months ahead, but it is acceptable to bring up the food situation in conversation prior to the big day. Bring it up casually by saying “I love that there was a tick box for allergens with the wedding invitations”. Or “I didn’t see any mention of meals for special diets, should I get in touch with the catering company in advance”. Make it easy for them and offer to be a part of the solution if you foresee a problem.

Fast forward to the wedding itself which is usually half a year away. The wedding goes well and you are overjoyed for the happy couple! Then…you start racking your brain trying to remember what food you ordered for the reception. Did you mention your allergens on the food order form?

At this point, it’s always a great idea to connect with the catering staff directly. In my experience, they go out of their way to answer your questions and make sure you have a safe meal. After all, weddings are a big business and they want all of the guests satisfied. Hopefully they can confirm for you that you have a special plated meal, or that the regular meal will be okay.

I have gone to weddings where the catering staff found ME before I could find THEM! They wanted to let me know that I would be having a special meal free of my allergens. I love that!

Magically Allergy Free

At the end of the day, you are there to celebrate love and marriage. If you are uncomfortable with the food or have other issues with the catering, try to solve it with the caterer’s supervisor or the wedding planner – try to keep the newlyweds out of it so they can stay focused on celebrating. If all else fails, you can always make a toast at the end of the night…in your toaster at home. J

Avoiding Allergic Reactions While Eating Out on Vacation

My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all tree nuts and peanuts. I recently travelled to Cuba with my family and had a wonderful trip! The trip was a great opportunity to write a blog post as I encountered a buffet on a number of occasions and noticed many dangers that could occur for someone with food allergies when eating at a buffet. One interesting observation I made that I have noted throughout this post is that buffets are problematic, not only for people with allergies, but also for people who do not suffer from allergies.

cuba

This was my fourth time traveling to Cuba and I would most definitely consider myself a seasoned Cuba traveler. I know the ins and outs of staying safe and healthy while at a resort in the country. I often hear patrons complain about becoming ill, but I can proudly say I felt great from the moment I arrived until the moment I left as I played it safe with my food allergies. As I ate my safe meals, I couldn’t help but notice other customers visiting a buffet and noted some of the unique risks.

  1. Individual sets of tongs were used for different vessels containing different foods. These were then used to place food on a plate that already had food on it, and to push around various food items on patrons’ This poses a risk to allergy sufferers due to potential cross-contamination.
  1. Patrons used their hands to pick up food from vessels. Not only is this a serious health hazard, but the hands could have been in contact with an allergen prior to reaching into the container.
  1. Children laid both hands directly on top of plate piles and then reached for an entirely different plate. This is the same issue as in number 2.
  1. People would place food items that were on their plate back into vessels. This poses a risk of cross-contamination.
  1. People would use their plates multiple times rather than using a new plate for each new helping of food. This can be a health hazard and there is a risk of cross-contamination because the plate is potentially contaminated with allergens.

chinese food

There was no shortage of opportunity for me to be at risk of suffering from an allergic reaction.

For myself, I worked with the restaurant staff and felt comfortable with a few food stations and can share these tips:

  • I avoided all deserts. Nuts are commonly found in desserts and in the dessert section.
  • I avoided unidentifiable foods. If it is not clear what ingredients are in a dish than consuming it would be an unnecessary risk.
  • I selected food that was being cooked in front of me. If the food is cooked in front of me and it is a relatively simple dish such as grilled salmon, I consider it to be relatively safe. I can see what ingredients are included in the dish and how it is prepared. There is relatively less risk that patrons touched the food with either their hands or random tongs. I am weary of things that are cooked off site that do not have proper labelling.

At the end of the day, it’s important to ask yourself whether it’s worth trying to find safe food at a risky buffet, or whether choosing a more traditional restaurant is a better option for you.

For more information on observing at a restaurant to stay safe please refer to my post at https://whyriskit.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/asking-and-observing-when-dining-out/.

The One Time I Did Not Ask About Nuts In a Restaurant

My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all tree nuts and peanuts. Recently I was hosting an event that I was planning on presenting at, but my time to speak was preceded by a trip to the emergency room.

I have never had an anaphylactic reaction but I do know my allergy to nuts is severe enough that ingesting small amounts of the allergen may trigger a life-threatening reaction. The event I hosted included a variety of food options that at first glance contained no nuts of any sort. On the tables there were vegetarian and non-vegetarian pizzas as well as meat and cheese trays.

