Tag Archives: allergen menu

School Dinners

One of the roles that I’m most proud to have taken on in the past few years is that of Allergy Ambassador for the wonderful restaurant review website, Can I Eat There?, not least because we are a family who enjoys to eat out and embraces the challenge of finding somewhere safe for both M and G. We have to accept that there a some places that we just can’t visit as a family because of their allergies and whilst that causes the occasional moments of heartbreak, we’ve learned to avoid them as best we can. In similar fashion, we have had to adjust our thinking when it comes to the matter of school lunches for both children. G’s food allergies have been a part of our lives for long enough that we’ve always had to make special provision for her lunches at school and, whilst her first school was prepared to buy gluten- and dairy-free alternatives to cook for her on a daily basis, it became increasingly difficult once we made the decision to move away article-1052305-0283dca100000578-744_468x306from the independent sector to a school with external caterers. We did manage for a couple of years once M had started at school by making sure that G and her teachers knew to pick the safe option from the choices given, but once M went MEWS-free in 2011, school dinners became a thing of the past and packed lunches were the way forward.

I was recently talking to a good friend when the subject of school lunches came up in the conversation. If I’m honest, I can’t quite remember what led us to that topic, but I was really interested to hear about the steps her daughter’s school was taking to make more than adequate provision for those with dietary needs. The school in question, Ashcombe Primary in Weston-Super-Mare, runs their own kitchen and work hard not just to maintain their healthy school status, but also to use local produce and to minimise waste. They are also keen to be inclusive in their approach to cooked school lunches and ask parents to talk to their kitchen manager if there are specific dietary requirements or allergies, menuso that they can work together to provide a healthy and nutritious alternative menu customised for that child. I’m sure that they cannot be the only school to make such efforts, but they are certainly the first I’ve heard about from someone in the know and I was impressed by what she told me they offer.

However, when I saw this sample menu that she e-mailed across to me, I was even more impressed. This school kitchen has really taken on board the requirements of the 2014 changes to EU legislation concerning allergens and their monthly written menu reflects them. Every single item on the menu indicates which of the top 14 allergens are included in the dishes and as each day offers 4 alternatives, that is no mean feat and shows a level of dedication to getting this right that is admirable. The steps this school has already taken in making this effort would reassure me, as an allergy Mum, that the kitchen manager knows her stuff when it comes to catering for children with allergies and that is something that is, without a doubt, absolutely priceless. Of course, I don’t know how successful they are in preparing freefrom alternatives when needed and would be fascinated to discover if their encouraging start actually delivers in reality.

Do you know of a school that offers a similar service or have firsthand experience of one? I’d love to hear from you and be able to share and celebrate these individuals who are working hard to be inclusive and not exclusive when it comes to lunch-times at school.

A Tale of Two Restaurants

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…we had everything before us…”

    – Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities”

Recently we spent a busy weekend in the town of Portishead, just outside of Bristol and naturally found ourselves needing to eat out in a couple of the restaurants dotted around the Marina there. The two restaurants we chose were a stone’s throw away from each other and yet our experiences of their allergy-friendly services were worlds apart.

The first was Bottelinos, an independent small Italian chain in the South West, who were confident that they could cater for M’s food needs and had gluten-free options clearly marked on their menus. The first hiccup came when G asked for the “Pasta Maximus”, a bolognese sauce with a meatball, and was disappointed to be told that she couldn’t have it as the sauce wasn’t gluten-free. LOGOWe had already had to discount a large proportion of the other pasta dishes because they weren’t dairy-free, so my disgruntled girl moodily requested steak and chips instead – and that’s when the fun and games really began.

Our waitress nipped back to the serving counter and spoke to the chef, before coming back to tell us that the chips weren’t gluten-free either and G’s choices were rapidly disappearing. Feeling somewhat concerned about what we could order for our increasingly hungry pair, I asked for the allergens listing so that I could see exactly what was on offer for G and started flicking through the pages with my fingers tightly crossed that I would find something she would enjoy. The first problem quickly became evident when every pasta dish on the menu was marked as containing gluten, which I assumed was because of the pasta itself rather than the base ingredients in the sauces and there was no easy way to distinguish which sauces actually contained gluten and which were really gluten-free. This type of wholescale approach to allergens may seem sensible, but makes it extremely difficult for an allergy-sufferer to work out what they can or can’t choose without extensive help and detailed knowledge from waiting, kitchen and managerial staff.

