Allergies, Sensitivities, and Preferences: The Challenge of Dietary Restrictions

When I have a guest over for a meal, I always try to ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions or preferences. Oftentimes, they say that they don't. When they do admit to a restriction, they usually apologize for being difficult.

It is far from difficult, though... and the apology is unnecessary. For me, it makes cooking more interesting. Yes, trying to come up with, say, a vegetarian, gluten-free meal that doesn't include any alliums can be challenging. There are two ways to meet a challenge, though: you can shy away from it in fear, or you can embrace it. I can't say that I always do the latter, but when it comes to the kitchen I have a pretty good track record.

On occasion, I hear chefs complain about people who make special requests. The assumption is that the chef is the expert. While I am not going to doubt the general expertise of most chefs, there is a difference between general expertise and an application of that expertise in an individual case. In short, I think that individuals should be assumed to be the best judge of what they will enjoy eating.

Let's consider some examples:

  1. Albus goes into a steakhouse. It wasn't his choice of a restaurant, but he is there with a group of friends. The menu clearly states that they cook all their steaks to medium-rare. Albus was once a vegetarian and still gets nauseous when his meat is even vaguely pink. He likes well-done steak, but nothing else on the menu looks appetizing. Should he ask for his steak well-done?
  2. Bartholomew doesn't have any food allergies, but he is sensitive to garlic, onions, chives, and other alliums. If he eats them in any quantity at all, he will have intestinal issues that are best not described at the dinner table. He's found that if he merely says he can't eat alliums, restaurants rarely take his request to leave them out seriously, and he has suffered as a result. Should he start saying that he's allergic to alliums?
  3. Carmina is a supertaster of sorts. The chemicals that give heat to chilis, black pepper, ginger and their relatives taste incredibly bitter to her. Black pepper and bell peppers are merely unpleasant, but a dish that has jalepeños in it tastes like aspirin. Should she explain this when she goes to restaurants? How?

I can understand how, particularly on a busy night, a chef might get frustrated when faced with having to make nonstandard meals. I don't really understand why a chef would get frustrated with their customers for ordering things the wrong way. To me, that smacks of hubris. For my part, I enjoy cooking with restrictions. It forces me to think outside of my comfort zone and get creative.


A. If he's nice to the waiter he should be able to get them to throw the steak on for extra time. I'm sure there are places that won't cook steaks to a desired doneness when asked, but I've never been to one. Restaurants have the right to refuse service but I think the social contract does require a certain willingness to accommodate special requests.

B. Sounds like he's got a food allergy, so I can't imagine saying "I'm allergic to onions" is stretching the truth much.

C. It's a bit more of a stretch to say "I'm allergic" but requesting dishes that don't have bell peppers is totally reasonable. I'm sensitive to some flavors (thankfully not capsicum! :) and certain bitter tastes really overwhelm me, so I don't hesitate to ask. This is more of a problem with things other than food, thankfully. But if I am getting beer I'll want a sample first as certain hops are just overwhelming. Still, on this one saying "I'm allergic" works OK if it's the only way to get a dish sans peppers. It's not quite the truth, but close enough.

If you have substantial food restrictions, it's really stupid on your part to go to a place with a highly fixed menu. You won't have a good experience.

Now, home cooking becomes a different issue because it's a rare home kitchen that can accommodate. To my mind restrictions and preferences are of a different order.

If you've got a restriction, be polite about it and tell the cook in advance, but if you've got a really serious restriction (e.g., severe nut allergy or gluten sensitivity), maybe going to dinner parties at other people's houses is not such a good idea? Just sayin'. Some friends of mine (now moved to Israel) kept kosher. Dinner parties were at their house and generally they did the shopping. Another friend of mine has gluten sensitivity (not really bad, but some). I make sure not to cook a dish that depends on gluten.

Preferences, on the other hand, I'm somewhat less accommodating to, though of course if I know that a guest doesn't like a particular dish (in advance) I won't make it. I really try to be accommodating, but I'm not going to go through culinary contortions to suit someone's desire for something cooked way outside the parameters of everyone else's dish.

Example: Home cooking five steaks, one to rare, one to medium rare, one to medium, one to medium well and one to well is essentially an impossible order to fill, assuming you want everyone to eat at the same time. If you don't care, sure, it's not a problem. If you do, someone has to lose. As people who cook steaks to well are beastly and uncultured, in my kitchen unless they're in a clear majority, they lose. I've managed to get well done done well a few times, but more often than not it means that the medium rare stuff ends up ruined. As medium rare is MY preference.... My mother has been incinerating meat for decades in a desire to have everyone eat at the same time and have some cooked well, which essentially means everything cooked well. Of course, she learned to cook in the '50s and '60s, when you were taught to nuke it from orbit, it's the only way to be sure. She's forgotten much of that but not when it comes to meat.