Leading up to the presentation, I was somewhat nervous and wasvery focused on what I was going to say. I was somewhat hungry but I avoided food, not because of the risk of allergens, because I was very focused on my presentation. One of the people working with me handed me a slice of vegetarian pizza. I would normally ask a server, manager or owner about nuts but instead I quickly ate it and continued to work on the points I wanted to hit in my presentation. This may have been the first time I have ever forgot to ask about nuts because I was so focused on something else. Pizza, especially in a restaurant compared to a fast food chain, is a dish that one must always be careful with because of the potential for there to be nuts in pesto.

NewYorkSlice

Within a minute of finishing the pizza I felt tingling in the sides of my mouth, throat and lips. The feeling was very similar to what one would feel when they are getting their mouth frozen at the dentist. The cause quickly dawned on me. There must have been pesto on the pizza. I quickly told one of my fellow organizers that I was sure I was having a reaction and would likely have to leave for the hospital. I then found theowner to ask about nuts. The owner confirmed that therewere nuts in the pesto that was on the pizza I ate but a very minute amount. Although the reaction was not progressing very fast, I quickly had one of my co-workers drive me to the hospital emergency room because this is an experience that I have never had and did not want to take any chances.

Emergency

On my way I called my family to tell them where I was going and they said they would meet me there. Once I arrived at the hospital, I told the emergency staff of the situation and they assessed my status. I did not need immediate assistance but it was important that if I did, I was in a place that would be able to handle the reaction quickly. I had my auto-injector with me and I was ready to use it, but luckily it was not needed. The reaction did not progress any further than the minor swelling which eventually subsided after being given an antihistamine. I was grateful of my co-worker for getting me there quickly, as well as my family for coming to make sure that I was okay.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: it is critical to always ask the staff about the food you are eating at their restaurant. This is a priority above all else.

Taking Control of Your Own Allergies

As a teenager or a young adult, taking control of your allergies can be tough. You have to do all the things your parents did for you when you were younger. This ranges from calling a restaurant in advance to booking your own doctor appointments. Inevitably, this involves a lot of talking to people, sometimes arguing with them, inconveniencing them, and standing up for yourself.

One of the hardest parts of taking control is communicating with other people. These people can be your friends, a restaurant waiter, or a flight stewardess, and they all need to be informed of your allergies. If you’re shy or introverted, this can be especially difficult. It’s scary to wonder if that person will judge you, roll their eyes, laugh at you, etc. It’s really best to get used to this anxiety while you’re young, because you’ll have to deal with people’s reactions for the rest of your life. I tried a bunch of different communication strategies before finding one that worked for me. Scaring people by telling them they could kill you tends to freak them out, but down-playing the severity of your allergies can lead to situations which put you in danger.

Asking for accommodations can be scary as well. It sucks to have to ask a group of people to rearrange their plans so you can go to a restaurant with them, but if they’re really your friends they probably want you to join them and be safe. Personally, I find talking to waiters to be the hardest. Most waiters are accommodating, but sometimes if they’re really busy they might brush you off or dismiss you. If you don’t feel like they’re taking you seriously, ask for another waiter. There’s nothing more important than your safety. You’re the only one who is responsible for your health, so if you feel like the waiters are wishy-washy, ask to speak to a manager or the chef.

One of the more uncomfortable conversations you’ll have to have will be with your girlfriend/boyfriend. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time with this person and probably kissing them, it’s important that they know all about your allergies and how to handle them. They might have to watch what they eat if they’ll be seeing you that day, or brush their teeth and waiting an extended period of time before coming over. The unfortunate truth is that some people are not willing to do this. These are not the people you want to date, no matter how cute they are. Stand up for yourself, and if they don’t care about your health, move on.

Finally, be okay with messing up sometimes. You might forget your auto-injector at home one day and have to run back and get it, or forget to renew a prescription and have to run to the pharmacy at midnight. These things happen, and they’re part of the process of growing up and taking control. The important thing is to learn from these mistakes so you don’t make them again.

A Life-Saving Gut Feeling

My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all nuts. I recently experienced a close call where a gut feeling played a major role in stopping me from consuming pine nuts in an Asian cuisine restaurant.

A few weeks ago I went for lunch to what most Canadian’s would consider to be an authentic Asian restaurant with my parents and a friend of mine from overseas. The restaurant was lavished in gold colour decor, the service was quick and friendly, although somewhat rushed, the food was very fresh and, unfortunately for me, English was the second language of every staff member with whom I spoke.