Then came the next whammy. As I ran my experienced eye over the rest of the allergen menu, I spotted that the chips were marked as being gluten-free, despite the advice we’d already been given to the contrary. It was far too late for us to up-sticks and search out somewhere else to eat dinner, so I asked to speak to the manager, a request that was met without delay. My first question was about the Maximus sauce, the only one that G was prepared to even consider for her supper, and we were told that whilst the bolognese sauce was gluten-free, the meatball wasn’t and so, having dismissed pasta as an option, we quickly moved on to the matter of the chips. The explanation given here left me stunned and unlikely to rush back for another meal with the children in tow. The manager explained that they had a dedicated gluten-free fryer, so the chips usually would be safe; however (and this is the important bit), on a Friday night they use that fryer to cook everything because of how busy they get and the need to keep up with orders. IMG_0605[1]Not only was I extremely disappointed that they didn’t consider being able to cook gluten-free foods a priority on a busy evening, but I have serious concerns as to whether they are really able to thoroughly clean the fryer and change the oil before Saturday’s service begins; or indeed if they even do.

Eventually we were able to compromise with the manager and the chef cooked G’s chips in a separate pan to ensure the cross-contamination risk was reduced, something we were able to watch from our table. M was given a plate of grilled chicken and sliced cucumber, though he did find a small piece of lettuce when he was half-way through, which again suggested that their approach IMG_0604[1]to allergy-friendly catering wasn’t good enough. In fact, both children did suffer some delayed symptoms in the 24 hours following our meal, which supported our concerns that the cross-contamination risks hadn’t been as well-managed as we’ve experienced elsewhere.

 

In stark contrast, the second restaurant and our location for Sunday lunch with old friends, impressed us from the very start. Mike had popped in to Aqua beforehand to ensure that a repeat of Friday’s disaster was avoided and their response couldn’t have been more different. Not only was he given a copy of their allergy menu to show G, but both the chef and the manager came to talk to him about everything we needed.thumb.php The chef painstakingly went through every item on the menu, explaining which could be made both gluten- and dairy-free for G and made some suggestions of other tweaks that could be made to suit her tastes. As for M, the only cucumber to be found in the restaurant is behind the bar, so the chef made a note to ensure that one would be available for M’s Sunday lunch and again reassured Mike that they could make a tasty dish to meet his complex diet. It was already sounding like a much more promising meal and we couldn’t wait to actually try it out on the day itself.

When we arrived on the Sunday, our booking had been well-annotated to indicate M’s dietary needs and the waitress was aware of what he could eat and how the food was going to be prepared. G chose steak and chips again with the added extra of some goats cheese to replace their standard sauces and M was served a beautifully presented dish of grilled chicken on an apple, pear and cucumber salad. IMG_0610[1]What made the meal even better for M was the lemon sorbet he was able to enjoy for pudding. I had seen it on the dessert menu and asked the waitress if I could see the tub itself to check the list of ingredients. She brought the container to the table and we were thrilled to see that it was indeed safe. The options for G were not so good given she doesn’t like sorbet, but she was able to enjoy a plate of apple, walnuts and sheep’s cheese, which kept her, and me, happy.

IMG_0609[1]Our Sunday lunch was a truly fantastic affair and so different to the problematic experience we endured on the Friday night. It shows what turns a good restaurant into a great restaurant and somewhere that people will visit time and time again. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Aqua to anyone looking for allergy-friendly restaurants and have passed their details on to the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards as somewhere worth knowing about and deserving of recognition. Bottelinos, it would appear, could learn a lot from their nearest neighbour in Portishead and the weekend really was a tale of two restaurants.

The Tremendous Trewithen Restaurant, Lostwithiel

We knew this year would be a very different holiday to our last one in Florida or our more regular stints in Portugal, but Mike and I were looking forward to a week off work and hopefully grabbing some last moments of sun before September arrived. As it turned out, we had far more sun than we had originally expected, or as the forecast had suggested and even managed to visit some of the beautiful Cornish beaches as well as our other planned days out. Aside from the weather and the inevitable question of whether we’d get everything in the car (we did – just), my biggest concern was whether we’d be able to enjoy some family meals out during our week away, an integral part of any of our holidays and not least because I was desperate to have some time off from the kitchen and the need to constantly find new ways to tantalise M’s temperamental taste-buds. The time taken beforehand to search out possible restaurants that would be able to cook for M and G proved to be time well-spent and we found some amazing options that we would happily recommend to anyone, food-allergies or not.

