Tuesday, May 14, 2013

7 Tips for Traveling Gluten Free

My husband and I love to travel.  We haven't traveled as much as we'd like over the past few years because we were busy having our two boys, but we still managed to take some trips.  Our oldest son, who is four, went gluten free at around 18 months old, so most of the traveling he's done in his life has been of the gluten free variety. 

Who wants to miss out on this?

I'd love to say that nothing has changed when it comes to traveling since then, but I'd be lying.  Everything has changed.  The only thing that hasn't changed is our love of visiting new places.  We would never deny our son the chance to see the world because of his food restrictions, but we do have to limit those spur of the moment "let's just stop in at this place" and eat whatever's on offer.  There's a lot more planning involved, and sometimes a lot less spontaneity.  Here are some of the tips we live by while traveling with our gluten free son.

1- Bring Snacks:  Depending on how far you're going and how you're traveling, this could mean bringing a few small things, or packing a proper meal.  When we take road trips, like the time we went to Washington and Delaware, we only had to pack snacks because grocery stores and eateries with gluten free menus weren't too hard to find along the route.  Flying is an entirely different matter.  Few airlines offer gluten free options, and our son's double whammy of also being dairy free makes matters more difficult.  We bring a proper meal for flights, including enough snacks for the airport and travel to our final destination.  It saves money, but most importantly, ensures that our son doesn't eat something that will make him sick before the trip has even started.  Cereal bars, crackers, dried fruit, even fresh fruits and veggies that are packaged correctly are good options.

Who needs plane food?

2- Choose Your Accommodations Carefully:  We have yet to go to an all inclusive since our son's diagnosis.  I have heard of certain resorts that do gluten free well, but I've yet to check one out.  There are also companies that specialize in gluten free travel, but most of the time the trips are geared towards adults.  We prefer to stay in hotels with kitchenettes.  That doesn't mean we cook every meal, but it does allow for us to keep the basics on hand for when little else is available, or for snacks and quick meals.  Another option is the one we opted for in Costa Rica:  Rent a house.  Renting is often cheaper than staying at a hotel, and you have more room plus all the amenities and a proper kitchen.  You're in charge of what food gets in, and the likelihood of cross-contamination happening decreases significantly. 

The yard at our rental house in Costa Rica

3- Explain Gluten Free in the Native Language:  You don't have to speak the language of the country you're visiting to get the message across.  There are computer apps and dining cards that can do it for you.  Celiac Travel has free printable ones in several languages that you can take with you to hotels or restaurants to explain what gluten free means.  This doesn't always mean that they will work, but particularly in larger establishments where there is a trained chef, they can be a big help.  Learn the words and a few phrases from memory so you can at least list the basics in a pinch.  Sometimes people are eager to help but don't always get it right. On our flight to Costa Rica, our son was given a special meal with rice, chicken and green beans, all gluten free.  However, the flight attendant still included the dinner roll and cookie in the container.  It's up to you to be vigilant. 

4- Learn What the Ingredients are in Typical Dishes:  Every country has a few dishes they specialize in, and those are often the ones served to tourists.  Do some research ahead of time and figure out which ones are naturally gluten free, or could easily be modified to become gluten free.  Not only does this give you some peace of mind when eating out, it also increases your chances of actually getting a gluten free meal if little or no changes need to be made on the part of the establishment preparing the meal.  This way you can still enjoy the local cuisine, will have an easier time navigating menus, and can order with more confidence.

Fish Stew with Plantain Chips in El Salvador

5- Beware the buffet:  All-inclusive resorts or large hotels with big breakfast buffets are prime locations for cross-contamination.  People mix up serving spoons, things are battered and fried in the same oil used to cook items that would otherwise be gluten free, and often there is no one around to question about what is safe to eat.  We successfully navigated the huge breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Presidente in El Salvador by following 2 tips.  1) Arrive early.  We were always the first at breakfast, so we knew the spoons had not been double dipped.  2) Eat simply.  My son had fruit and eggs most mornings.  Bacon sometimes.  At the time he wasn't dairy free, so he also had yogurt.   Juice.  Nothing complicated, nothing that may have come in contact with baked goods.  3) Let the staff know your restrictions and follow their recommendations.    Talk to the hotel manager, but more importantly, talk to the servers and other kitchen staff.  They're the ones handling your food, so don't underestimate their value as allies.  The serving staff told us when an item may have come into contact with something unsafe for our son.  The omelette guy had a special pan he didn't use on anyone else until he had made my son's eggs.  Be friendly and polite, and people will often be happy to help.  Don't forget to thank whoever helps and get their names.  Tell their manager.  Write a blog post.  Write a letter to the president of the hotel.  Leave a tip.  Direct business their way. 

6- Buy Your Own Food and Eat More Whole Foods:  When traveling, we always hit up a supermarket or food stand and buy some local stuff.  It may not be easy to find your favourite brand of gluten free cereal or pasta, but that doesn't mean you can't eat well.  There is so much gluten free food to choose from.  Fruit, vegetables, chicken, beef, pork, fish, lamb, beans, rice, corn, yogurt, cheese, quinoa.  The list goes on.  You may not be able to find prepackaged GF goods, but most of those aren't good for you anyway.  If you need to buy something that won't go bad, look for plain rice cakes, plantain chips, plain popcorn.  Plan ahead and include a food budget.

Strawberries, Cucumber & Papaya as a go-to snack

7- Do some Research:  Depending on how far off the beaten path you plan to travel, it's often possible to scope out some options before you go.  Bigger restaurants often have their menus online.  In Washington D.C. we ate at a café in the Native American Museum that had a ton of gluten free options, all labeled.  Pick out your restaurants beforehand, or stop in before you're hungry to see what's on the menu.  Spontaneity is great, but sometimes it's more important to stay safe.  Research local gluten free or Celiac support groups.  Most countries have one, even if it's just a Facebook page.  Get in touch with them for recommendations and tips. 

Lunch on top of a volcano.  All Gluten Free.

Travel is a great way to see the world, make new friends, and experience new things.  Being gluten free shouldn't stop you from enjoying new experiences.  A little bit of preparation and a lot of vigilance can help make any trip food safe. 

Happy Travels!



1 comment :

  1. Good info! I too have Celiac and have to be dairy/preservative free. I am an adult woman and travel exactly the way you described. We stay only where we can get kitchenettes. The problem I have found even though a lot of restaurants provide some gluten free foods especially with the latest dieting craze, they do not provide the proper cooking environment. Therefore cross contamination takes place. So when we travel I buy most of my food and take it with me or ck for local stores where we are staying to purchase food from. Haven't even tried going out of the country since my diagnoses. Never want to be as sick as I was again. Do not know if I should try a cruise again either.
    My life is so much better now but a bit more complicated. :-)