The facts that I was trying out a new type of food, that English was the second language of all of the staff who I spoke with, and that the staff were in a rush made this situation notably risky since I am allergic to nuts.Roastporkpastries

Fortunately, I have been in this situation in the past and my friend was fluent in the language of the staff so I instructed him to inform the staff of my concerns. I watched the conversation and the staff’s non-vocal cues to try and identify the staff’s understanding of the situation. I read the English on the menu to try and make sensible selections. Unfortunately, this was not enough. We ordered a pork filled pastry but I had a random gut feeling to carefully cut it open and ask my mom, an expert in identifying allergens, to look at the filling. The pastry was, although not clear to the untrained eye, filled with pine nuts and eating it would have caused me to have an allergic reaction. Below I summarize the main issues I encountered with this incident and some safety measures for similar cases in the future.

Issues

  • English was the second language of the staff which means that there was a risk that the staff would have trouble understanding my concerns.
  • The staff were rushed which means that there was a risk that the staff would not take note of my concerns in an attempt to make the service quicker.
  • I am not accustomed to eating this particular culture’s food and I am therefore not familiar with what ingredients and preparation methods are typically utilized.
  • The staff were not accustomed to dealing with food allergies.

Although I was careful, I skipped a couple of safety measures that I could have taken, and will take in the future. These include:

  • Asking to speak with a staff member who is fluent in English
  • Be as serious as possible when telling the staff that this is a life-threatening allergy
  • Avoid anything that includes filling and focus on ordering simpler foods such as grilled meats and steamed vegetables. This will also include a more thorough explanation of cross-contamination safety precautions to ensure the simpler foods remain simple and safe.

Double Checking with Wait Staff

Originally when I was planning to write this blog, I thought that I would write some tips on how to keep safe with allergies when going out. However, since then I have gone out and had my own close call. Luckily, it didn’t end in a reaction, but it could have very well happened.

I was coming home from a skiing trip and we were staying in a hotel in Ottawa for the night. We were all very hungry and had no food to eat, so we decided to go out. We asked the front desk about restaurants in the area, and like always, being the only one with food allergies in my family, I got to choose the restaurant. I decided to go to a restaurant chain that I had eaten at before, although I had never been to this current location.

When we got to the restaurant the first thing I did was tell the waitress about my allergies, and that they were life-threatening. She didn’t seem to do much but nod her head. To be safe, as I am allergic to mustard, I usually go with pizza or pasta, but I always check just in case. This time I ordered plain pasta with rosé sauce. I asked her if she could check with the kitchen to make sure the food was safe and she said that she was sure it was okay. I didn’t feel comfortable with that since waiters and waitresses wouldn’t always know every ingredient in every dish in the restaurant. I also ordered a side dish for my meal and the waitress did the same thing so I really didn’t feel safe.

Waitress

After my salad came with a dressing that I couldn’t eat on the side (which ended up spilling!), my parents told me I should ask to speak to the manager. I said that I didn’t want to make a fuss, but my parents told me that if I didn’t ask and had a reaction, I would be making more of a fuss. You should never be worried to ask to speak to the manager, you are not making a fuss. Remember it is your life on the line. After the manager came over he went into the kitchen, got me a new salad, and checked to make sure all my dishes were okay. Luckily, they were all safe and my meal was good.

After we finished our meal the waitress asked us if we wanted dessert. Since I’m allergic to peanuts, I usually don’t get dessert. I said I don’t think I’m going to have any, and she responded by saying that none of the desserts have peanuts or nuts in it. I told her that I would look at the menu if she could come back. Sure enough, when I opened the dessert menu, the first item was peanut butter layered chocolate cake. The desserts definitely didn’t have any peanuts in them. LOL. 😉

I was lucky that I didn’t end up having a reaction. The key is to always make sure you feel safe, even if you have an inexperienced waiter. You shouldn’t, however, let your allergies stop you from going out!

Avoiding Cross-Contamination

Cross-Contamination

“This dish has none of your allergens in it, it’s safe for you to eat.” That is a familiar phrase that many of us with allergies hear, but unfortunately it’s not always true. Sometimes there is a risk of cross-contamination. As allergies are seemingly becoming more common and more people are becoming aware of allergies, it seems as though many still have trouble understanding cross-contamination.

I find it really frustrating to think you can eat something, to only find out that it was prepared in an unsafe environment. It is very important that you clearly tell the people who are preparing your food what needs to be done to avoid cross-contamination. People might have trouble understanding, so it is important that you give them details on how your food can’t come into contact with any of your allergens. Below is a list of a few things that you should tell the person who is making your food to help avoid cross-contamination.

1. Your food can’t come into contact with your allergen (i.e. it can’t just be picked off the top of your food.)

2. All the kitchen equipment (e.g. pans or cutting boards) that will be used for your dish needs to be cleaned thoroughly before preparing your food.