Our all-time favourite restaurant and the one we would visit again at the drop of the proverbial hat, was the truly amazing Trewithen restaurant based in Lostwithiel, the ancient capital of Cornwall. I had discovered this restaurant during one of my many sessions on Google (don’t ask me how as I’ve struggled to find that original review again!) and had started the ball rolling by sending an email enquiry to find out if they could cater for M or not.email

This was the fantastic and prompt response I received from Paul, owner and chef, and immediately prompted Mike to ring and make a reservation for our first night there.

Excited by the prospect of a meal that we were confident would be prepared with M in mind, we arrived ahead of schedule (practically unheard of in the 7Y2D household) and were seated in their charming back dining area. The restaurant is set over the 2 floors of a 17th century townhouse, which gives it a cosy atmosphere and you feel like you’re eating amongst friends. The menus arrived at our table and here was the first big tick of our evening. 20150822_190031G was presented with their Junior menu, which had been carefully annotated just for her to show which options could be made both GF and DF as she needed. As she spent time perusing the dishes, M was informed that the chef was busy preparing his dinner – a small touch, but such a thoughtful one as it helped him to feel as much a part of the dining experience as the rest of us. We were given baskets of delicious bread with a variety of butters, oil and vinegar to enjoy whilst we chose our meals and G was thrilled to receive her very own serving of GF bread and DF butter. We had taken some rice crackers for M to nibble on as we enjoyed our starters and, having been informed that they cooked with local rapeseed oil, we asked if he could have his own mini dish of rapeseed oil to dip his rice crackers into – a request that was instantly met and received his great approval.

20150822_194030To our delight, so tempted was G by the menu in front of her, she decided to try something new and picked their Tomato and Basil soup to start, followed by the GF penne pasta with a tomato sauce and goats cheese; and I don’t think I have ever seen her plate empty quite so quickly when out for dinner. M’s meal was equally successful and he enjoyed a “mountain” of rice, strips of cucumber and a beautifully marinated and succulent chicken breast. The waiting staff were knowledgable, polite and helpful throughout our meal and at no point did we feel that our requests were too much trouble for them to handle. The meal was such a success that when asked if we should come back again later in the week, M’s response was an immediate “..of course!..” Even better, we heard what has to be one of the quotes of the week from M that night in response to Mike’s question of whether he wanted to come back because it was “posh”.

Well yes Daddy, of course. Who doesn’t like posh restaurants?

20150826_192901Our return visit couldn’t come quick enough for our impatient duo, who asked almost every day whether tonight was “the night” for going back there and that evening didn’t disappoint either. We persuaded G to try something different and she picked GF, DF fish, chips and peas, which were declared the “most delicious ever” and was able to have dessert of DF vanilla ice-cream. For those of you battling with the need to eat dairy-free, you will understand just how excited I was to see this on their menu as we generally find the puddings are either GF or DF, rarely both and usually not something our little Miss Picky will eat. As for M, well that night he ate like a king and I still have absolutely no idea where he put it all! To accompany his plate of safe foods, the chef had also prepared him some apple ring crisps and deep-fried sage leaves and M was in seventh heaven. He not only cleared his plate, but asked for more and the kitchen was more than happy to cook another chicken breast for him as quickly as they could. 20150826_192854I had taken a dish of home-made safe apple crumble with me for M to enjoy, but had no need to produce it at the table as they had lemon sorbet on the menu, which proved safe for him to eat. Our waitress was fantastic in writing down the ingredients for us so that we could check it was 100% safe and the look on M’s face as he slowly swallowed that first mouthful was simply magical.

