Food allergies complicate dining out for York family


It was a simple request.

My son has food allergies, Liz Lieu told an employee at a York County pizza joint. Would it be OK, she asked, if he ate chicken from another restaurant while the rest of the family chowed down on pizza?

"The owner's coming and he will have a fit," Lieu said the employee replied, citing the restaurant's "no outside food" policy.

Sure, Tyler could have waited with an empty plate while the rest of his family enjoyed the wheat and cheese pie that would have almost certainly made him sick.

But that's not the experience Lieu promised her boys — 7-year-old Tyler, 5-year-old Liam and 11-year-old Elijah — after they played at the Red Lion splash pad recently.

"We wanted to eat together. I didn't want him to feel left out," Lieu said. "We're going out as a family."

Lieu said she left the restaurant in tears. She went home and posted about her experience on Facebook. Friends urged her to contact media and tell her story.

She did.

But Lieu said she's more interested in shining some light on the challenges of food allergies than she is in shaming a local restaurant.

"It doesn't happen often," she said. "Most places are very welcoming."

Dining safely: In addition to wheat and dairy milk, Tyler is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, coconuts and shellfish. Liam, his little brother, is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

Dining out for the Lieu family means one of two things: They go to a familiar place. Or they research ahead of time and ask lots of questions before Tyler and Liam take a first bite.

Allergy-friendly places are those where the employees know what's going on in the kitchen, Lieu said.

For example, she needs to know if a restaurant is using peanut oil to fry any of her sons' food. If they are, it's a no-go.

Restaurants that think about food allergies ahead of time — and make ingredient information easily accessible — are the best, Lieu said.

The science: Not all allergies or allergic reactions are life-threatening, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction include hives or red, itchy skin; stuffy or itchy nose, sneezing or itchy, teary eyes; vomiting, stomach cramps or diarrhea; and angioedema or swelling.

But severe reactions trigger anaphylaxis, which can be fatal, according to the academy's website.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include hoarseness, throat tightness or a lump in the throat; wheezing, chest tightness or trouble breathing; tingling in the hands, feet, lips or scalp.

Though life-threatening, anaphylaxis can be reversed by injectable epinephrine — also known as an EpiPen.

According to the academy, eight foods are responsible for the majority of allergic reactions: cow's milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat.

Learning to trust: Lieu said she wants people to understand that her boys are not "picky eaters."

They can't simply "eat around" the allergy-inducing foods on their plate.

"Even a little bit can hurt him," she said.

The Lieu children have one delicious advantage. Their grandparents own Asian Best, a restaurant at 15 N. Penn St. in York City. There, they eat lots of rice, chicken and vegetable dishes.

Lieu said her parents, of course, know to cook their grandsons' food in a separate pan — far from the peanut dishes on the menu.

But even in the best of circumstances, there's anxiety about dining out with children who have food allergies, she said.

"You're trusting somebody else," Lieu said.