When my daughter was 5, my family was hit with a set of dietary restrictions so intense it felt like someone had effectively emptied my kitchen cabinets, leaving behind a dusty bag of lentils and a salt shaker. Already vegetarian, we had to remove dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, and wheat when her doctors prescribed a year-long elimination diet to solve her struggles with eating and gaining weight.
Challenges abounded. At home, meal planning was stressful and confusing. At the grocery store, I squinted at the fine print on ingredient labels. Though I got good at shopping, sending my partner to the store meant teaching someone else all the rules and hazards. Once we had clearance to eat out, finding a restaurant that could accommodate our needs felt overwhelming.
Nowadays, there are apps that make coordinating special dietary needs far more manageable. From apps to help find recipes and coordinate grocery lists to apps that locate the nearest specialty bakery, plus apps offering meal planning and more, it’s easier than ever to accommodate food allergies and intolerances. Here are a few apps I wish my family had back when we were going through it.
At the Grocery StoreSift
Cost: 5 scans free, then $3/month
What it does: You can use Sift to scan the labels of grocery items to check for potential allergens. Every product screen displays a list of gluten-containing grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, dairy, and additives like soy ingredients. Sift’s simple, clean interface is easy to use. This would have been an excellent app to add to a childcare provider’s or teacher’s device to scan for potential allergens in common snack food when my daughter was in kindergarten, though of course I would have wanted the school to call me and double-check.
There’s also a button at the top of each set of Sift’s search results that allows you to search for “clean pantry items.” You can narrow your list by dairy-free, gluten-free, low-FODMAP, nightshade-free, soy-free, or vegan items.
Blind spots: Sift doesn’t include labeling for “cross contamination,” which usually shows up on packaging with language like “may contain” or “produced on equipment shared with …” If the person you’re shopping for is extra sensitive to their allergens, you’ll still need to read the actual labels in the store carefully. Also note that if your only allergy is eggs, this app does not filter by that allergen (you can use “vegan,” which will disqualify all products that contain dairy, eggs, or meat.) Also, if you have multiple allergies, the search process will take longer; Sift doesn’t allow you to filter for more than one ingredient at a time.
What it does: Much like Sift, you can use Open Food Facts to scan grocery items in the store to check for potential allergens. Its database of foods is created by users and by participating producers. Open Food Facts displays ingredients and potential allergens on the same page, including gluten, dairy, soybeans, eggs, peanuts, sesame, and other nuts.
Because the app’s data is submitted by both food producers and everyday consumers, there are a substantial number of international products in the database. This information can be crucial when traveling somewhere if you don’t know the local language well enough to read labels clearly. It was great for me to have this app on a family trip overseas, where I used it to ensure that a selection of snack foods I was considering wouldn’t activate my lactose intolerance and derail our whole day.
Blind spots: Like Sift, Open Food Facts does not specifically call out potential areas of cross contamination. Also, due to its open-source nature, some items I scanned brought up incorrect results, including the presence of an allergen that does not appear on the label itself. Always check twice!
There are other apps that also offer a leg up in the supermarket. Anylist is a grocery list and meal planner you can share with your family members, giving you the chance to leave notes on grocery items, which is especially helpful when you’re asking others to, say, shop for your family for a holiday dinner. Finally, if you don’t even know where to start with a new dietary restriction, the Spoonful app shares lists of foods that are safe for gluten-free, low-FODMAP, pescatarian, vegan, or vegetarian diets.
In Your KitchenYummly
Cost: $2.50/month for a year or $5/month if paid monthly
What it does: Yummly is an app with a browser-based counterpart and includes personalization options that allow you to automatically filter your results to match the ingredients you’re avoiding. Yummly also includes an enormous database of recipes that you can browse and add to your meal plan. Some of the recipes included are more than just a recipe; my Yummly recipe list featured an article entitled “How to scramble tofu.” And the recipes include a list of all the tools you’ll need for the dish, like pans and measuring cups—super helpful when I text a recipe to my teenage daughters to get started on for dinner, allowing them to gather everything we need right from the start.
The best part of Yummly, in my opinion, is that you can export ingredients to a shopping list that you can then import to Instacart and order for delivery if the service is available in your area.
Blind spots: This app has everything. There’s a lot it can do, so it may take you a while to explore it and figure out the best ways to use it, but that will be well worth your time. Some users report challenges with logging in or with app crashes, so be sure to keep up with any updates.