And really, I need say no more. The restaurant impressed us from the start with their obvious understanding of food allergies, their knowledge about cross-contamination risks and their attention to the fine details which meant both children really could enjoy an excellent 3-course meal with all the “twiddly bits” on offer too. I loved that the menu was carefully annotated to meet the food needs of every individual customer and that the ingredients in the dishes were listed, so you knew exactly what you were eating and there were no hidden extras. They happily swapped my mashed potato for rice on our second night and willingly went that extra mile when we asked if they could cook more for M. They were even happy to give me the recipe for the marinade used for his chicken, so I can attempt to replicate the dish at home. A big thanks to Paul, Claire and the rest of their team, who made our meals during that week an unforgettable experience. I don’t know when we’ll be back, but we certainly intend a repeat visit if at all possible and they well deserve the phenomenal 20 out of 10 that M awarded them!

A taste of Asia

Belonging to an on-line support community such as FABED is fantastic, but also really something of a mixed blessing. The joy of being able to build friendships, ask questions and sometimes simply celebrate a milestone with others through a deft few keyboard strokes is always tempered by the isolating knowledge that these families, walking a similar path to ours, might live hours away from us and chatting in person is not always easy to do. We have been lucky enough to meet up with some families over the last 4 years and have some amazing new friends who really understand the stresses and strains of living with a chronic illness. By far and away, one of the best benefits has been sharing recipes and restaurant recommendations and it was following such advice from a fellow FABED Mum that we recently ventured into a completely new dining experience for us all.

To say we were impressed from the moment we stepped through the door of our local Wagamama restaurant is no overstatement and not one part of the experience that followed let them, or us, down. I’ve learned to broach the subject of M’s complex dietary requirements at the restaurant door to save heartache all round and their greeter not only made a sensible suggestion based on the short list of safe foods I gave him – Mini grilled chicken noodles minus a few ingredients – but also headed off to talk to both the chef and the restaurant manager to confirm they could prepare a tasty meal for M that would be as free from cross-contamination risks as they could make it. Reassured that they could accommodate his food needs, we took our seats before perusing meal options that would also suit the rest of the family. 20150725_174814Whilst M was hugely excited about having rice noodles for his dinner, G was less keen, but with 3 different types of rice available, even my pickier eater was happy.

The restaurant manager acted as our waitress and was invaluable in helping us make sensible choices for all the family and our differing allergy requirements. The greeter had done a great job of passing the information on to her and she started by addressing how they would prepare M’s meal to ensure it was as M-friendly as possible. As M is only able to tolerate rapeseed and coconut oils at the moment, the chef suggested they steamed him a fresh piece of chicken, which had not been marinated, and which would not have the risk of picking up any food or oil traces from their other pans. They also cooked a fresh batch of rice noodles, again in a clean pot to avoid obvious cross-contamination and served them with a healthy portion of cucumber “noodles” – a meal fit to tantalise our young foodie’s taste buds. The plate that appeared was impressive and M gave the meal a well-deserved 9/10 (he wasn’t so keen on the cucumber noodles and docked them a mark for that presentation!).

G chose a stir-fried rice and chicken dish (Mini chicken cha han) from the children’s menu and we saw, once again, the impressive and extensive knowledge the restaurant staff had about their food when I asked if the dish was both gluten- and dairy-free. 20150725_175253The manager knew without checking that the sauce contained gluten and advised that most of the other sauces they use in their dishes do too. However, she was able to recommend Tamari sauce, which is gluten-free and would add great flavour to G’s meal. G was as delighted as M when her bowl arrived at our table and she awarded them a well-deserved 9.5/10.

Mike and I were not only thrilled to have found a restaurant that was hugely capable of meeting our exacting requirements, but also had great meals ourselves. The service was fantastic and when a small error resulted in the wrong side dish arriving at our table, they prepared the one we’d originally asked for and gave us the wrong one for free. Back in March of this year, there was a furore when newly introduced EU legislations required restaurants to provide information about the top 14 allergens contained in their menus and over 100 top chefs and restaurants condemned the requirements as an unnecessary and inconvenient constraint on the spontaneity and creativeness of their profession. From the faultless service to the extensive menu knowledge, every single thing about our meal at Wagamama screams out that no chef worth his salt need be worried about such demands and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this restaurant chain to anyone looking for an allergy-friendly place to eat.

