Eating at Restaurants While Avoiding Dairy/Soy

Although I’m a huge proponent of eating healthy home cooked food, it is really nice to have options for eating outside the house when I travel, have crazy busy days or just want a night off from cooking.  Somewhere near the beginning of this crazy diet to keep Colin safe, I searched and searched the internet looking for restaurants that offered items that were dairy and soy free.  I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find something.  Chain/fast food restaurants seem to be the most likely to offer allergen menus and ingredient lists, but it is rare to find anything that doesn’t contain soy.  Over time I’ve found a few places I can eat, but before I go over them I need to add a few words of warning.

As I said in my last post, eating out is very risky.  Even with the most detailed ingredient lists and promises from wait staff/kitchen staff, I can never know what is really in my food when I don’t prepare it.  Did it touch something else on the grill that isn’t allergy friendly?  Was there butter reside on the tongs they used to scoop up my steamed plain vegetables?  I’ve ordered things that were supposed to be safe but when I got them they clearly weren’t ok, or I ate them but Colin had a reaction soon after.  Although I eat at restaurants every once in a while, I don’t eat restaurant food if Colin is already not feeling well.  I really feel that a plain salad with just fresh vegetables is the safest thing to order when out, but I hate paying money for something that simple and I have to bring my own dressing anyway.

So these are the restaurants I eat at but here is one more disclaimer:   WARNING:  What is safe for my family where I live may be unsafe for you.  Always double-check the ingredients at your local restaurants since ingredients do vary by location for some restaurants.  And I repeat- eating out is a risk.  You can’t be 100% sure your food is safe unless you’ve made it yourself!

1.   Red Robin Gourmet Burgers –  Red Robin has an amazing document with recommendations for what is safe to order for a variety of food allergies. They’ve recently removed it from their website, but I emailed them and got a copy of their allergen menu, just like the old one online.   I couldn’t figure out how to post it here.  It is a huge pdf, so if you are interested, just shoot them an email:  They now have a gluten-free buns (Udi’s brand) so I can actually have a bun if I want to (it is dairy and soy free). The Udi’s bun is a bit chewy but decent. Before the gluten-free bun, I just ordered a burger with a lettuce bun, which is actually one of the “bun” options on their menu.  When I order my food I talk with my waiter/waitress about my food allergies and nicely mention that I’m aware they can make their food without the Red Robin seasoning on it. (The seasoning contains hyrdrolyzed soy protein so it has to go.)  Then I order a Keep-It-Simple Burger with No Red Robin Seasoning and fruit for my side.   Sometimes I order the fries with no Red Robin seasoning but the allergy document does say that the fries are cooked in a fryer with other things so there could be cross contamination concerns.  Colin hasn’t seemed to have issues after I’ve eaten them, so we take that risk once in a while if he is doing well otherwise.

2.  Panera –  Finding safe items at Panera takes a bit of work but they list every ingredient in each of their foods, which wins big points with me since we have to avoid oats and other things.  They have a nutritional calculator here.  To see what is in a food, you must choose items to “add to meal.”   You can then click on the word “ingredients” to see everything that is in the food.  They do include a note about possible allergens in a food but they don’t count soybean oil as a soy allergen, so you must read through the list anyway to check for soybean oil. They do count soy lecithin as an allergen and will have a note for that.  There are quite a few dairy and soy free breads:  Country loaf, Country Miche, Sourdough Loaf, Sourdough Roll, Tomato Basil XL Loaf, French Baguette, French Miche, Three Seed Demi, Sesame Semolina and Stone-Milled Rye.   I order turkey sandwiches when I eat at Panera, making sure they use one of these breads and NO Mayonnaise.  The Turkey-Bacon-Avocado sandwich with no mayo is great. I tried it during an avocado trial.  The moisture in the avocado makes up for the lack of mayonnaise.

3.  Pei Wei – Pei Wei is the fast food version of PF Chang’s China Bistro.  They have a great document here providing nutritional and allergen information.  The only item I can order there is the Sweet and Sour – Stock Velveted with Chicken or Shrimp.  Stock Velveted means the meat is cooked in vegetable stock instead of battered and fried.  The dish is delicious and lower in fat since it isn’t fried.

