The information I'm about to share is not to scare anyone away from dining out, but I think it points to the awareness we need to have at all times. It's not only about what food is offered at a restaurant or establishment and not only how the food is prepared. You've also got to ask yourself--WHO is handling the food.
Here's what my husband and I observed at a bagel shop on Sunday morning. (This was without the kiddos; they were with their aunt.)
While in downtown Chicago at a national bagel chain, my husband noticed a shop employee taking a jar of peanut butter out of her bag and preparing an elaborate peanut butter-centric meal involving all manners of fruits, breads and PB. LOTS of PB--she brought her own jar, for goodness sakes! This was being eaten in the customer area (so if anyone hasn't bought into the idea of putting down a "place mat" on the table when you dine out with your allergic child please reconsider--you never know who was eating what before you sat down.)
The actions of this restaurant employee raised all sorts of red flags to me because what happened after the employee had eaten her meal? Was she going to carefully wash off every trace of peanut butter before serving customers? Did she know she was potentially setting up a scenario for cross-contact that could adversely affect consumers? So far, Massachusetts is the only state requiring food allergy education for restaurant workers. Obviously, this education is needed everywhere--not just one state.
The other thing this incident points to is that while a restaurant or fast food joint may not have peanut butter on the menu, who knows what is going on behind the scenes? Even if you haven't seen one too many episodes of "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares" like I have, this is something to think about. It just proves that you want to stick to the cleanest, most professional, most hygienic places you can. That's not bad advice for anyone dining out but for food-allergic people it's a must.
The bagel shop we were eating at does offer PB as a topping for the bagels, and some of the bagels occasionally have nuts on them. I would probably not take my daughter there since I categorize a bagel shop as a small bakery and therefore, off limits.
But it sure got me thinking about the places we go and who is making the food. I always ask myself a few questions before dining out:
- First and foremost, does the place serve peanut butter food items? If so, do they prepare them in a confined area? Are the staff aware of the cross-contact dangers? Ask. Their answers will tell you a lot about whether or not you want to eat there. Pot Belly Sandwich Works does a good job of segregating peanut butter from the other ingredients but still, human error is always a factor.
- Who is working there? Is it staffed by young college students who may or may not be strict professionals about food service? Are they eating on the job?
- Have you done your homework about a place or are you just stopping in? If possible, stick to places where you know the menu and the general approach to food service. If this is not possible, don't settle if you think the place doesn't "get" food allergies. Better safe than sorry. And luckily, many places do get it now. Still, staying vigilant is always best.
I'm sure this bagel shop worker was a nice person who just wanted a quick snack on her break, but when she opened that jar of peanut butter she opened a can of worms. I'm going to shoot an e-mail to the manager of the store to let him or her know what I observed. And I definitely won't be taking my daughter to there.