Dinner Plans

The beauty of staying in the amazing Applause apartments in East Aldgate was the ease with which we could accommodate M’s current dietary requirements at mealtimes.  Every morning, he and G enjoyed a bowl of safe cereal and rice milk for breakfast, whilst Mike and I had coffee and brioche before we headed out for the day.  Once breakfast was done, the children and I would finish getting ourselves ready and Mike would make and pack lunches for us all.  The ability to prepare packed lunches was just what we needed as not only were we able to meet M’s extreme food requirements, but also the dairy- and gluten-free needs of G.

20150414_174629On our first day there, we stumbled across a fantastic shop called “Planet Organic“, where we were able to pick up some previously undiscovered M-friendly bits and pieces, including mini rice-cakes, which are perfect for his lunchbox.  Of course, with the packet now nearly empty, the race to find them closer to home is on before he finishes them off.  The brown rice noodles have also been a massive hit and make mealtimes just that little bit more interesting than they have been over the last 3 months.  Sadly, the one thing we had been hoping to find, rice pasta, was sold out and so my search for that alternative continues.

The more interesting task was that of our evening meal.  One of the things we have always loved to do is eat out as a family and it is one of the things that M in particular has found hardest about having his tube.  We have had a wealth of experience over the last decade of finding restaurants that will accommodate the ever-changing dietary needs of G, M and even me and we had settled on a few firm favourites that we knew would almost always meet our requirements.  Of course, the option to cook dinner where we were staying was great to have, but Mike and I were both looking forward to having a break from the monotony of 3-ingredient dinners and decided to do some focussed research before we even left the comfort of our own home.  We spent hours one evening trawling the internet, finding restaurants in the areas of London we were likely to be near at meal-times, looking at their menus and investigating whether they had allergen information readily available to read then and there.  To our delight, we found a few where we knew we could cater for G and where it seemed probable we would also be able to order safe food for M, and we couldn’t wait to put our selection to the test.

20150408_181702Our first was Giraffe, which is just round the corner from GOSH and a popular choice for our post-appointment dinners.  When we got to the restaurant, I asked the waitress at the door whether they would be able to cook safe food for M before she had time to find us a table and the response was fantastic.  She turned out to be the restaurant manager and headed off in the direction of the kitchen to talk to their chef and find out exactly what our options were. The chef assured us he could cook plain, boiled rice and grill a chicken breast for M without using any oil, so, feeling hopeful that this could prove a success, we found a table to enjoy our first family meal out for 5 months.  M was delighted with the plate of food that arrived for him and had no allergic reaction to any of it, reassuring us that Giraffe is a safe choice for the future.

IMG_0940As it turns out, Giraffe was the only restaurant we ate at that was able to cook plain rice for M, but we enjoyed 2 other great meals out and  both restaurants were more than happy for M to munch away on his own rice-cakes to accompany his chicken and cucumber.  The second restaurant was Bella Italia, a popular restaurant chain found across the UK and we had dinner at their St Martins Lane branch.   Again, our waiter worked with the chef to ascertain exactly what could be prepared for M and this amazing plate of food arrived – M joked that he thought they had cut him up a whole cucumber to make up for the lack of variety on his plate.  We were also impressed with how much their gluten-free offerings had improved since the last time we ate there as G was able to enjoy some GF garlic pizza bread alongside her GF margherita pizza with pancetta and ham with goats cheese.

20150411_152613My final recommendation is Jamie’s Italian and I can’t begin to tell you how impressed we were with the excellent service provided at their Canary Wharf restaurant.  From the greeter who listened to our initial needs to the manager who came to answer our questions before we even got to the table, they were keen to reassure us that they could meet all our requirements.  As for our amazing waiter, Tom H, he listened carefully and patiently to what we needed, made sensible suggestions based on M’s safe foods, checked with the chef that everything could be prepared safely and treated M just like any other child eating in the restaurant.  He was delighted with the plate of food that arrived at the table as it was presented in the exact same way as G’s dinner and his unparalleled attempt to eat almost all of the food served earned him the same prize that G was awarded for eating her salad – an achievement that we rarely manage at home.

All in all, our trip to London proved to be a fantastic and unexpected success when it came to our dinner plans for our stay.  We found 3 restaurants who were prepared to go the extra mile, make the effort and help us enjoy some great meals out.  Even better, M had the opportunity to feel more “normal” than he has done in a long time, which, for us, was absolutely priceless.