Stuart Broz's picture

If you have substantial food restrictions, it's really stupid on your part to go to a place with a highly fixed menu. You won't have a good experience.

Actually, in many of these places, calling first can work wonders. Chef's at some of these places will bend over backwards to be accommodating if they have enough time. It gives them a chance to do something different.

Actually, in many of these places, calling first can work wonders. Chef's at some of these places will bend over backwards to be accommodating if they have enough time. It gives them a chance to do something different.

Yeah, that makes sense with my experience as a home cook. If I know in advance that there's an issue, cool, I can accommodate it. If you show up on my doorstep with no notice, don't expect to get a good meal.

If you're going out to eat, know what you can have. Ask about ingredients and explain your needs to your server, but it's absolutely wrong to claim an allergy unless you're actually allergic. It should be reserved for those who could actually be harmed by eating something. Maybe you'll be in the bathroom a little more, but you won't die.

You should be able to expect most good restaurants to accommodate most requests, but if you suspect the restaurant isn't taking your requests seriously, just go to another place (or stay home). If you're leaving the cooking to someone else, you're always taking a chance that they won't realize some part of it & you'll suffer.

It's not "I'm going to go into anaphylactic shock and land in the ER" kind of allergy, but still it seems like a pretty big problem....

On the taste issue I can certainly see the point of keeping things distinct. Still, as long as the restaurant takes "I've got an allergy" seriously, what difference does it make? Or do you think that someone with serious taste issues is going to undermine things? (I'm asking, not asserting.)

Indigestion, intolerance, upset stomach, et al. are not allergic reactions. It's a different mechanism in the body, often mis-diagnosed (or guessed, or artificially imposed) by people. Allergies are real and have serious consequences. People generally aren't allergic to milk/dairy products, but they may have lactose intolerance (also rare). They can consume some lactose, but in larger amounts it may make them uncomfortable. Often these people avoid all dairy, regardless of its lactose content, because they don't understand their condition.

I've read many articles and listened to interviews with chefs of various notoriety and they seem to consistently say that they don't take people claiming allergies as seriously as they should because of people that claim "allergies" when it's just an intolerance or a dislike.

It's a hot issue, and my wife and I are on the lucky side to not have any real issues with food, but we have one daughter who will not eat cooked onions (among other things) and one who seems to be lactose intolerant.

Hmmm, OK, but serious indigestion is no picnic, call it allergy (which you clearly mean of the "anaphylactic shock, hives, etc." sort) so I don't know why a chef wouldn't take that seriously. I mean, one presumes that said chef wants repeat business and doesn't want a customer's memory of the meal involve a ruined evening of stomach cramps and hours on the porcelain throne? So allergy and intolerance seem pretty similar to me in this case, more so than simply an "I don't like it" even if the consequences of allergy are potentially much worse.

They can consume some lactose, but in larger amounts it may make them uncomfortable. Often these people avoid all dairy, regardless of its lactose content, because they don't understand their condition.

Paracelsus' Law: "The dose makes the poison." Allergy shots work by desensitizing with small doses of the allergen. But yes, practically speaking, something like severe peanut or shellfish allergy has a dose that's very, very small compared to what a lactose intolerant person can manage.

I've read many articles and listened to interviews with chefs of various notoriety and they seem to consistently say that they don't take people claiming allergies as seriously as they should because of people that claim "allergies" when it's just an intolerance or a dislike.

Well as far as I'm concerned, these chefs can go $&@! themselves. Anyone who won't at minimum tell me "this dish has onions" when asked nicely does not deserve my custom. It's their right to to tell me "sorry we don't cook it that way" if asked to make an onion-free dish---fine. I mean, someone who wants absolutely no onions is going to have real problems ordering food and can't expect a busy kitchen to make them new soup sans onions. But at least the staff should be able to say, "sorry, this has onions, let me suggest...."

And yes, this means picky eaters (for whatever reason they are picky, be it allergy, intolerance or simply preference) really need to go to places that give predictable choice, so prix fixe or tapas isn't a good option.

WebMD has a good primer on the differences between food allergy & intolerance. People shouldn't have to suffer the effects of either when they dine out, but it takes a lot of effort on the part of diner and restaurant staff. On their face, chefs want to please all their customers, but when they get orders with all sorts of (non-existent) "allergies", it becomes a frustration rather than a welcome challenge. After all, most reported intolerances are not real: "The reported prevalence of food allergy/intolerance (by questionnaires ) were 12% to 19%, whereas the confirmed prevalence varied from 0.8% to 2.4%." (from food intolerance Wikipedia article)

Bottom line: people need to look out for themselves, restaurant staff, from servers to line cooks, need to be knowledgeable, aware, and accommodating of food issues.

