Navigating the Increase in Kids’ Food Allergies: Tips for Foodservice Providers

By Kelly Kirkendoll

The number of kids with food allergies in the U.S. is on the rise. At the same time, most fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home. Accommodating young customers with food allergies is a growing challenge – and responsibility - for those in the foodservice industry.

The Stats

  • Food allergies now affect 1 in 13 children in the United States (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

  • Each year, allergen-related issues cost businesses $25 million as a result of lawsuits, fines or other consequences (EHA Consulting Group)

  • Beyond allergies, gluten continues to be a growing issue for many, including those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity

  • Between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergy appears to have more than tripled in U.S. children (FARE, Food Allergy Research and Education nonprofit)

  • Fifteen or 20 years ago, 80 percent of kids would outgrow their milk allergy between the ages of three and five. Now, by the teen years, only 60 percent have outgrown it (Bruce Mazer, director of child health research at Montreal Children’s Hospital McGill University Health Centre)

  • Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room (FARE)

  • Caring for children with food allergies costs U.S. families nearly $25 billion annually (FARE)About 1 in 3 children with a food allergy reports being bullied as a result (FARE)

  • · Most fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home (FARE)

Tip 1 - Face the Facts

Whatever the reasons, food allergies are on the rise and if allergic or severely allergic young diners aren’t already eating or considering eating in your establishment, they will be soon.

Not only are there safety reasons to accommodate young diners with food allergies, but there are also good business reasons to do so. With one in 13 children (about two in every classroom) suffering a food allergy, families and groups will make their dining, entertainment and vacation choices based on establishments that can safely accommodate these children’s needs. Parents and teens/young adults also make summer camp and college choices based, in part, on the organizations’ dietary accommodations. Additionally, the food allergy community is loyal to foodservice providers that prioritize their children’s safety, and they have a strong, active word-of-mouth influence via websites, private forums, social media channels, online reviews and blogs.

Among food allergy families and advocates for food allergy sufferers, Disney is considered the gold standard for serving kids with food allergies. Most Disney restaurants offer a Disney Allergy Menu, and the first question a Disney staff member asks when they greet guests is whether there are any food allergies at the table. Additionally, EpiPen stations are featured on the Walt Disney World guide maps, with access to both Epipen and EpiPen Jr. auto-injectors. Their efforts have paid off with increasing numbers of happy, loyal families who return regularly for vacations and share their experiences with other families who struggle with their children’s food allergies.

Restaurants such as Red Robin, P.F. Chang’s, Del Posto and Blue Ginger have publicly reported sales increases in the double-digit percentages after implementing food allergy-friendly menus and policies. QSR Magazine reported that when P.F. Chang’s introduced a complete gluten-free menu, sales of gluten-free items jumped 140 percent. According to Living Without Magazine, “92% of food-allergic guests will return frequently to the same eating establishment after a positive eating-out experience.”

Tip 2 - Listen to the Children

Children eat out at restaurants, schools, summer camps, amusement parks, entertainment venues and more. When they’re young, parents can watch, advocate and order for their children to help keep them safe (or make and pack special, safe food). However, as children get older, parents can’t always be there to help ensure their children’s safety.

My son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy at age 7, my daughter has had a milk intolerance since she was born, and I was diagnosed with a milk allergy at age 28. I taught both my children as they grew up to read labels and ask questions at restaurants about ingredients and food preparation. Since age seven, my son has been asking restaurants questions, such as: “Do you fry your foods in peanut oil?”

These are necessary (and often lifesaving) skills for those with food allergies, but it isn’t always easy. It’s hard enough for me, as an adult, to speak up sometimes, knowing I can easily be perceived as the high maintenance diner or house guest. Imagine how hard it can be for children, who may be shy or scared of getting picked on or bullied.

