Many dietary staples for people with food allergies -- even severe or multiple allergies -- are the same as for everyone: fruits, vegetables, grains, beverages, and meats. Finding them is easy. Finding foods uniquely suited for allergies, however, can be tough.
Your options for buying allergy-safe foods will vary by your location. You'll often find more choices near large cities, but some smaller towns have great options. This general advice can't replace a visit to your local stores.
1. Shopping at Warehouse Clubs
Warehouse clubs are generally cost-effective but may not offer many allergy-safe options. Potential exceptions include sausages and hors d'oeuvres that are suitable for many allergy needs, some dairy-free milk alternatives, and nut-free snacks.
2. Shopping at Supermarkets
Supermarkets vary in the amount of allergy-safe food they carry onsite. As a general rule, these foods are shelved in the "natural foods" or "health foods" section in larger grocery stores. You will be able to find some dairy-free milks, especially soy and rice, at virtually all supermarkets. Areas with large populations of school children are likely to have large selections of wheat- and dairy-free foods (especially cereals, snacks, and pasta) to accommodate kids on gluten-free/casein-free diets, plus some nut-free cereals, sandwich spreads, and snacks. Some supermarkets -- particularly in areas where they are competing with specialty retailers -- also offer baking mixes, frozen allergy-safe foods, and a wide selection of dry goods.
3. Shopping at Specialty Supermarkets
Specialty supermarkets, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, can be viable options for allergy-safe shopping. They generally offer a variety of products for a number of restricted diets and may offer pamphlets and other materials detailing which items in their stores are dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free, or free of other common allergens. Specialty supermarkets often offer store brands of especially common allergy-safe alternatives such as rice pasta and soy milk, making them especially cost-effective for these products. Some sell baked goods that may meet some common allergy needs.
4. Shopping at Ethnic Markets
Ethnic markets are an often overlooked option for allergy-safe shopping. They are especially useful for grain, fruit, and vegetable allergies, since different national food traditions may rely on grains and plants that are less common in American cooking. Never buy any food whose ingredient label you do not understand or that is not otherwise completely clear. This may be a problem on labels that have been translated.
5. Shopping at Health Food Stores
It's hard to make generalizations about health food stores, as they vary widely in their selection, the knowledge of their staff, and their prices. Nonetheless, in any given area, a health food store is likely to have the widest selection of foods from a variety of smaller allergy-safe retailers. Health food stores, in general, are ideal places to buy baking aids like corn-free starches, egg replacer, xanthan gum, and wheat-free flour. Many also sell a large selection of cookbooks. Do be aware of cross-contamination possibilities if you choose to buy from bulk bins.
6. Shopping Online
Online retailers are available no matter your physical location and may be the best choice if your allergy needs are complex or if your local grocery shopping options are limited. The primary drawbacks to online shopping are shipping costs and the need to plan ahead (since you will need to order foods in advance of when you need them). Online shopping is easiest for nut allergies and celiac disease, since specialty online grocers exist for both of these conditions. However, you can buy nearly any allergy-safe food online (although frozen or refrigerated foods are, of course, cumbersome to ship).