Q: This summer, we’re taking our dream family trip to Europe. We’re so excited, but I’m nervous about not speaking the language — and not being able to read ingredient labels and menus. How can we dine out with a child with a potentially life-threatening (severe) food allergy?
A: If you’re heading to Europe, you’re fortunate that, like in the United States, there is growing awareness of severe food allergies there. (On other continents where food allergies are much less common, it might be harder to get the information you need.) Before you leave for your trip, write down a list of every ingredient your child needs to avoid. Download a translator app or go online and translate each ingredient in the country’s language. Make a few copies and pack them in different bags, such as your carry-on and a checked suitcase.
If you plan to go to restaurants, write or paste this list on a “food allergy business card” to give to food service workers. You can get it professionally created, or just print copies yourself. Including a photograph of your child on the card makes it more personal. Then you can write a simple statement about your child’s allergy, such as “My child is severely allergic to milk,” along with any common foods and sauces that contain his or her allergen, such as creamy or pink sauces, chocolate, yogurt, etc. (Don’t assume people will know which foods contain his allergen.) The card should also include a note about how the restaurant must be careful when preparing food to prevent cross-contact with foods containing his allergen. Many people in Europe speak English, so even having a copy in English would be useful, but you can use an online translator to make the card in the local language of your destination.
At the very least, this will bridge the language gap and start a conversation. If possible, it wouldn’t hurt to ask a local resident who speaks English to help you relay the message to the restaurant staff. And of course, always bring multiple epinephrine auto-injectors — and a language dictionary.
— Brian Schroer, M.D., is a pediatric allergist in the Center for Pediatric Allergy at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital in Ohio.
What Works for Us
“Both my 11-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son have severe nut allergies, so we choose to travel to countries in which nuts are not heavily used in the local cuisine. Once we get to the hotel, we have the concierge write down the allergy information in the local language on the back of a hotel business card. We also have the concierge call restaurants ahead and make sure they can accommodate our allergy — even a four-star restaurant often can’t guarantee there’s no cross-contact, so we always check. After being in restaurants where three different people give us three different answers, I only trust the chef. The chef is the final word; always tell the person helping you that they must ask the chef.”
— Su, Redwood City, Calif., mom of an 11- and 8-year-old