4.  Buffalo Wild Wings –  I wasn’t sure whether or not to include this one since it isn’t as clear-cut as others.  My decision to eat here was based on getting all the information I could and taking a risk.  Buffalo Wild Wings has an allergen list for their foods here.  They do note what products have dairy or soy, but the very bottom of the document states that they don’t count soybean oil that is in their dressings, sauces and products as an allergen.  This made me a bit unsure about finding a truly safe entrée so I did a bit more digging around for information. Their sauce ingredient list is here and I was able to see what sauces/seasonings were safe.   Also, the fry oil ingredients were listed in the main allergen list and I was able to see it is soy/dairy free.  I ordered the boneless chicken wings in sweet bbq sauce and fries.  We don’t eat here very often (not really a healthy meal) but I think its safe since Colin hasn’t had any reactions.

5.  Five Guys Burgers and Fries –  I really love the burgers at Five Guys and I love that I can get as many toppings as I want for no extra charge.  The burger buns aren’t allergy friendly (egg, milk, soy, gluten) but the meat and veggie toppings are ok.  Even the grilled mushrooms and onions, in all their greasy glory, are cooked in burger grease, not butter or soy oil.   This was the restaurant I mentioned in my last post that we found between Orlando and Tampa that was such a nice surprise.   If I am planning to eat at Five Guys I bring a pita pocket from home and stick the burger and toppings inside.  If I don’t have any pitas, I order the burger with lots of toppings, throw away the bun and eat it all with a fork off the foil wrapper.  A deconstructed burger salad I guess you could call it.  Here is the only nutritional info I could find.  EDIT:  They now have a bun free option which is the burger, toppings and lettuce in a foil box served with a fork.

6.  (Au Bon Pain) –  I  was recently in the Orlando airport where they had one of these restaurants.  In their “To-Go” section I bought fruit, a Naked Juice and hard-boiled eggs.  It was much better than the stale bagel I had planned to eat.  Since we don’t actually have one of these where I live, I haven’t done a lot of research, but when I took a quick glance at their nutritional info online here I was impressed.  They have icons for the allergens present in each item which makes it easy to scan items quickly.  I didn’t see any safe bread, so sandwiches are out, but I did see some soups, apple cinnamon oatmeal, hummus and cucumber, a side salad with raspberry vinaigrette and several things on the hot/cold bar.


Traveling with Food Allergies

Traveling when you or someone in your family has food allergies can be quite challenging.  I’m no expert but while it is fresh in my mind, I wanted to write about the things that helped me and my little guy to eat away from home safely and happily.

Planning – I can’t stress this one enough.  “Winging it” does not work when you need to know there will be safe food available for you to eat.   Have a plan and backup ideas so you can enjoy your vacation and not worry about food.