Cost: $5/month or free with NYT subscription
What it does: The NY Times Cooking app allows you to search for recipes based on your tastes, and it includes collections of recipes for vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free diets. The recipes are often—like The New York Times itself—a little more sophisticated, but they result in dishes that make you feel fancy. My favorite is the vegan cacio e pepe, a less fussy dish than some of the others in the app and the ultimate comfort food for someone like me who can’t eat dairy products.
Recipes can be saved in your “recipe box” and the ingredients added to a grocery list that you can email, text, share in Facebook Messenger, or save to a “note” on your smartphone. I’ve taken advantage of the option to save recipes in collections I label with the weeks in the month, creating a meal plan that’s easily accessible right from the home screen of the app.
Blind spots: Multi-word searches in the app seem a little glitchy. For example, my search for “dairy-free” and “chocolate cake” brought me results like pudding and sorbet.
In addition to these apps, never underestimate the power of a shared family calendar. If you plan your meals a week ahead, use the Apple or Google calendar on your smartphone to include notes for each event. If the calendar for next Tuesday has an entry at 2 pm to defrost the chicken, at 5 pm to start assembling a linked recipe, and at 6:30 pm to show up at the table, you’ve just avoided the “what’s for dinner?” and the “how can I help?” questions.
Cost: Free for basic search, $20/year for a single user account, $30/year for a family account
What it does: Meant only for people following a gluten-free diet, FindMeGlutenFree makes it easier to locate restaurants that offer gluten-free options. Users can filter by restaurants that are dedicated gluten-free—meaning they don’t make anything that contains gluten—or restaurants with a separate gluten-free menu. Restaurants are peer-reported, so if you find a good one that isn’t in FindMeGlutenFree’s database, you can recommend it via the app. (At the same time, this means that you should double-check at the restaurant to be sure you get food that’s safe for your gluten intolerance.)
This app also offers a gluten-free product database and a bookmark feature to save listings you’d like to check out later. The premium version of the app includes additional search filters like “open now,” “most celiac friendly,” and a directional search that finds restaurants on your route. My gluten-free friends have told me this app was an absolute savior to them in the first weeks and months after being diagnosed with celiac disease, helping them eat out and discover new products during a very stressful transition.
Blind spots: Obviously, this isn’t the app for you if your food allergy/sensitivity is not gluten. Also, the data in FindMeGlutenFree is only as good as the people who add to its knowledge base, so restaurants with good gluten-free options may still not show up in the results if no one has taken the time to enter them.
What it does: Spokin makes it easy to find a restaurant, bakery, or ice cream parlor where it’s safe to eat for someone with your allergy or restriction. Plus, the app has hundreds of resources on allergy research, safe foods, and travel advice. Once you fill out your profile with the foods you’re avoiding, the app will show you all the potentially safe places you can eat on a detailed map of your area. My mother-in-law recently moved to a new town, so I used Spokin to search her neighborhood for restaurants where I could safely order takeout. We were thrilled to find a local pizza place that offers dairy-free or regular cheese on their pizzas, giving us a fun option for everyone.
Spokin even allows you to connect to other users with food allergies in your area (assuming they have agreed to make their profiles public) and lets you write reviews of the restaurants and products you use and enjoy.
Blind spots: This app is only available on iOS devices. The FAQ on the company’s site claims it’s working on one for Android, but there’s no estimated launch date. Also, though most restaurant listings include a link to the restaurant’s website, you’ll typically have to leave the app to see a menu.
Eating out when you are trying to manage food allergies is always likely to be a little bit scary, but these apps will hopefully give you a running start before you show up to an unvetted restaurant and share your concerns with the waitstaff. Because I have a potentially fatal seafood allergy, I’ve perfected my “restaurant shakedown” speech. I call and say, “I have a really serious allergy to all fish—shellfish and regular fish. Can you make me something that doesn't have any fish or shellfish—not even fish sauce or oyster sauce, and made in a clean pan? I promise to give you a great review anyway, even if you say you can’t feed me safely. Trust me, an ambulance outside is really bad for business.” Plus, when I travel overseas, I try to add a note to my phone, in my destination’s language, explaining my allergy.
The devices we carry in our pockets have the potential to help us manage everyday life, even when that life includes challenging dietary restrictions. From planning a holiday meal at home to dining out or managing a whole new range of grocery items, these apps belong in your toolbelt.