I’ve watched in various situations when my children asked adults questions in stores or restaurants. Sometimes, they were met with respect and smiles. Often, they were dismissed or ignored, and I had to intervene. My louder (probably) and more authoritative voice got the adult’s attention, but with children’s food allergies on the rise, servers and other employees need to be trained to listen for kids asking these kinds of questions or telling them they have a food allergy or intolerance. We can’t always be there as they get older and, for some children, their food allergies are so severe that parents hold their breath every time they walk out the door to any environment where food may be served.

Tip 3 - Invest in Training

Many foodservice providers have come a long way in the past decade to understand and take food allergies seriously, and some states have passed legislation requiring operators to train their employees in this area. I have witnessed a significant shift in my experiences as I travel and eat out. Yet I still encounter servers who don’t know what kind of oil is used to fry their food, top my salad with cheese even after we’ve discussed my dairy allergy and/or don’t know that eggs are not a dairy product. I recently witnessed a staff member at a health-conscious pizza joint use the same gloves to make my pizza (with regular crust) and then the next guest’s gluten-free pizza.

Accommodating allergies can be stressful and complicated, but with education (and then putting that education into practice), foodservice providers can avoid emergency situations and the legal and reputation repercussions that may follow.


Servsafe offers an interactive ServSafe Allergen Training course online, providing information to help employees and managers accommodate guests with food allergies and respond to emergencies. The course is designed to educate all restaurant workers – from the hostess in the front of the house, to the manager and executive chef, to the line cook in the back of the house – about the severity of food allergies and the precautions that must be taken.

Great Kitchens

Beyond Celiac offers GREAT Kitchens and GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps, which are online gluten-free training programs designed to teach foodservice establishments the ins and outs of safe gluten-free food preparation. Each program focuses on ensuring food stays gluten-free from the ingredient sourcing until the plate hits the table.

AllerTrain Program

AllerTrain is a food allergy and gluten-free certificate program presented by MenuTrinfo. It covers essential information about how to safely serve diners with food allergies, intolerances, sensitivities and Celiac disease.

Tip 4 - Mind Your Menus

Whether you add allergy labels to existing menus or create allergen-specific menus, make sure that your labeling is correct. BBQ sauce can have gluten in it, many crackers contain dairy and soy is hidden in numerous sauces and baked goods. Its best to work with an expert and do thorough research to ensure that your allergen-free menus are accurate. Before you add or change a product in your kitchen, thoroughly research its ingredients and modify your menus and training as necessary.

Your menus may be correct, but a lot can happen between the time an order is placed and a plate is delivered to a customer. If you’re going to invest in allergy-friendly meals and menus, it’s important to invest in food allergy training, policies and procedures as well.

Tip 5 – Create a Crisis Plan

Foodservice providers should have an emergency plan that their team is trained and ready for, in case a customer has a serious food allergy reaction. Who will call 911? Who will care for the person having the reaction? EpiPens should be kept on hand, with staff trained to administer them (and staff who knows where they are located). EpiPens come in 2 dosage strengths – one for adults/children 66 pounds and over and an EpiPen Jr. for children 33-66 pounds.

Additionally, a crisis plan should be developed – before a crisis occurs – that includes steps you will take immediately after and in the days that follow an incident, including how to handle communications afterward (with customers, the community, traditional media and social media).

Tip 6 - Plug into Technology

From POS systems to diner apps, there are several technology options that provide benefits to both customers and foodservice providers.

POS Systems

Some restaurant POS systems offer an allergen key that alerts the back of the house of an order’s allergy. Others offer an item detail function, allowing servers to make educated recommendations to a guest. P.F. Chang’s, for example, uses a matrix that can scrub the menu for allergens, so servers can present guests with a menu tailored to their allergies.

Apps for Diners

If you have invested in and are committed to accommodating food allergies, consider creating an account with a food allergy-focused dining app, such as the popular AllergyEats, which provides user ratings for over 850,000 restaurants in the U.S. and offers a partnership program for restaurants. The ratings come from parents of allergic kids who have visited the restaurant. Another app is DineSafe, which showcases in-depth allergy information from restaurants. Individual restaurants can create their own free accounts.

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