  1. Meal Plan – For both our week-long trips, one by car and one by plane, I planned out EVERY meal I would eat from the minute I left my house until I got back.  I sat down and wrote it out on paper and kept the paper to refer to it during the week.  This may have been overkill since we were lucky to find some unexpected safe foods, but it saved us lots of stress when it came to mealtime/shopping.  I planned meals with few ingredients and also ingredients I was most likely to find or could bring with me. I also had a few backup ideas so I was ready if something wasn’t working out.   Making the list ahead of time helped me know exactly which groceries I would need once I made it to my destination.  Planning big meals gave me lots of leftovers to eat over several days.   I highly recommend making some type of list.  At minimum it will help alleviate some anxiety about what you’ll eat while you are away.  I’ll include my vacation meal list a little farther down in this blog entry.
  2. Bringing Safe Food- For both of my trips I brought as much safe food as I could. I brought foods that I could make into other safe foods easily, like tortillas that could become breakfast burritos and also wraps for lunch. Bringing a jar of safe mayonnaise gave me the options of making chicken, tuna or egg salads and potato salad. Dry Penzeys salad dressing mixes and taco seasoning were easy to pack and gave me dinner options. I packed foods like safe bagels, dry fruit and pretzels which got me through the parts of the trip (plane rides, long car trips) when I didn’t have access to a lot of safe food.
  3. Know your grocery options – I researched grocery stores in the area looking for all-purpose grocery stores and specialty markets like Whole Foods.  Although I had an idea of what I could find at Whole Foods since I shop at one now, the local store was totally unknown.  Having the name of the all-purpose store helped me with specific product searches (see #4).
  4. Product Locators – I went online to the homepages of safe products I can eat and used the product locator  to see if they were available at my destination.  It was helpful in a few cases but it didn’t end up being as reliable as I would have liked.  For example, I brought mayonnaise in my suitcase since Hellman’s website said it wasn’t sold nearby, but I actually found it in the store.  Next time I will just call the grocery store and ask if they carry certain items.
  5. Researching Restaurants…..this is a tricky one. I’m going to write about eating at restaurants in more detail soon but eating out is a risk.  When you aren’t making the food, you can’t know everything that your food might come into contact with.  If you are willing or able to take that risk, get on the phone with several places on your trip and near your destination. Look at menus and talk with managers or kitchen staff (ask for them specifically).   See if they offer fresh fruit, steamed vegetables with no butter, salads (I often bring my own dressing).  Ask if they use soybean oil at all in the kitchen/fryers.  If they do, be wary.  Ask them if they have a dairy free meal suggestion.  Then ask what you should tell the wait staff and how you should order the food.  This still doesn’t mean you will get safe food on your plate.  In my research I did get lucky and found a chain restaurant in Florida that I eat at when I’m at home which was great.  It gave me a meal out that I knew was safe to eat. However, I also thought I did a thorough job researching a restaurant/meal for my last night on vacation but Colin seemed to have a big reaction a day or so later.  Was it the food?  Well, it wouldn’t be the first time we thought I was eating something safe and got burned.  If eating out means a lot, do your homework but for me,  it was just easier to eat my own food before/after going to the restaurant with my family.
  6. Baby Food- Colin has only a few safe foods he can eat and we stick to the same brands every time I buy it. I didn’t want to try a new brand while on the trip.  I wrapped up jars, placed them in ziploc bags and put them in my checked luggage.  I also brought some in my carry-on.  The TSA rules state that baby food is exempt from the 3-1-1 liquids rule, but you can only bring an amount that is reasonable for the length of your itinerary.  How a TSA agent knows what is a reasonable amount for my child considering possible long flight delays in an airport that doesn’t sell baby food is beyond me.  (Will stop here before I get stuck on my soapbox)  Just make sure to tell the security personnel you have baby food coming through.  Since my jars were sealed they said it was all good and no big deal.
  7. No food trials, no new foods – To make life easier for everyone, Colin and I only ate foods that we’d had before.  I didn’t want vacation in a strange city to be the time to discover he has some terrible reaction to something.   I must note that Colin decided on his own to try something new: sand.  After I stopped freaking out/cleaning Colin’s mouth, a veteran mom warned me it would cause some diarrhea in a day or so and she was right.  Good to know when you are an obsessive diaper checker like I am.
  8. Something Special –  It can be hard for me at times to watch my family members indulge in all the special foods on vacation- the local specialties, the ice cream shop at the end of the night, the trip to the confectionary etc.  It is my vacation and I want to splurge too.  On both of my trips this summer I found it really comforting to have something special I could eat. For our driving trip I made a batch of Stir and Drop Sugar Cookies.   For Florida I had hoped to find a safe angel food cake mix but struck out.  I was lucky to find a box of meringues in the bakery that were safe. Stacy’s Cinnamon Sugar Pita chips are also nice little indulgence.  On both trips having to dine on a very limited selection of safe food for a week meant the menu got a little monotonous as the days went by so I was happy to have a little something sweet to look forward to each night.

The meal plan – I’ve combined my meal ideas from both of my vacations (So no, I didn’t eat all this in one week) These are meals that are easy to make with fewest ingredients to buy and make a lot so I could eat leftovers.

