I’ve always wondered if not being able to “normally” eat out has made me more of an awkward person. How can these two things possibly correlate? Hear me out.
We as a society don’t just eat to survive — it’s usually done socially. For someone without food allergies, these events don’t require a second thought. But for people with food allergies, there’s quite a bit of planning and strategy that goes into it. What am I going to eat? Where am I going to eat it? When am I going to eat? Most of the meals in my lifetime have been for the sole purpose of being full so I don’t get hungry once we’re at the restaurant or party or gala or whatever it is that involves food. Even if I wasn’t hungry before a grandparent’s dinner in the city, my parents coaxed me to eat something or else I’d be hungry later.
Eating is often something I cross off a checklist before the main event.
When it comes to eating out, I basically have three options: 1. Try something off the menu 2. Bring my own food or 3. Don’t eat out. And each of these scenarios comes with its own level of awkwardness.
Get ready because there’s a way too much thought that went into this.
Trying to Eat Off the Menu
I’ve tried this only a handful of times in my life. I’d carefully explain the severity of my food allergies to the server — who, looking back, was just some teenager herself trying to make some extra cash and couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been trusted with my life.
So not only have I now stressed out the server and put extra strain on the kitchen staff, but I’m also feeling anxious myself. I’m literally putting my life into strangers’ hands. If the kitchen’s utensils, stove tops, mixing bowls, or anything of that nature aren’t clean, I could get sick. If someone sprinkles my plain salad with croutons on accident and then picks them out, I will get sick.
I’ve pulled off eating out before without an itch, but I wasn’t always so lucky. (I almost died in Boston. But that’s a story for another blog post.) The way I figure, when I’m eating out, it’s usually during some special occasion, right? So why would I risk ruining it by having a reaction? It’s easier for me, for the restaurant and for my peers to just not have to worry about it.
The awkwardness at hand if I eat out: Coming off as high-maintenance; having to be stern (bitchy) when a server doesn’t take me seriously; potentially having a reaction and having to leave early or having to call an ambulance to the restaurant.
Bringing My Own Food
Sometimes I bring a sandwich or something simple (like something that doesn’t need to be microwaved or doesn’t need a plate; I want to draw as little as attention to myself as possible). I have two problems with this method, though.
- Have you ever tried eating a cold turkey sandwich while those around you dined on baked lobster?
- The staff doesn’t always allow outside food.
I once brought in a sandwich to a restaurant and the server said I couldn’t eat that in there. I told her I can’t eat anything they serve unless they can guarantee I won’t have a reaction. My friends backed me up. She apologized but said it’s their policy: No outside food. So I smiled through clenched teeth, tucked my sandwich back into my purse, and would finish it during the car ride home. So much for not drawing attention to myself.
I’ve also received comments from servers like, “Oh, is our food not good enough for you?” One of the servers at Dick’s Last Resort accused me of being anorexic when I was 14, but it was his job to be a dick, anyway, I suppose. My point is, again, it’s not always worth it.
The awkwardness at hand if I bring food: Having to act like my sandwich is the best damn sandwich I’ve ever had when I get the pitied “How’s your sandwich?” from my table mates; being scolded for bringing in outside food, then fighting about it with staff; having a loud grumbling tummy while everyone else is eating.
Not Eating Out
Simply not eating out is my preferred strategy. I don’t have to stress out the kitchen staff or stress myself out — it’s like a win-win.
But, here comes the awkward part: This means that I can make those around me feel bad or uncomfortable. I had one teammate who even refused to sit at the same table as me every team meal because she felt so bad about eating in front of someone who wasn’t. When I turned 21 it got easier; at least I could drink! Although I found out the hard way that with my petite build and empty stomach, I had to pace myself.
Also, I have to master a two-part strategy that I call “The Art of Unconventional Social Conventions.” Part 1: How should I act when everyone else is eating? It typically involves an inner dialogue that goes something like this:
Ok, Lauren, don’t talk too much when the food comes. Don’t ask questions when their mouths are full. Let them enjoy their meals. Crap, now there’s an awkward silence and I’m just sitting here, the only one without a mouth full of food. Take a sip of your drink. Still silence. Take another sip. But wait no you don’t want to get drunk these are your coworkers for Chrissake.
Part 2: What do I do when the bill comes? If I only had a drink, obviously I’ll pay for that. But a lot of times people like to split it up evenly. In my experience, someone was brave and kind enough to say “Well Lauren only spent like $7.” But in some cases I had to actually debate with someone as to why I shouldn’t have to spend $30 on a bill where I only spent $5.
The awkwardness at hand if I don’t eat: Talking too much; talking too little; getting too drunk; acting like a cheapskate.
So, am I more awkward because of my food allergies? Probs. But at the end of the day, I can’t control what people at the table will think of me or if they’ll feel sorry for me, and that’s okay.
My advice to anyone with food allergies: Just be there. Don’t let your food allergies hold you back from eating out because you’re afraid of the social implications.
My advice to anyone without food allergies: Just let it be. Let us make our own decision and don’t push us to try something we’re not comfortable trying. Don’t give us a reason to make a situation awkward by saying things like, “So is it hard for you not eating when everyone else is?” If you were dining with someone in a wheelchair, would you ask them if it’s hard not being able to eat at the high tables? Hell no. So just let it be what it is.