Sadly the food allergy and food intolerance lists are highly overlapping. They also overlap with symptoms of food poisoning.


Allergy shots do not work for food allergens. Yet. There is some progress being made on peanut allergy by desensitizing with a titer of the allergen (under the tongue I think) but this is still in the reasearch and trial phase. Most people do not have access to anything that will FIX food allergies.

Stuart Broz's picture

I've read many articles and listened to interviews with chefs of various notoriety and they seem to consistently say that they don't take people claiming allergies as seriously as they should because of people that claim "allergies" when it's just an intolerance or a dislike.

I've read the same. It was one of the inspirations for this post. My question is, "Whose fault is this?"

Here I believe that you are siding with the chefs, saying that it is the patrons' fault for crying wolf.

The other point of view is that it isn't any of the chefs' business whether or not their claimed allergies are actual allergies or not - they are in a service industry and should be accommodating even if there isn't a life on the line.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

Consider: What gives someone with a mild allergy (they might get a couple of hives that will quickly fade) the right to have their request taken more seriously than someone who has a far more serious intolerance?

People need to be realistic about it. It is a service industry, and guests should ALWAYS ask for them to accommodate their requests for any reason. If you have some serious reaction to some ingredient(s), make that clearly known to everyone dealing with your food. If you just don't like it, or it gives you some gas, don't make false claims.

Stuart Broz's picture

My reservation is with one word: "just"

By saying "If you just don't like it, or it gives you some gas" you seem to be implying that these things are less serious than allergies. Oftentimes they are, but sometimes they aren't.

While I have been trying not to come down on either side of the lying about allergies issue, I will say that I think that it isn't your place or my place or the restaurant's place to judge the seriousness of people's dietary restrictions. The moment we begin to do that is the moment we give ourselves the power to ignore them.


Perhaps you should do more reading than typing. MILK is one of the Top 8 allergens. As in, ALLERGY TO the protein in MILK. Hives, projectile vomiting, anaphylaxis. It is THE most common allergy of early childhood. If the chef merely uses the same utensil to saute some veggies in butter, that s/he uses to stir my daughter's food, there will be screaming (pain), a big vomitous mess to clean up, use of an Epi-pen (traumatic; more screaming) and a call for an ambulance. Thus, we bring her a lunchbox everywhere we go.

Lactose intolerance is BY NO MEANS RARE. Its prevalence is affected by genetics and ethnic background. Although statistics you will find on the Internet vary, it affects almost 75% of the African American population, for example.

There also is some thinking relating to lactose intolerance being related to the homogenization of milk...I am SEVERELY lactose intolerant to most milk products (aged cheese goes down ok but not much else!) but if I barter with a farm for RAW MILK, I can drink it all. day. long. right out of the bottle. NO joke. And I have heard the same from lots of others who cannot drink supermarket milk.

So do a little learning before you dismiss something like lactose intolerance as, "rare," or imply that people are imagining their Top 8 allergens.

A good article on how food intolerance/dislike/allergies affect diners and restaurants: Breaking Out in Chives.

His advice: Just be an adult, explain what you want, and his cooks will make adjustments. “Don’t play games. And don’t lie”.

I totally agree with the sentiment of "explain what you want."

I think the problem is one of definition. You've noted that there are issues between food allergy and intolerance, so there is plenty of room for confusion.

The problem as I see it is that all too often cooks won't adjust, or at least that's the perception.

People who don't want onions and go to a restaurant named Vidalia, though, that's just stupid.

Stuart Broz's picture

There is also the issue of dietary restrictions that have a religious basis. Should these be treated any differently?

IMO these are preferences. I will accommodate if given enough notice. But it's your issue to be reasonable and not assume much of outsiders (something I've largely encountered among the believers I know).

To those who don't think intolerances are a serious situation - celiac disease is an intolerance, not an allergy. While celiacs don't typically react in the same way as someone with a food allergy (there is no anaphylactic shock, swelling of tongue and lips, etc), the symptoms sometimes can be as serious - some celiacs end up in the restroom within 15-20 minutes of eating gluten, and spend weeks recovering. Some break out in a rash. I could get more detailed here, but I'd rather not. My argument is that intolerances should be taken seriously, just as allergies are.
And I feel as though restaurants should make efforts to accomodate dietary restrictions within reason. I think one of the best things someone that has restrictions can do is to call ahead and discuss it with the manager. Many chain restaurants have their nutrition information and known allergens online nowadays, but a discussion with the manager and/or chef can work wonders. However, those that have restrictions should be reasonable as well. For instance, I have a gluten intolerance - so I can't exactly go to KFC and request that I have a gluten-free meal. Ain't gonna happen. However, I have no problem calling a nicer restaurant to ask questions about their menu, or asking friends/family about the ingredients used in their dishes to determine whether I can eat it. I think that the person with the restriction has a responsibility to ask questions and be reasonable; at the same time, the restaurants should be accommodating, even if it's just to be up front and informative about what they can and cannot provide.

