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.


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/.

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