3. Allergens can stay on sponges or towels so it’s best to clean surfaces with disposable paper towels or wipes.

Buying packaged food can pose different challenges in terms of cross-contamination. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to talk to the people who manufacture the food about their process as it is in a restaurant. That’s why it’s important to call or email the company directly and ask if you are ever unsure. Sometimes a product will say it “may contain” an allergen. It’s important that you never take a chance with these products, as they are potentially risky.

My trick is to stick with companies that I know and trust. I don’t buy things I’m unsure about. For example, if a brand has one type of cookies that seems okay for me, but they also manufacture another cookie with peanut butter, I would stay away. However, some companies may have different factories for different products. That’s why it’s important to get in touch with them directly to find out the risk.

Remember, more precautions you take the less likely it is that there will be cross-contamination.

For more information on cross-contamination, visit Anaphylaxis Canada’s website at: http://www.allergysupportcentre.ca/cross-contamination.html

Ethnic Eating: Thai

For many who live with food allergies, eating a style of food that they are unfamiliar with can be very intimidating.  I know lots of people who don’t eat all kinds of Asian foods because they are worried about “secret” ingredients, or are worried that staff at the restaurant won’t understand their allergies.  I’ve often felt the same, and there’s no doubt that ethnic eating is certainly more challenging for those with food allergies, but it IS possible!

ethnic food

There are lots of ethnic foods out there (Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai… etc), but it’s easier if you focus on them one at a time.  Thai is personally my favourite food in general!  Surprising, considering how common peanuts and tree nuts are in thai cooking.  The key is to know which Thai foods you absolutely must NOT eat because they non-negotiably will contain your allergen.  One of those is Hoisin sauce, a peanut sauce which is used in both Thai and Chinese cooking.  It often is served with springrolls or salad rolls.  If a dark brown sauce comes along with your meal, best to double check with the waiter as to what it is.  I always get a pineapple sauce with my meal instead.

Next up to be aware of are mango and papaya salads.  These are often fine to order, but can be topped with cashews or peanuts, and thus you always need to inspect your dish before eating and tell your server about your allergies before ordering.  It is often easy to have dishes modified for your allergies.  For example, Pad Thai is a dish that almost ALWAYS contains peanuts, but I order it wherever I go because it a legendary Thai dish and can almost ALWAYS be modified to not include peanuts, as the peanuts are usually served on the side or sprinkled on top.  Always remind your server of your allergies before ordering and double check the appearance of dishes.  If nuts are visible, the dish contains nuts and you should not eat it!

In terms of soups and curries, many can be fine for nut-allergy sufferers, but you must always check with your server before ordering.  Sometimes servers do not speak the best English.  In this case, unless you are comfortable with the dishes you are ordering and the restaurant itself, I would not feel comfortable eating there.  A good sign is always if the restaurant’s menu has “please let you server know of any allergies before ordering” written at the bottom.

As usual, be extra careful if you are thinking about ordering dessert!

Here’s my go-to Thai menu:

Summer rolls (vegetables wrapped in rice paper) with pineapple sauce

Tom Ka Coconut Soup (flavoured with galangal and kaffir lime leaves – those crispy things that usually come on top are fried onions and are generally safe to eat – at first I thought they were some kind of nut!)

Pad Thai (contains egg and usually sprinkled with peanuts – a delicious noodle dish that is a must at every Thai restaurant, so long as you clearly communicate your allergies)

Curried Eggplant

Pineapple Yellow Curry

Originally posted on nevernuts.tumblr.com

Lessons Learned from an Allergic Reaction

Emergency

I am Mathew and I am allergic to all nuts. This blog post is about a close friend of mine who recently suffered an anaphylactic reaction.

On September 17, my friend left class to grab lunch. She ordered a chicken gyro from a new Greek restaurant on campus. She took the meal to go and got on a bus to commute home. When she was half way through her meal, she started experiencing symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. Her face was swelling, her throat was itchy and she was experiencing chest and stomach pain. She did not have an auto-injector with her because she left it in her gym bag and forgot to put it in her school bag. She decided to get off the bus to find a cab. The cab driver took her to the hospital. Once she got into the emergency room, the hospital staff quickly identified that she was experiencing anaphylaxis and gave her a shot of epinephrine. She was placed in a hospital bed, hooked up to intravenous and was monitored for 8 hours before being released from the hospital. It took two days for the effects of the reaction to leave her system.

