If you’re allergic to dairy, nuts, soy, or you have celiac disease, eating out can be challenging because it’s hard to trust that restaurants will prepare your food so that it doesn’t contain the allergen you’re tying to avoid. Add a food delivery service app into the mix like Doordash, Uber Eats, or Grubhub, and it could feel like you have even less control over the food you’re ordering.
Here’s everything you need to know about ordering allergy-free food through these food delivery services.
How do Food Delivery Services Work?
Here’s a straightforward summary of how food delivery services like Doordash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub work:
- A customer places a food order through the service’s app
- The app processes the payment and sends the order to the restaurant
- The restaurant receives the order and prepares it
- The service provider sends a delivery driver to pick up the order
- The driver delivers the order directly to the customer
Depending on the restaurant and the delivery service being used by the restaurants, the restaurant can receive the customer’s order in different ways. The food delivery services can send orders directly to the restaurant’s Point of Sales (POS) system, or the restaurant can receive the order via an app, email, or even fax and automated phone call.
This is good news for those with food allergies! Why? Some customers may find it more difficult to trust these food delivery services if they think that the delivery drivers are the ones placing the order on their behalf. (Before I learned otherwise, I too thought that the delivery drivers placed the orders). But drivers are not placing the orders!
When you place an order through the food delivery service app, your order is going straight to the restaurant as you entered it in the app. The restaurant will get every last detail of your order. In some ways I could see this almost being better than trying to order in person at a restaurant while having to talk loud over all the other noise and hoping that the cashier heard you say that you have a sever food allergy.
How Ordering Allergy-Free Food through Food Delivery Service Apps Works
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and there are a lot of great restaurants here that do a good job catering to food allergies. I have used the Doordash, Grub Hub, and Uber Eats apps in a few different places around the Bay Area to see how easy it was to find allergy-free meals near those locations.
I found that relying solely on the menus and information provided in the apps is not enough to ensure your order is free of allergens. I did find that the Uber Eats app had the most features to help customers with food allergies, but the app still fell short of providing all the information necessary to help you completely avoid allergens.
Search for Allergy-Free Food in the Apps
In all 3 of the apps, you can search for allergy-free foods by typing in phrases like “dairy-free,” “dairy-allergy,” “peanut allergy,” “gluten-free” and so on. Regardless of the app, searching this way will not limit the displayed results to only restaurants that cater to that allergy, nor will it limit the displayed menu items to only those items free from the allergy you’re trying to avoid.
For example, when I was searching for “Peanut-free” or “peanut allergy” I found a bagel place offering a bagel with peanut butter. In another case, when I searched for “gluten free” in one location, all three apps displayed a nearby Dunkin Donuts as an option, even though the only thing Dunkin Donuts has that’s gluten-free is coffee. For me personally, if I wanted coffee I wouldn’t type “gluten free” into the search bar.
A second important point to consider when searching for allergy-free food is that none of the apps list out all the ingredients in the displayed menu items (there isn’t really room to list all the ingredients in the app). If you’re not already familiar with the restaurant and each menu item, you’re not going to know if the food is safe for you just by looking at the app.
Even when you search for allergy-free foods, the restaurants that appear in the search results often do not provide any indication that they serve allergy-free food, nor are menus items marked with tags that indicated if they were allergy-free. Uber Eats results were better about indicating allergens when compared to Doordash and Grubhub, both of which gave very limited indication about what was allergy-free.
Specify your Food Allergy in the Special Instructions Section
The food delivery service apps have a “special instructions” section that you as the customer can fill out before you place your order. Entering your food allergy in this section is an additional step you can take to reduce the risk of your food containing the allergy.
When looking through the apps I found that DoorDash and Grubhub were more likely to have a “Special Instructions” sections than Uber Eats, but DoorDash will sometimes tell you after you click on “Special Instructions” that your restaurant of choice doesn’t actually accept special instructions.
As the customer, you also need to be smart about when you use the special instructions in combination with what your order. If you order a cheese burger and then noted in the special instructions that you’re allergic to dairy, you’ll still probably end up with a cheese burger, or the restaurant may call you wondering why you ordered cheese if you have a dairy allergy.
Even if a restaurant does accept special instructions through your app of choice, that is not an indication that they can accommodate your food allergy. Some restaurants do not have good allergy-handling policies, so writing in your allergy may not impact your order at all! You may also be charged for adding instructions in some cases, so beware.
Uber Eats has the Most Features to Support Allergy-Free Customers
Uber Eats has put some good effort into making their app as allergy friendly as possible. This does show through in some places on the app, but in others places its not providing a whole lot of benefit to the customer.
I mentioned previously that Uber Eats did not often display the “special instructions” section, but it does have an Allergy Requests section for some restaurants which is even better for those with food allergies. This section appears at the bottom of the screen of the menu item you’ve selected, and only displays if the restaurant has chosen to accommodate food allergies through the app.
If the Allergy Requests section is available, you’ll be able to select what allergens you’re avoiding and you have the option to leave a note along with you allergy selection. Uber Eats says that if the restaurant can’t accommodate your allergy request the restaurant should notify you directly.
