Picture this: you’re out on the town at a nice dinner with your friends and family. Everyone enjoyed decadent queso dip and spinach artichoke dip for appetizers. Now they’re moving onto ordering cheesy and buttery entrees. Everyone, that is, but you. You’ve just found out you’re lactose intolerant. While you’re glad to find out what’s been causing you so much agony, you have no idea what to order. So what do you do? Stick with a salad, of course. Who knows what’s mixed into the mashed potatoes or baked into the bread. So you order your sad salad, carefully asking for no cheese and subbing out the creamy dressing for a safe option, like plain old oil and vinegar.
Here’s the thing – thirty to fifty million Americans are lactose intolerant, according to The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Yes, that does in fact say MILLION. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re not even special. We’ve been there! And we got you. It is possible to be lactose intolerant AND enjoy going out to eat just like everyone else. There are some simple steps and considerations you can take when approaching eating at restaurants that will make your life easier and, most importantly, more delicious.
- Lactose intolerance pills – Let’s start with the easiest option: pills for lactose intolerance. Symptoms related to lactose intolerance usually happen because your body isn’t producing enough lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the lactose in dairy, according to WebMD. Lactose pills are basically a lactase supplement and will break down the lactose in your stomach for you. Who makes the best lactase pills? That’s up for debate. Each brand can affect people differently, so try a few kinds and see what you like. The tricky part is remembering to bring your lactose pills. We recommend getting a small travel pill container on a keychain, like this one or this one. A word of caution: do your research on side effects of these pills, especially Lactaid side effects, as some people do have an allergic reaction.
- Google the menu ahead of time – You know that saying, the one that your most annoying teacher in high school loved to say? “By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.” Yeah, you know the one. Well, they had a point. In fact, they were flat out right. Scope out the menu before you get to the restaurant. You’ll want to get an idea of what you can eat or what you want to ask the server about. Sometimes, you might even find reviews or other websites that list the dairy free options that the restaurant offers. This is especially true for chain restaurants. A useful fast food guide from Spoon University can be found here.
- Find the allergy menu online ahead of time – Many restaurants include an allergen menu on their website. Again, the more common the restaurant, the more likely they will have a sweet downloadable guide on their site, usually in the form of a PDF. Start by googling the restaurant name and “allergen menu.” If that doesn’t yield any results, navigate to the menu page of their website – sometimes you will find it linked there or on the FAQ page.
- Call ahead of time – If you’re a millennial or younger, you probably do not want to hear this, but sometimes calling the restaurant is your best bet. Finding information online for local restaurants can be especially hard. Luckily, the folks at your local pub are often nicer and more committed to finding answers for you than the people at a chain restaurant. Trust us, it is very easy for them to run back to the kitchen, chat with the chef, and get an answer for you. The most important thing is to have specific questions ready. Rather than just asking what’s dairy free, you might ask if it’s possible to make that delicious pasta dairy free, or swap out feta cheese for fresh parmesan .
- Ask your server – Depending on their experience, your server can be a great resource. As you’ll remember, millions of Americans are lactose intolerant. Chances are, they’ve been asked if there’s dairy in the mashed potatoes before and they will have an answer for you. Perhaps they even have a dairy allergy themselves! If they don’t know, they’ll check with the kitchen staff and report back. With inexperienced servers, it can be helpful to ask about specific ingredients like milk or sour cream, rather than asking general questions.
- Know what foods commonly have lactose – As you begin your dairy free journey, you will find that your new best friend is google. Go wild! Common searches tend to be “is mayo dairy,” “can lactose intolerant eat eggs,” “lactose intolerance asian” … the list goes on. So, is there lactose in eggs or mayo? There’s no lactose in eggs, and almost never in mayo. If you know you can handle a low amount of lactose, a better search would be the lactose content of foods. There are some helpful articles out there, like this one from Lactaid. Beware things like breakfast foods (butter), dessert (butter, heavy cream, milk) and mashed potatoes (cheese, butter, all the good stuff!). Generally speaking, Italian and Greek food tend to sneak dairy in here and there.
- Know what foods you can have – Rather than focusing on the things you can’t have, focus on what you can have. This can apply to many areas of life, but this isn’t a philosophy blog. This might seem daunting at first, but the more experience you rack up, the easier it is. Healthline has a helpful list of the basics to keep in mind. That same article also conveniently has a list of foods high in lactose that should be avoided. More importantly, make a mental note of meals you have enjoyed whether homemade or purchased. Then look for similar options when dining out. It’s usually pretty easy to keep track of this list, since when you find something tasty that you like to eat, your taste buds will remember and perhaps even remind you with a craving.
- Remember restaurants that work for you – It’s great to keep a note dedicated to this in your notes app on your phone. Whenever you have a great meal, add it to the list. This way, you’ll have a list of restaurants to suggest that will make you and the other dinner guests happy. Otherwise, you might get stuck eating at a place of someone else’s choosing when you’re caught off guard by the “where should we eat?” discussion. Though they are few and far between, there are also lactose free restaurants. Again, google is your buddy when looking for these safe havens. Especially if you live in a larger city or are visiting one, make sure to check out the restaurants that cater to us. There’s nothing better than being understood.
- Know your cheats – By this, we mean foods that are low in lactose. Okay, it’s not really a cheat but doesn’t it sound like a cool hack this way? For example, you usually can eat butter, which has very low amounts of lactose, as long as it’s not the star of the show. Clarified butter contains almost no lactose. Aged and hard cheeses, like Parmesan and sharp cheddar, are typically low in lactose. The cheese with the least lactose is Muenster, at 0-1.1%, according to Real Simple.
- Know your triggers – What was your favorite thing to eat before you knew you were lactose intolerant? Perhaps the food that you occasionally treat yourself to when you’ve had a bad day, although you know you’ll pay for it later? Yep, whatever you’re thinking, that’s a trigger. If you’re feeling weak, don’t go to a restaurant that serves your favorite guilty pleasure. Is there a certain friend that just doesn’t get it, and encourages you to eat the dairy? Perhaps make sure to bring your lactose pills when meeting them for dinner, just in case. Whatever the case may be – be cognizant of what sets you down the cheesy path of self destruction. As Socrates once said, “know thyself.”
- Know your cuisines – Have you ever seen cheese at a sushi restaurant? No? That’s because Asian cuisine tends to lack dairy. East Asian areas in particular, are actually much more likely to be lactose intolerant, hence the lack of dairy in their cooking. Think Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Indian restaurants are typically a safe bet, and if anything does have dairy, they will likely be clearly marked. Mediterranean restaurants can be a great option as well, just be careful to ask for no feta cheese.
- Trust your eyes and instincts – Most importantly, you have to trust yourself. If you don’t see anything online that you can eat or modify within reason, it’s probably not a good idea to go to that particular restaurant. If you ask the server if there’s buttermilk in that baked good and she rolls her eyes and says no, maybe ask her to double check with the kitchen staff. Or if something tastes like dairy, that’s probably because there’s dairy in it. Follow your gut, and in turn you will be keeping your gut healthy.