I wish I could say living with food allergies is easy. It isn’t. Routine activities like eating out at a restaurant, going to a party, or simply getting hungry in the middle of the day can easily turn into a multi-step process trying to guarantee that I’ll have safe food to eat.
It also doesn’t help that many individuals who don’t deal with food allergies on a regular basis don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many times I have to remind the same individuals, or even the same server in a given night out at an eatery, about my life-threatening peanut allergy. As annoying as it can be, it keeps me on my toes and reminds me that I can’t depend on anyone, except me, to be responsible for what I eat.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. Food allergies have resulted in a somewhat healthier me by making it necessary for me to cut a number of processed food products from my diet (thanks, citric acid allergy). But every day comes with restrictions that the average person probably will never have to experience.
So, here’s what it’s like to live in my shoes for a day. Hopefully getting a taste of what my food allergy-ridden world is like can help you navigate your own, or help you be a friend to someone you know who is dealing with any type of eating regimen that makes certain foods off-limits.
1. I’m basically always wiping down surfaces with a disinfectant wipe.
Hey, it’s not a bad idea for everyone to do this anyway—but it’s an especially important habit for people within the food allergy community. Contaminates containing stubborn food particles, such as peanut dust, could be located on even seemingly random surfaces, like workspaces, airplane trays, and seats at baseball games, so this is an absolute must for some people to avoid an allergic reaction.
Also, after touching random things, you must be sure to clean your hands, so wipes come in handy. Plain water or hand sanitizer may not effectively remove allergens from the skin, so I have to have access to soap and water or have commercial wipes on hand at all times.
2. I carry a lot of baggage.
You never want to be out and about with food allergies and not have the things you need. For me, this includes but is not limited to Nice n’ Clean hand wipes due to all of the reasons I just mentioned, EpiPens (at least two because I have severe food allergies), Benadryl, an inhaler, and my medical insurance card.
I also carry safe snacks everywhere: Because I am a chocoholic, my favorite snacks that I keep in my purse are Cybele’s Free to Eat Chocolate Chunk Brownie Cookies and Safe + Fair Abby’s Chocolate Chip Cookies.
3. I get caught up in very long conversations with food establishment staff.
Convos with hosts, servers, and chefs can be exhausting, but they absolutely have to happen for my safety. I have had conversations that were extremely positive and left me feeling very comfortable with my dining experience, and others that have ended with me leaving the restaurant without eating.
The best way to ensure that the conversation results in a safe meal is to be very clear with the server regarding my food allergies. I go as far as to give them a chef card that lists my allergies, since I have more than one. My server can then present this card to the chef, instead of having to regurgitate the list, which could result in the server forgetting to communicate a certain allergy or some other detail getting lost in translation. (You can find chef card templates online that are easy to fill in, print, and cut into individual cards.)
I also emphasize the need for clean utensils to be used when cooking my meal and stress that there can absolutely be no cross-contamination.
4. I read ingredient and food warning labels even when I’ve already read them before.
Ingredients in products do change, and ingredients can be listed differently from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, if you are allergic to peanuts, you should avoid food with lupin listed as an ingredient. If you are allergic to MSG (monosodium glutamate), it’s frequently referred to simply as “glutamate” on ingredient labels.
Warning labels in the same product family can vary too. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Nuggets, for instance, have a “manufactured on the same equipment that processes almonds” warning, whereas the 1.55-oz. Hershey Milk Chocolate Bar does not. The good news here is that just because one version of a product is unsafe doesn’t mean they all are.
5. I remind myself that I could suffer from an allergic reaction on any given day.
No one wants to live in constant fear, but there are some things I know that I just shouldn’t do. For one thing, I can’t let myself believe that just because a certain food is safe at a variety of places that it is universally safe.
For example, I recently had a scare involving tortilla chips. There are plenty of tortilla chips that I can eat safely, but these were cooked in peanut oil, and I had no idea before I ingested about 20 of them. Luckily, I am A-OK and didn’t have to administer the EpiPen (though I did spend a few hours at the hospital), but it was a good reminder to never allow myself to get so hungry that I eat without asking the necessary questions. Sometimes, I want food fast—but fast can often mean mistakes, which I can’t afford with my food allergies.
6. I spend a lot of extra time on food budgeting because “safe” foods are typically the most expensive.
I was diagnosed with the majority of my 20+ food allergies in adulthood. So I have slowly learned through some serious budgeting and scrutinizing of my bank account that a larger portion of my money is now going toward food.
I now have to buy food options with fewer additives (and a shorter ingredient list) given some of my allergies. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for my digestive system, it is for my wallet. I have found that grocers like Whole Foods offer more allergy-friendly brands than the typical grocery store, but these products are generally higher priced for smaller quantities.
To save money, I buy my favorite items in bulk and constantly check for sales. I also visit the websites for my favorite products to sign up for their email list to get coupons. It pays to do your research before you shop.
7. I am constantly hunting for creative recipes to get out of a meal-planning rut.
It is extremely easy to keep eating the same meals over and over again when you have food allergies, so I spend a lot of time attempting to get creative in the kitchen. Some of my top resources for new recipes are the Food Network, Allergic Living magazine, and Simply Ming, which is the website of chef and television host Ming Tsai. I am constantly scouring those sites and videos, looking for recipes that I can adapt to my needs. It’s not the quickest task, but it’s well worth it when you’re taking a bite of some tasty new dish.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) also offers helpful cooking and baking tips on its site that have helped me understand how to substitute certain ingredients in recipes for some of my allergens when I need to.
Kendra Chanae Chapman is an entertainment professional and the blogger behind the food allergy blog Nope, Can’t Eat That Either, which focuses on life as a 20-something African American with food allergies. Chapman has a BFA from the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University.