Are you considering a trip to Paris with food allergies? Travelling with food allergies can seem difficult, even more so when you don’t speak the local language. Fortunately a little research and preparation before you go can make it much easier to navigate food and eating out. We recently spent some time in Paris with multiple food allergies, when none of us could speak more than a few words of French. While in our experience food allergy awareness wasn’t as good in Paris as some other parts of Europe, we did manage to eat out safely. Read about our experiences with allergy labelling, dining out and allergy-friendly food options in Paris.
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Planning for Paris with food allergies
Visiting Paris was a highlight of our European trip from Australia. As all food allergy families do, we had done some research before travelling. This included checking the European food allergy labelling laws, which include 14 allergens, rather than the 10 we have here in Australia. As none of us speak French, we’d downloaded the Google translate app and organised food allergy translation cards from Equal Eats in advance (more about these later).
It’s probably not a fair assumption, but we’d heard that French restaurants may not always be as accommodating with food allergies. And of course, we knew the stereotypes about French food, with lots of butter and cheese. With a cows milk allergy to plan around this was a concern.
As with all of our holiday plans, we booked to stay in an apartment in Paris with its own kitchen facilities. Having a kitchen is a great back up plan, as it means we can have breakfast and cook meals in our apartment if needed. We of course also had multiple EpiPens and our travel and anaphylaxis action plan. Despite our concerns about language and French cuisine, we still were looking forward to enjoying some meals at Paris restaurants and bistros and hopefully visiting a patisserie or too. Although needing to avoid dairy, eggs, nuts and sesame was going to present a challenge with classic French bakery items.
European food allergy labelling laws
European food labelling laws require food providers in retail and catering to provide allergen information and follow labelling requirements. Food allergy information must be provided for both pre-packaged and non-pre-packaged foods.
Top 14 allergens
In France as in the rest of the European Union, the following 14 allergens must be included in allergen information for food ingredients:
- cereals containing gluten (such as wheat, barley and oats);
- crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters);
- molluscs (such as mussels and oysters);
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million); and
- tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).
This labelling is also required for food additives or processing aids that are present in the final product.
Labels need to emphasize the allergens present. Like Australia, precautionary labels like “may contain” are voluntary in France.
Food allergy awareness in Paris restaurants
Eating out in Paris was similar to our experience in Australia. At home it’s uncommon for restaurants to list allergens on menu items. It’s more common to see notes on menus for vegetarian, vegan or gluten free options (often listed as “available on request”). Sometimes dishes are labelled as dairy free, or less commonly there is a note that something contains nuts. More often than not there isn’t much of guide for people with allergies and it’s a matter of speaking to the staff. We don’t often see an “allergen menu” unless eating at a large chain or fast food franchise.
Paris is very similar in approach. In our experience staff didn’t ask about food allergies and it is up to the customer to disclose them when ordering.
Our approach in Paris was to look at the menu first to see if there were any potentially safe dishes. Most of the restaurants and bistros in central Paris have a menu out the front to view before entering. As we were staying in centre of Paris near the Seine and close to tourist attractions, many menus were in both French and English. Where they were in French only, we used the Google translate app to scan the menu for suitable meals first before asking for a table or speaking to staff.
We didn’t come across specific “allergen menus” in Paris, or even many menus with notes of the major allergens. It was more common to see a general note to speak to staff if you had any allergies or dietary requirements. This is similar to what we are used to at home. This means we would need to go through the menu and then speak to the staff to disclose our allergies and ask about ingredients in the dishes. The server would then speak to the kitchen and ask about the ingredients and risk of cross contact (such as whether it’s possible to cook something in a separate pan). Whether we decide to order the dish often depends on how confident we feel after speaking to the staff.
In Paris we found that most of the places we chose to eat could provide answers about whether a dish contained our allergens, with some much needed help from our allergy cards.
Allergy translations cards
I am a firm believer in learning at least a few phrases in the local language when visiting another country. At the very least, learning some polite greetings and please and thank you really helps. As we don’t speak French (or at least very little), having accurate food allergy travel cards was a must for us. While most of the places we ate had at least one staff member or more who could speak English, having the correct French words for our allergens was very important so nothing got lost in translation.
Before we travelled, we ordered customised digital cards from Equal Eats with our multiple allergens translated accurately into French. The cards have both French and English as well as a request to ensure that our dish was free from those ingredients. The cards also have some notes on avoiding cross contact in preparing the meal. I made sure to print out some hard copies too so that I had something to give serving staff to take back to the kitchen and show the chef.
Allergy translation cards made a huge difference to communicating clearly with staff. Everywhere we presented the card the servers took the time to read it and understand. At many places they took the card back to check with kitchen staff, even for example to check that the oil used to cook our ‘frites’ (fries) would be safe.