Although the story is very simple, there are three valuable lessons to be learned from this person’s experience:

1. Always ask about allergens when ordering food. As you may have noticed, she did not ask the restaurant about how they do, or do not accommodate allergies. Although what caused the reaction is not clear, it is highly likely that cross-contamination may have occurred. One can only speculate as to how the allergen got into the food but it is possible that the cross-contamination issues could have been identified if she had asked about the food before ordering it.

2. Always carry an auto-injector. As I stated above, she did not have her auto-injector with her. One must always have it with them because you never know when a reaction will occur. Kudos to her for taking it to the gym because 57% of people do not carry their auto-injector with them at the gym(1). She could have treated herself on the bus if she had the auto-injector with her.

3. Always call 911 if experiencing a reaction. It’s important you do not try to drive yourself to a hospital during a reaction. An ambulance stocks life-saving medicine and can provide timely treatment on the way to a hospital.

(1) Sampson MA, Muñoz-Furlong A, Sicherer SH: Risk-taking and coping strategies of adolescents and young adults with food allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2006, 117:1440-1445.

TRAVELLING TO TANZANIA WITH FOOD ALLERGIES (Part 2)

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Hello my name is Caitlyn and I am allergic to wheat, eggs and nuts.  A little over a month ago I wrote a blog about my preparations to make sure I stayed safe with my allergies while travelling to Tanzania for three weeks and then touring Germany and Amsterdam for a week afterwards.  Now that I have returned to good old Canada, I’m happy to report that I stayed free of any allergy reactions over my 4 weeks of travelling!  That’s not to say that there weren’t risks and precautions that I needed to be diligent about, but by doing so I was able to stay safe for the entirety of my journey.

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In terms of travelling on the plane, I was able to pre-order gluten free meals and could be assured they also would contain no nuts.  Even though I was given assurance that I would have food that I could eat, I still brought extra food to be safe.  This paid off on two of the total four flights I had. One of the flights I was on,  one of my meals was accidently given to another women who had ordered a vegetarian meal.  This mistake was not realized until  it was too late leaving me without a meal.  Another flight there was an error made and the airplane ended up not having any gluten free meals on board at all.  Both times the staff on the airplane tried to accommodate for the mistakes and created make shift meals for me out of extra salads, fruit and cheeses, even sneaking food from first class for me!  On top of this, having extra food in my bag allowed me to last the flight without having to feel hungry.

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Staying safe while eating in Tanzania proved not to be too difficult since I was living at a house with 25 other students and we had a cook who worked for us providing our meals.  I met our cook Witness on the first day I arrived and was instantly put at ease as she explained to me how everything would be ‘Hakuna Matata’ (no worries!) about food and she would always make sure there would be lots for me to eat…and there always was!   There were times when I would eat out in restaurants but found the wait staff would always be able to speak English.  To further make sure they fully understand what I meant when I said I had food allergies, I used my little food allergy pocket cards that were printed in Swahili and said I would have reactions to eating wheat, eggs and nuts.  I would even get the staff to bring one of the cards with them to show the cook to make sure communication was accurately passed down.  One of the biggest events when I needed to really ensure I stayed safe with my allergies was when I went on a four-day safari.  This was because for four days I would be in the middle of a safari park, hours away from any remote medical centre.  Again, I was fortunate because the safari company I planned my trip with provided our safari group with a personal cook for our journey and I was able to inform them when booking our trip what I was allergic to and the severity of my allergies.  All in all I was so thankful for the wonderful experience I was able to have in Tanzania, and on top of this to stay safe with my allergies.

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After leaving Tanzania I travelled for a week in Europe visiting western Germany for a few days and then departing for Amsterdam to finish off the week.  Staying safe here while eating involved mainly just being smart eating out at restaurants.  I personally found that since I travelled to popular tourist area, any of the wait staff I encountered were able to speak English.  That being said, I still had my allergy pocket travel cards also printed in German and Dutch to aid in communication to make sure nothing was lost in translation.  The biggest challenge I always found was initially picking a restaurant that looked safe to eat.  It was common practice for restaurants to post their menus in their windows, however most times this would just be in their native language and  I would have no idea what food was actually offered.  Restaurants who posted menus featuring an additional English translation definitely had the upper hand in getting my business, but I found often you could ask the restaurant staff and they would have an extra copy of their menu in English to make things easier.

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Overall, I found by staying smart and using common sense along with practicing open communication to compensate for a communication barrier, there was no reason not to stay safe with allergies while travelling abroad.  Most importantly there was never a reason to let allergies stop you from enjoying all the incredible experiences travelling allows for!