How to Dine out Safely With a Shellfish Allergy

With any food allergy comes a level of anxiety about eating, and especially eating out. It's natural and expected to feel some stress and fear when a certain food becomes a danger to you—in fact, it would be strange if you didn't have anxiety! But you don't have to settle for a lower quality of life due to a food allergy, and you don't have to live in fear. With the right guidelines and preparation, eating out can still be a safe, enjoyable experience for you.

Shellfish allergies are, in some ways, one of the easier "big eight" most common food allergies to live with, given that seafood isn't nearly as pervasive an ingredient as, for example, dairy or nuts. But because shellfish allergies tend to be so severe when they are triggered, and they carry the unfortunate risk of anaphylaxis, it's vital to take proper precautions when eating outside of your home.

Certain cuisines and dishes are riskier than others, and your best defense is information. Thankfully, there are many steps you can take to protect yourself.

Oysters on plate
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Know the Safest Spots

The two safest types of restaurants for shellfish allergies are strict kosher restaurants and dedicated vegan or vegetarian restaurants, which forbid shellfish.

Even when eating at a restaurant without visible shellfish on the menu, however, be sure to discuss your allergies, as shellfish may be used in stocks or as a garnish.

Stay Away From High-Risk Cuisines

Some types of restaurants are riskier than others because of cross-contamination issues or because a high percentage of dishes on the menu may include shellfish. These include seafood restaurants that may store fish and shellfish in very close proximity. They may also use the same knives on both types of seafood.

Check the Menu Online Beforehand

Before eating at a restaurant, be sure to check their website. Many now include information for the most common food allergens, including shellfish.

While checking the website is no substitute for talking to onsite staff about your allergies and cross-contamination concerns, website information can give you a good idea of whether you'll be able to find suitable options at a given restaurant, or whether some options that look safe are.

Speak with Your Server and Chef When You Arrive 

Make sure your server and the chef are aware of your allergies when you arrive. They should assure you that your food will be cooked in a shellfish-free area.

You can also visit the Food Allergy Research and Education organization's website and download a "food allergy alert chef card" which you can give to your server to pass to the chef.

Get to Know Cuisines From Around the World 

American Cuisine

In addition to dishes like fried shrimp, surf and turf, or steamed mussels that clearly indicate shellfish, several traditional American dishes are made with shellfish.

Cioppino, a soup originating in San Francisco, is made from seafood and other shellfish. New England boiled dinners and Low Country boil both usually include shellfish. Be safe and ask before ordering.

Cajun specialties like gumbo and jambalaya are usually made from shellfish, and seafood muffuletta sandwiches may be found in coastal areas.

Finally, ask about the possibility of small shrimp being used to garnish salads.

Latin American Cuisine

Shellfish is not as prevalent in Mexican and Central American restaurants as in some other cuisines. But some restaurants may serve enchiladas or tacos with shrimp filling, or shrimp versions of traditional Snapper Veracruz.

Brazilian and Peruvian cookery features more shellfish, especially ceviche (fish or shellfish "cooked" by marinating it in citrus juice). Be wary of any Latin American dish with "mariscos" in the name, as this is the Spanish word for "seafood."

French and Western European Cuisine

Shrimp, prawns, lobster, and other shellfish feature prominently in French food and in the cuisine of the Mediterranean.

You should know that any French dish served "à l'Americaine" comes with a topping of lobster. Likewise, "crevettes," on a French or Continental menu always indicates shrimp. Italian cuisine may feature mussels or shrimp but will often include safe options on the menu. Greek cuisine, likewise, features a lot of fish but comparatively little shellfish beyond octopus.

Middle Eastern Cuisine

Shellfish is not a prominent part of Middle Eastern cooking. However, you may find mussels or other steamed shellfish on the menu.

Asian Cuisines

Asian cuisines, such as Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Korean, vary in flavor. But they all include shellfish as a major part of their menus.

Hong Kong hot pots, for example, frequently include shellfish, though vegetarian and meat-based varieties do exist. Thai kapi and nam prik and Vietnamese mam tom are among the condiments and sauces that always include shellfish.

In addition to asking about shellfish in the dishes themselves, be aware of the possibility of shellfish in condiments, stocks, and other hidden sources.

Indian restaurants vary greatly depending on which part of the country their cuisine is from. Many Indian restaurants are vegetarian and therefore safe. Cuisine from Goa, with its strong Portuguese influence, is more likely than others to contain shellfish.

Bring Your Rescue Medication Anyway 

Even if you've followed all these steps and feel at ease about eating at a particular restaurant, always make sure you're prepared for emergencies. That means taking your rescue medication with you. This includes your epinephrine autoinjector and, if applicable, any asthma medication.

While it is unlikely that you'll need it, especially while taking all of these precautions, it's always possible—and carrying it with you can offer the peace of mind you need to truly kick back and enjoy your meal.

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  1. SafeFARE: Chef Card Template. Food Allergy Research and Education [internet].

Additional Reading
  • "Larousse Gastronomique," Patrice Maubourguet, Ed. Dir., et al. (Rev. Ed. New York Random House, 2001)
  • Managing Food Allergies Dining Out. Food Allergy and Research Education Organization. 
  • Shellfish Allergy. American College of Allergy, Ashma and Immunology.