Note: this article is written for people who have food allergies. If you’re an Office Manager coordinating meals for your workplace, learn more about navigating food allergies as an office manager here.

We know how hard it can be to eat healthy, eat out, eat cheaply, eat [insert adverb here] when you have a food allergy. Whether you suffer from a severe food allergy like Celiac’s disease, have to watch your intake due to an intolerance like gluten intolerance, or are trying out a new diet like Keto or Paleo, we’re here to help.

To get started, we thought we’d cover the big kahuna: lunchtime. But, before we totally dive in, a disclaimer for those of you who don’t have food allergies:

Respect the allergy, bro

Honestly, it’s that simple. If someone you know isn’t eating something, you should still respect their decision. Who knows. Maybe they’re diabetic, and that diet Coke is keeping them from going too high and having to worry about glucose. Maybe they’re aggressively lactose intolerant, and that almond milk is going to make a difference between a fine afternoon and terrible cramps. Or maybe it’s just a preference, and they prefer the taste of tofurky to regular turkey (hey! We don’t judge. To each their own).

Whatever their reason for avoiding a food or asking for a replacement, just respect it.

And, on that note…

Don’t eat food that’s been set aside for others

Maybe the vegan burger smells so good or you’re really feeling a salad that’s labeled “gluten-free only.” But, unless your office/friend group/family/etc has a policy that says otherwise, you shouldn’t eat this food. These meals have been set aside so that people who do suffer from food allergies have something they can munch on, safely and without worry. Trying this food isn’t just an inconvenience; it can mean that someone goes hungry that day, or has to find food elsewhere. It can be a huge hassle, a major bummer, and just an overall disappointment.

So (and we’re fully aware that we’re just a blog) but, just… don’t.

Feel free to ask them about it! You can even ask for a nibble if you’ve never had tofu before or if the salad dressing looks so good. But please don’t help yourself to food that’s been set aside for others.

Food allergies + lunch catering = totally doable, we promise

Having to navigate food allergies during any meal or snack can be a trial, but in our opinion lunch is the hardest. It’s the middle of the workday, you don’t want to think about what you can and can’t eat, but there you are – staring down the cafeteria like trying to do mental calculations in your head.

While there are many more nuances to lunchtime food allergies than we’ll cover in this blog post (check back for allergy and diet-specific recommendations in later weeks!), we thought we’d get you started with some basics. Some of these are obvious. Others you may have heard before. But we hope this helps you navigate your food allergies moving forward.

ONE – Show me the salad

Salads are great because (1) they’re often build-your-own and (2) even if they aren’t, most salads tend to be gluten and dairy free. With exceptions, salads also usually don’t have a ton of sugars, a ton of carbs, or many nuts. Best of all, when you get a salad, you can see exactly what’s in that pile of greens. Say goodbye, hidden allergies!

On that note, though: watch out for creamy dressings. If a dressing looks creamy, it may have lactose, so try opting for simpler oil-and-vinegar dressings if that’s a concern for you.

Alternatively, depending on the severity of your allergy, check to make sure the salad doesn’t include any ingredients you’re allergic to. Even if your plate doesn’t have any croutons or peanuts, there may be some residue that might affect you. When in doubt, go simple, and keep an eye on the ingredients you can see peeking through those greens.

TWO – You had me at “few ingredients”

If you suffer from several food allergies, or if your food allergy is on the more specific side of things (try being allergic to oats and carrots, for instance), look for foods that don’t have a ton of ingredients. Hidden ingredients or complicated recipes can mean more things that might make you ill. For example, instead of a burger patty (which can have everything from garlic and onions to breadcrumbs to all sorts of spices), opt for a piece of grilled chicken. Instead of a soup (which might have a stock made from virtually anything) opt for some veggies.

Knowing (or even, better seeing) exactly what’s in your food is the best way to make sure there’s nothing in there that might make you unwell.

THREE – Let’s talk about cross-contamination, baby

Depending on the severity of your food allergy, your care might not be enough. If your cafeteria frequently doubles down on utensils, or if some of your coworkers tend to mix and match, there are a few things you can do:

  • Try getting in line first. The best way to be sure your utensils haven’t been cross-contaminated is to beat the crowd. If you can grab food first, you can be sure of exactly where they’ve been, and what ingredients might be on them.
  • Bring your own. If your food allergies aren’t that severe, use your own utensils to avoid cross-contamination. However, you should still make sure the main utensils haven’t been double-dipped. If they have, watch out for trace amounts of your allergens in the food you’re serving yourself.

FOUR – Watch out for the wolf in sheep’s clothing

Did you know soy sauce contains gluten? Or that some hot dogs contain lactose? There are even types of sauces that may contain shellfish.

The point of all this is to say: allergens often come in many forms. Gluten isn’t just in wheat – it’s also in barley or rye. Lactose isn’t just milk – several types of cheeses, butter, and other foods contain lactose as well.

If you do suffer from a severe food allergy, make sure you take some time to cover everything that food might be in. It’s great to avoid the big stuff, but make sure you’re fully covered before lunchtime rolls around.

FIVE – Take a rain check on “guilty pleasure” foods

We all love a good piece of fried chicken or decadent dessert. But fried foods and sweets are some of the biggest sources of hidden allergens. Some friers use peanut oil, while bakers often used a wide mixture of ingredients. If you have a lactose or peanut allergy, these foods are probably best avoided unless you know what’s in them. 

SIX – Don’t bite off more than you can chew

When in doubt: avoid.

If your food allergy is severe, your best bet is to skip any foods you think might have your allergen. You don’t want to risk accidentally ingesting something that might make you sick! That doesn’t mean you can’t always eat that food though! Does your cafeteria serve it often, or is it at a restaurant you frequent well… frequently? Try to contact whoever is in charge of meal planning and get a full list of the ingredients. The food you chose to avoid could contain your allergen (in which case, good thing you avoided it!) but if you get the full ingredient list and it didn’t? Well then, next time you know you can pile it on the plate!

We hope this list has helped give you a sense of how to avoid food allergies and make sure you’re eating food that’s good for you, always. When it comes to lunchtime (and every other meal!) everyone should be able to enjoy their food worry-free.

Bon appetit!