Uber Eats also allows has allergen filtering options. In the top right of the Uber Eats app next to the search bar, there’s a settings button you can tap to open filtering options. If you scroll to the bottom of the filtering options, under the “Dietary” heading you can select from the following options; Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-Free, Halal, and Allergy Friendly. Obviously that doesn’t encompass all food allergies, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
Restaurants can self select to be included in these dietary filters, but regardless of the location I trying these apps in around the Bay Area, there were no restaurants that appeared under the “allergy friendly” filter, and the gluten-free filter only had a limited number of restaurants. Vegan and Vegetarian both had more options in all locations than the allergy friendly and gluten-free filters.
It’s clear that restaurants just haven’t opted in to be classified under these dietary filters. There’s a dedicated gluten-free restaurant very close to one of the locations that did not appear when I selected the gluten-free filter in the options, but it did appear when I just typed in “gluten free” into the search bar. That dedicated gluten-free restaurant also doesn’t indicate in the apps that any of it’s menu items are gluten-free.
The most success I had in finding allergy-free food in the app was just searching for “dairy-free”, “peanut allergy” and so on. This gave me more results than the dietary filters did, and was more likely to display restaurants that had the Allergy Request section.
Directly searching for allergens in this way also helped me find some restaurants that labeled their menu items with allergen info, like “dairy-free.” This is a big step forward for those with allergies! However, searching for food allergies in the Uber Eats app still did not limit results to only restaurants that could accommodate allergies.
Here’s a screenshot of the Uber Eats app showing a restaurant that did label their menu items and gluten-free and dairy-free:
Do your Own Research Before Ordering through Food Delivery Apps
Even with Uber Eats allergy-friendly filters, the best way a customer can ensure their meal is allergy-free is to do their own research before placing an order through their food delivery service app of choice.
I did a poll in the Celiac subreddit (a subreddit is a forum within the Reddit platform about a specific topic) to see if members of the subreddit felt safe ordering food through Doordash, Uber Eats, Grubhub, or other food delivery apps. The results somewhat surprised me:
- 30% of respondents would feel safe using or do use food delivery service apps
- 37% of respondents don’t feel safe using these apps and prefer ordering in person
- 33% of respondents don’t feel safe eating out at all
I was most surprised that a third of respondents didn’t feel safe eating out at all, as I though a higher percentage would eat out. I was also surprised that about 1/3 of people did trust using the delivery apps.
Quite a few people commented that they would only use the apps to order from restaurants they trusted already. I failed to include this as option in the in the poll, but I’m guessing if I had included it that more people would have picked this option (ordering only from restaurants they already trust) over the option that they feel safe using the apps in general.
Since apps like Doordash, Uber Eats, and Grub Hub will convey your order to the restaurant exactly as you enter it, but don’t provide sufficient information to determine if the food at the restaurant is safe, researching and knowing what your options are ahead of time will be the best way to determine if you can order through these apps safely.
Here’s a few steps you can follow ensure the safest possible eating experience when using food delivery service apps.
Verify that the Restaurant Knows how to Safely Handle Food Allergies
If you’re not already familiar with the restaurant, spend some timing learning if it’s safe to eat there by leaning what precautions they take to handle food allergies. A good place to start is by calling the restaurant directly, explaining your food allergy, and asking them what they’ll do to prevent your food order from being contaminated with allergens.
When I’m ordering from a restaurant for the first time, I’ll also read other people’s reviews specifically about how the restaurant handled their food allergies. For those who are gluten-free, Find Me Gluten Free is a great website and app that lets you read reviews and shows you ratings from other gluten-free people who have eaten at the restaurant.
Determine what Menu Options are Allergy-Free
Since the the food delivery service apps don’t do a great job of letting you know what menu options are allergy-free, you’ll need know ahead of time what you’re going to order.
You can always call the restaurant and ask what options they have that are allergy-free, or sometimes restaurants will even have a gluten-free menu or something similar for other allergens. Googling or looking at the restaurant’s website are also great resources for learning what allergy-free options restaurants have.
Notify the Restaurant that You’re Going to Place an Order
Before you even place your order through the app of your choice, can call the restaurant ahead of time to let them know about your allergy needs and let them know what to expect in your order.
This is a really good idea especially if there is no way to indicate your allergy needs in the app when you’re ordering, but in all cases notifying them ahead of time and explaining your situation will only make it safer for you.
Note your Food Allergy in the App when Ordering where Possible.
Although its not always possible to note your food allergy or instructions about how your food should be handled, doing so whenever you can is one more step you can follow to ensure your safety.
Follow-up with the Restaurant after You’ve Placed Your Order.
Whether or not you called the restaurant before you placed your order through the food delivery app, you can call them after you’ve placed your order to confirm they have your order correct and confirm that they’ll handle your food safely.
You can not be too careful when ordering food. I know it can be a lot of work to research restaurants ahead of time and call them to verify their allergy-handling policies, but eating safe food is worth it.