What Exclusion Looks Like: Modern Day Struggles Of a Food Allergy Parent

I wanted to publish a “Guide to Madison-Area Kid AND Allergy-Friendly Restaurants.” Here’s what I wrote instead.

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The image above is just one example of how individuals impacted by food allergies find themselves sans compass. I see the names of the different flavors, but how do I know which ones include the allergens my son needs to avoid?

The last time I tried treating my food-allergic son to a scoop of gelato, the manager who I asked which flavors didn’t have peanuts, told us in a manner described as nothing less than abrasive, that we should assume that “every single flavor has cross-contamination with peanut.”

Now, I certainly understand, and fully appreciate someone who is trying to be overly cautious when it comes to food allergies, but I also could have gone without the blatant cross-contamination warning because to be honest, it ended up being a total buzzkill to what was supposed to be a fun moment for my son and I.

I know my son, and I am familiar with the severity of his allergies enough to know when we can still have things that otherwise forewarn of cross-contamination. In our case, we need to avoid peanuts that are listed as an intentional ingredient. And here I go explaining myself all over again, when really, I shouldn’t have to!

What would have been ideal is if we didn’t even have to bother the manager about which flavors contained said allergens. It’s not like the ingredients are changing from one day to the next, what would be so hard about just listing which of the top nine allergens are contained in each flavor? They don’t even need to write the word “wheat” they could just use a cute little wheat symbol, or milk, or peanuts, you get the idea. This way, guests can quickly and  easily identify which items to avoid, or in the case of a restaurant menu, potentially alter.

Imagine how much time-savings it would mean for a paid employee or manager (especially amid a nation-wide staffing shortage), by not having to personally answer questions that can be answered with something as simple as a symbol. And of course, a warning about the potential for cross-contamination can easily be addressed with a sign at the bottom of the menu or case so that individuals impacted by a severe food allergy will be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not “all those cross-contaminated flavors with peanut” are worth the risk or not.

Dining Out With Food Allergies

If you’re a food allergy parent, you know the struggle. Our dining-out experience consists of interviewing the server, manager or owner and then fact-checking it all until we feel like we have enough assurance that we can make our order with confidence. And let’s face it, by then the appeal of eating out has left us exhausted and bitter about how ridiculous the whole ordeal is.

Fortunately, there are a few restaurants out there who are starting to get it (woohoo!!) and are making an effort to tailor to “people like us.”

Guide to Madison-Area Kid AND Allergy-Friendly Restaurants

Allergy-Friendly (adj.): A food establishment where guests impacted by any one of the top 9 allergens can quickly and easily identify which allergens are contained in the locale’s menu items, with little, to no further probing among restaurant staff required.

Kid-Friendly (adj.): This is a place where families with small children can comfortably dine while still being themselves. If someone yells out “I gotta pee, Mom!”, it won’t be the end of the world.

  1. bartaco: Located in Hilldale Mall, in Madison, bartaco is a fun place to eat with kids thanks to the ample people-watching, and their big garage-door windows which are opened during the warmer months, in addition to their outdoor patio. bartaco is one of the first restaurants I’ve seen to employ contactless ordering (because, COVID), which provides the added bonus for individuals with dietary restrictions: Being able to directly inform the kitchen of which specific allergens they need to avoid.
  2. Short Stack Eatery: Located on the 300 block of State St. downtown, 3 blocks off the Capitol Square.* They offer breakfast all day, that’s right 7am – 10pm, Thursday thru Sunday. Their Vegan Hack Menu is inclusive of anyone on a plant-based diet, and their allergen menu provides immediate ingredient transparency for menu items containing any of the top 9 allergens. Park at the State Street Capitol Garage on Carroll St. (only a few blocks away) or, the Overture Center Garage on Mifflin Street. There is street parking on both Henry St. and Johnson St. (the intersection where they’re located), but make sure to double check the signage because the enforcement is strict and does ticket/tow.

Fellow Food Allergy Parents, I need your help– any other restaurants we can add to make this “Guide” a reality, once and for all?

Katie, aka. "Felix and Gabe's Mom," was born and raised in the small town of Milton, Wis. She graduated from UW-Milwaukee, although spent most of her semesters studying and working abroad. Katie is a sucker for a good novel, freshly squeezed orange juice, and any chance she gets to have an uninterrupted, adult conversation.

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