Social Media: Instagram - @kianna.nycole
From an early age my parents wanted to ensure that I could be responsible for my allergy on my own. By Kindergarten, I was familiar with how to sight read my allergens on labels and explain to my friends why they couldn’t share their snacks with me.
By 2nd grade, it was on me to speak up at restaurants and tell the chef about my severe allergy and what menu items would be safe. Whether it was a birthday party, potluck, or wedding, I would have to double check with the kitchen staff to make sure of what I could and could not eat. You would think that this would get easier with time but it didn’t, and I hated it. I wanted to eat whatever was on my plate just like everybody else. I didn’t want to have to ask grown ups about the ingredients, or wait for a separate meal to be prepped in the back, I just wanted normalcy.
Upon reflection, I don’t think my parents’ goal was to build my confidence by forcing me to speak up. I think their main concern was making sure I would be safe in their absence. They wanted to make sure my safety didn’t rely on them being there to supervise or advocate on my behalf. Which worked, but at the same time it built my confidence as I slowly grew comfortable addressing adults and communicating my needs.
I’ll never forget this one time in elementary school when the after school program had catered food for a special occasion. Students grabbed a plate and got in line buffet style. While other kids were salivating over the fried chicken and couldn’t wait to get to the front, I was secretly dreading having to tell the woman with the tongs about my nut allergy. Slowly but surely, I made my way to the front and told the lady about my allergy. She twisted up her face as if I insulted her and said “Why would chicken have nuts in it? You’re fine”. And she slapped a thigh and wing on my plate. Part of me was relieved that I could eat this chicken that smelled so heavenly, but the other part of me was taken aback…Why was she offended? Why the attitude? Did I do something wrong? I shrug it off and try to enjoy my food with my classmates when suddenly my throat is scratchy and hives start to swarm my body. Crap. Too good to be true. Needless to say, the chicken was cooked in peanut oil.
As I sat in the school lobby, while my mom fussed out the school staff, I realized an important lesson that day. Nobody will understand my allergy better than me, including grown ups, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that I’m safe. As I sat there with the school nurse waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I made a pact that I would always speak up and ask questions no matter how uncomfortable it is. And if my inquiries are met with an attitude or carelessness, then I won’t eat. Because it’s simply not worth the risk.
If you have food allergies, here’s my top 3 tip on how to be your own self advocate when dining out:
Beat the punch
- If you have social anxiety, and don’t prefer in person interaction, you can check the menu for any allergen disclaimers or just to see if the menu offers a lot of your allergen before dining. Personally, if the menu has over 5 things I’m allergic to, I steer away because that means that kitchen is high risk. But that’s just personal preference. *wink!
- If you’re unsure of the menu, call the restaurant and ask them if they can accommodate your allergy. You can even write a mini-script before you call which makes it less intimidating than face to face conversation!
- Depending on the event, venue or occasion, you can be discreet with your allergy. I tend to just slip it in with my order, informing the waiter of my allergy and she’ll double check with the chef for me to ensure safety.
- When I was abroad, I had a business card in that country’s respective language explaining my allergy which was SUPER EASY. The waiter would take the card to the kitchen and let me know if it was safe or not. I should honestly do this again in the States. It was very convenient.
- Congrats! Speaking up wasn’t too bad and now they know about your allergy. However, be observant. If the waiter seemed to disregard your request and didn’t seem certain with their answer, be on pause. If the kitchen messed up your order and included your allergen, be on pause. It’s never worth the risk, and if you don’t feel as though your allergy is taken seriously, don’t eat. It’s always better to end the night hungry, than in the hospital, trust me.
Fast forward to me now, 21 years old and completely comfortable and confident in myself and my voice. I have no problem addressing conflicts with friends, communicating with professors for deadline extensions, speaking to my strengths and goals in interviews and much more. I have seen my peers struggle to speak up, overcome with nerves and anxiety when having to express themselves or do a presentation.
Therefore, the greatest gift my food allergy has given me, is the ability to advocate for myself in all circumstances. I used to think my food allergy had to define me as if it was a personality trait that everyone in my social circle had to know about in order to understand me. But the truth is, my allergy has built my true characteristics: my outgoing spirit, my person-ability, and the power to articulate my thoughts with ease are what makes me who I am today.