Alta wrote:

My argument is that intolerances should be taken seriously, just as allergies are.

Indeed, that was my point (lost in the pile of replies I think). There are degrees of various issues. Some allergies have relatively minor consequences, some intolerances quite major consequences, so getting all categorical reasoner about this seems bad. Nonetheless I think your general "be reasonable" is good advice.

It's also why I separate (as much as is possible anyway) preferences from physical issues. The consequences to someone with the former violated are pretty small compared to the latter.

Example: I really hate fishy tasting fish. If I got a meal that had fishy tasting fish, generally the worst consequence I'd suffer is cost of the meal and the need to procure something else later---no major issue in the big scheme of things. That's very different from you, who have gluten intolerance. seems logical that you should be able to have it the way you want it! That said, I do think the patron has some culpability in choosing the appropriate restaurant. As another poster noted, it doesn't make sense for an onion-hater to go to a restaurant called Vidalia. I agree with others who say call first - or at least check out the menu before you go.
I used to have an intolerance to tomatoes - very severe tummy reactions. But I didn't ask restaurants to make me spaghetti bolognese without tomatoes ;-) You just learn to work around things a little bit - or avoid restaurants that aren't accommodating.

Stuart Broz's picture

That makes sense. Of course, sometimes you have limited options. Depending upon social obligations, you can find yourself at restaurants you wouldn't normally choose to go to...

My dad has suffered from Ciliac Disease, the gluten allergy since the late 1970's, and it is much easier now than it was 30 years ago to accommodate the dietary guidelines. And not only a challenge at restaurants, but at the grocery too. Read the labels on many food items and you will be surprised at how much gluten based products are included.

My wife now suffers from diverticulitis and must limit her intake of red meat, nuts, and seeds. Do you know how much she loves a good beef tenderloin filet? She can get buy with smaller portions, but any red meat, nuts or seeds in normal quantity and the condition is aggravated again.

Restaurants that are not willing to accommodate guests with special requests will not stay in business for long. The service and hospitality industry has more competition now to keep current customers and gain new, and those who can please their guests without fail will succeed.

I am not a picky eater but have several allergies, allergies which some falsely regard as intolerances (upset stomach can be part of an allergic reaction, and nausea often follows.) How do I know? I've been tested. I am convinced that I can live and socialize normally and attempt to do so, but it annoys me when people confuse reactions with being picky. That said, if you don't like something, you should always ask for it to be omitted at a restaurant within reason, don't start making your own dish without calling ahead to see if the chef would be willing to do so first.

I have always loved food; eating used to be one of my favorite experiences. I agree that yes you need to do your homework, examine menus, call ahead to restaurants and question waitstaff, but I also mark that chefs, waiters, and everyone who works in a restaurant needs to be better educated about allergies and ingredients. Especially waitstaff who are serving the needs of the customer.

Just this past weekend I went to a very popular steakhouse, having called ahead before I went. When I got there, I asked if their tomato soup had any regular flour in it. The waiter stared at me blankly and when I prompted him he said it might. So I asked him to check, but he didn't want to go ask. This went on for a couple of awkward minutes. I asked him to please go check with the chef or I was going to, but then he let up that "no it does have flour, but its a really small amount of flour." Well I can't have gluten so that small amount of flour would have not only helped destroy what's left of my digestive system, it would have caused me a world of pain. When I asked him why he didn't want to tell me if there was flour in the soup or not he said he thought I was just being picky. Well, that's dangerous. Picky or not picky, if you go to a restaurant that supposedly honors requests and allergic diners, they better honor requests and allergic diners.

I've had to switch waiters before (I hate doing this as I've been there waiting on people) because they wouldn't ask the kitchen to omit certain ingredients or question the chef if they flour their meat before grilling. Not cool. Annoying as it may be for chefs/waiters and all restaurant staff, the food industry is still a service based industry. People are being diagnosed with allergies and dietary restrictions daily, and that number is on the rise. I say get with the times and try to accommodate your customers if you're up for the challenge. You'll be well praised and appreciated for it.

replica cheap watches replica iwc replica watches sold in the usa Old school contemplation befriends " new world " software within this particular gratitude to ale the watchmaking industry faux rolex watches online. Boosted around the tools created by environmental-Hard disk send, Person has come up with quality 8700 , replica bvlgari watches A everlasting diary shock work of art within contrast to a specialized.