  • Breakfast:  Cream of Wheat with sugar, toast with jelly (from Whole Foods bread I bought and had sliced), bagels (I brought) with jelly, eggs, breakfast burritos, fruit, “french toast” *
  • Lunch plan – Sandwiches/Wraps with Boars Head brand lunchmeat, Chicken/Egg/Tuna salads, salad with dressings, fruit
  • Dinner plans – Tacos or taco casserole, spaghetti with meat sauce, salad, hamburgers (in a pita), grilled chicken breast, potato salad
  • Appetizers/Snacks- Tostito Scoops chips and salsa, pretzels, Stacy’s Pita chips, Fritos, dry fruit,

*For my french toast I crack an egg on a plate, add a tablespoon or two of real maple syrup and, if I am at home, grate a little nutmeg on the top.  I soak a slice of safe bread in the egg/syrup mixture, coating both sides and cook it in a non stick skillet that I have wiped down with a little oil.  On vacation I usually have olive oil for salads and for just wiping the pan, you can’t tell it was olive oil that was used.  As long as you don’t overcook it, you can serve it to the dairy eating crowd and they probably won’t know the difference!

Ok- I’m going to stop here as my brain is turning to mush.  I promise to write more about restaurants soon.  If anyone else out there has travel tips- please share!

Vacation and First Steps

We are back from our second and final vacation this year.  We took a week-long trip to Madeira Beach, Florida with my in-laws and some friends.  Both Hannah and Colin were angels during the plane rides and they had a wonderful time at the beach. They couldn’t get enough of the sand, bobbing in the ocean and splashing in the pool.  They played all day and were completely tuckered out each night.  We mostly hung out at the beach but we took a quick trip to Clearwater so we could take Hannah to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  Hannah was so excited to meet “Winter”- the dolphin featured in the movie Dolphin Tale.  It was so great to see the joy on her face as she took it all in.  She’s pretty obsessed now and wants to play “Rescue Winter” all day long.

Colin delighted us by doing lots of new things like clapping to “Patty Cake,” putting his arms up when you say “Soooo Big,” getting a second tooth and taking his first official steps in the airport. One busy little guy for sure! He had been taking a step or two walking between my husband and I, but in the airport he was just standing by himself and decided to try to walk on his own.  I’m sure he’ll be running around by his birthday, just like his big sister.

We had a wonderful trip for sure, but we are glad to be back.  My husband and I were both tuckered out at the end of each day, especially since we had to watch Colin like a hawk (even more so than usual).  On the beach he loved the sand but also liked trying to eat it. We put him in a blowup pool on the beach but discovered he could quickly crawl out of it.  It was also hard to have an almost-walker, get-into-everything baby in a non-babyproofed condo with all tile floors and glass tabletops.  I did a bit of redecorating but someone still had to be standing behind him at all times.  I had rented a Jumperoo for the week, which did help, but since Colin wanted to be mobile, his patience in it was short.  I think if he had been two months younger or a bit older it would have been easier.  We would do it again if given the chance, but that level of vigilance is sure tiring.

I’m also glad to be back to my own kitchen where I can cook and eat a variety of safe foods.  I was really really nervous to take this trip to Florida and to eat away from home. I was really scared there would be days I was starving or miserable.  I can only eat so much fresh fruit and plain vegetables before it gets depressing.  On our last trip, to the Wisconsin Dells, I packed the car full of meals and foods I could eat.  To go to Florida I had to pare it down to the bare essentials that could go in a suitcase. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to buy a whole kitchen full of ingredients to have to throw most of them away 6 days later.  However, everything worked out great.  I did a lot of planning, found a Whole Foods in Tampa and I never starved.  I even tried eating out (which I will blog more about later).   Eating the same couple of safe foods did get a bit tedious by the end of the week but overall it went way better than I expected.

I’ve talked to other families that have food allergies/issues and heard many of them echo my fears about traveling.  So my next couple of posts I will post some more information on my meal planning, restaurants, and trying to eat out away from home safely while avoiding at least dairy and soy.