It pays to be flexible and have a plan B
Even armed with translation cards and staff with the best of intentions, some eateries in Paris just won’t be suitable. We stopped in to a famous Parisienne sandwich shop in the Latin quarter for lunch one day. After spending quite some time with the lovely owner going through our allergies with our French translations, I thought I had successfully managed to order a fresh baguette with ham and salad, but without butter or cheese (for a milk allergy). When it arrived, the lunch was definitely dairy free. However the baguette itself was actually made freshly inhouse and came out completely smothered in sesame seeds, another of our allergens (which was listed on our card). The rest of the family ate and we then went to plan B: visiting a bakery (boloungerie) around the corner for a vegan pretzel or two.
Sadly we didn’t have time to track down a vegan crepe shop to find safe French crepes, although there are quite a few in Paris. We did stop for crepes and coffee one afternoon, where we were able to order a beautiful fresh fruit salad for our family member with food allergies. Not quite a crepe, but still delicious, and still a wonderful experience to be enjoying it at an outdoor cafe in traditional Paris style.
Allergy friendly baguette
We were very pleased to learn that the recipe for baguette is actually mandated in France. Baguette must only be made with yeast, flour, salt and water. Provided you don’t have a wheat allergy, this makes baguettes a safer option. So we were fairly comfortable purchasing fresh baguettes from ‘boulangeries’ and enjoying baguette with our meals.
That said, be careful that baguette isn’t in contact with other foods when buying from a patisserie or shop and always ask about ingredients. As we found out with our homemade sandwich encounter, you may end up with something that isn’t traditional ‘baguette’.
Where we ate in Paris with food allergies
Given we were in Paris to see lots of tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, we mostly ate in the inner city. Our lack of confidence to start with meant that many of the allergy friendly ‘meals’ we ordered consisted entirely of ‘frites maison’ (fries or chips), plain baguette or simple salads. However as we got more adventurous, some of the restaurants that were able to cater to our multiple allergies included:
- Le Relais du Vin, on Rue Saint Denis;
- Loup, not far from the Louvre and Pompidou Centre, where the staff took our allergies seriously and checked with the chef with our allergy translation card; and
- Cafe Etienne Marcel, where we enjoyed dinner on our last night in Paris and were able to have a beautifully cooked entrecôte (steak) with frites and fresh salad with a simple vinaigrette dressing.
What about fine dining?
We didn’t really do very fine dining in Paris as we were travelling as a family. We did eat at local restaurants near our apartment. If we were eating out at more upmarket restaurants, we would take the same approach as we do at home in Australia. That is, to call the restaurant in advance to make a booking and ask if allergies can be accommodated. Advance notice always helps the restaurant cater safely (or in some cases lets you know that they can’t or won’t accommodate food allergies, so you know to avoid dining there).
Shopping for food
As were were staying in an apartment with our own kitchen we could prepare our own meals when needed. We stayed in the 1st arrondissement, not far from the Louvre and Les Halles. Nearby grocery stores included Monoprix, Carrefour and Carrefour Express where we could buy plenty of ingredients and snacks. However, it isn’t very ‘French’ to do a big grocery shop at a supermarket like at home. Fresh produce is available to buy at markets, the local boulangerie (bakery) and boucherie (butcher) and fresh fruit and vegetable shops. And of course cooking from scratch is a great way to ensure allergy friendly foods. Our apartment owner even left us a market shopping bag to shop like a local.
There are an increasing number of organic stores in Paris and more vegan options than ever. These are a good place to look for dairy and gluten free foods, but we did see gluten free and allergy friendly foods at Carrefour as well.
Buying pre-prepared items from the boulangerie was also possible as many had labels on the display cases listing the top 14 allergens present in each item. For example, we were able to buy vegan pretzels made without any milk or egg. Just be sure to declare allergies when ordering and ask if your choice is safe.
Thoughts about Paris and food allergies
While we didn’t feel that food allergy awareness was as high in Paris in some other places on our European trip (such as London), eating out was certainly manageable. We certainly weren’t as adventurous as we could have been due to our own lack of confidence with language barriers. However when we did ask about allergy accommodations, most of the staff were very willing to help us order something suitable from the menu. Eating breakfast and some meals at our apartment certainly made things easier.
If you are travelling with food allergies, don’t be afraid to include Paris in your itinerary. Just be sure to pack your allergy translation cards and have your Google translate app ready if you don’t speak French.
More tips for travelling with allergies
If you are planning a holiday, don’t underestimate the importance of ensuring you have travel insurance that actually covers your allergies. You can read more about travel insurance for allergies in our post – Travel Insurance for Allergies: What You Need to Check.
We never travel without our amazing allergy travel cards from Equal Eats. You can read more about them in our review, or head over to Equal Eats and use our discount code ALLERGYSPOT for 10% off your order.
If you’re heading to Europe, you might also be interested in our travel tips for eating out with food allergies in London.
And for more of our tips for planning your holiday, flights and staying safe while you are away, make sure to read our top tips for safe travel with allergies.