A question that always amuses me is: "What DO you guys eat!?"

A question that always amuses me is: "What DO you guys eat!?"

Hi! I’m Wendy - the creator of Choice Food Signs.  My husband Daryll and I have two teenage daughters whom we are immensely proud of, and we are an extended family as we live with my Mum-in-law.  She is a great cook - me, not so much, but I manage to put good food on our family table.

Our stomping ground is Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.  It’s a wonderful city to live in as it has abundant parks, beautiful sandy beaches, and great weather 90% of the year. You know - "Beautiful one day, perfect the next".  I love our Summer Aussie Christmases as we can have big family gatherings outdoors instead of squeezing all the borrowed chairs into the dining room (although we have done this too).

Wonderful as it is, Brisbane has also been hailed as the asthma capital of the world (1 in 10 people).  In our family we have: asthma, anaphylaxis (severe food allergy), eczema and hay-fever.  The food allergies in our family are nuts, shelled seafood, dairy, and egg.  We also have a range of friends who variously are vegetarian, vegan, diabetic, coeliac, and have soy and sesame allergy.  Allergen avoidance has been a big thing for our family for the past 45 years plus.  Eating at home with dietary needs like allergies takes some learning at first but becomes second nature after a while.  After all, you have to eat right?  The internet has been wonderful in providing ideas and recipes, and there (unfortunately) are more and more people looking for suitable products to eat, so the range of ready-made allergy friendly supermarket foods has improved considerably over the last 20 plus years.  In addition, thankfully, Australia is one of the world leaders in ingredients listings with clear allergen declarations on processed foods.

Eating out is another matter.  Yes, more restaurants, cafes and bakeries are catering to dietary requirements - which is wonderful!  The problem is they don’t always make the food available, or accessible.  That is, most don’t let their customers know about allergen content on their menu or at point-of-sale.  They expect the customer to ask.  About each, and every, item on offer until, like a lottery, the customer finally finds a winner – something they can safely eat.  This is particularly difficult and awkward when you have multiple allergies and dietary needs.  Having to ask wastes time, is embarrassing for many, and sometimes near impossible to communicate clearly when there is background noise or the food service staff have strong accents.  We love Indian food so thick accents have been an issue for us.  The risk and inconvenience of eating out were some of the reasons I was prompted to find a solution through labelling fresh food.   We have found using allergy food labels so successful we want to share Choice Food Signs with you.  

 

Where it all started...

 
  Everyone can find something to eat when food is labelled.    

Everyone can find something to eat when food is labelled.

 

In 2009 as catering coordinator for our monthly church potluck lunches I felt it would make the socials more inclusive by clearly labelling food regarding allergens.  

I made a point of not requesting any changes to meals brought, but simply asked everyone to declare any allergens.  Although there was initial resistance from some who saw food allergen labelling as “unnecessary”, I pointed out that:

"people don’t have to change what they cook

- just declare what is in it."

I felt as Catering Coordinator we needed to ensure everybody's dining safety not only from a hygiene perspective but also for dietary needs - specifically anaphylaxis.  After only a few lunches labelling food, the positive response grew, and for over 8 years now all lunch contributors have been in the habit of filling out a food allergen sign for their dish, and declaring their allergens.  Food is no longer presented until it has been properly labelled - to ensure everybody's dining safety and comfort.

What resulted after only about 4 lunches using the allergen signs:

  • It soon became apparent that there were a significant number of people with dietary needs, as labelling the food made people feel understood and they disclosed their needs. 
  • Contributors soon learnt what allergens were and their hidden forms, thanks to a little coaching and a handy reference guide.
  • With a little preparation before hand to label the usual food brought, and the use of dedicated food utensils for each dish to limit cross-contamination, people with dietary needs could now eat safely, and
  • as it became formal practice for all food to be labelled, people started attending who couldn’t previously, as they were now confident that they could safely and inconspicuously find something to eat.  They were now enabled to be just part of the crowd.
  • Visitors were openly appreciative that we were keeping their safety in mind.  They saw this as a positive inclusive practice, even if they didn’t have dietary needs themselves, as they usually knew someone who does.

I called this allergy labelling system "Considerate Cooks" as I felt it was desirable to be considerate of our guests needs.  These signs were the precursor to Choice Food Signs. 

I hope you enjoy using the new and improved version - Choice Food Signs - as much as we do.  After all - there's a lot of satisfaction in creating more "Yes!  I can eat that!" moments.