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How to Discuss Your Nondairy Diet with Restaurant Servers

When you eat out, your waiter or waitress can help guide you away from dairy items on the menu and in the food you're interested in ordering. When you have special dietary needs — like a dairy-free lifestyle — your attitude and approach are important to building an agreeable relationship with your restaurant servers.

Being assertive (but kind) to restaurant staff

Right from the beginning, you want to be clear about what you need when you go out to eat. You need to tell the wait staff exactly what you can and can’t eat, which requires you to be assertive. You need to let your waitperson know at the outset that you want to order a meal without dairy products.

Make sure you’re clear and explain the types of ingredients you want to avoid. Tell the person whether you’re limited to obvious sources of milk, cream, and cheese, or whether you’re someone who can’t even tolerate minor amounts of dairy ingredients in, for example, a piece of bread or a slice of cake.

If the server acts wishy-washy and isn’t sure about whether a menu item has dairy in it or not, don’t take any risks. Ask to speak to a manager. The manager has direct access to recipes and can verify whether something has dairy in it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Taking a friendly approach with wait staff

You must be assertive when communicating with your server. However, don’t be so assertive that you turn him or her off from helping you. A friendly face will get you much further. In fact, when you’re asking for special attention at a restaurant, a smile and a thank you go a long way (for you and for others who will follow in your footsteps).

Restaurant personnel will be more receptive to your requests if you’re pleasant in your interactions with them. If you’re having trouble finding something you can eat, they’ll be more likely to make suggestions and extend some extra effort on your behalf as well.

Here’s a tip about tipping. If the server gives you good service, make sure you tip him or her 15 to 20 percent, especially if you’ve asked for several substitutions and special food items. The wait staff usually receives a pittance for an hourly wage; the majority of income comes from tips. Reward good service when you get it.

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