Thursday, April 23, 2015

Do You Travel Gluten Free? Here's Why I Think You Should!

As I prepare to head off to Barcelona with the family in a few days, I can't help but be excited about all the new experiences my kids are going to be exposed to while we're in Spain. We're spending a few days in Barcelona before making our way to the Costa Brava for a TBEX travel conference at the end of the month.

As you may know, after moving to Paris at the beginning of the year, I started writing about our travel experiences on Gluten Free Family Travel, and I'm excited to meet some other bloggers and travel professionals who work in the industry. The conference fell smack-dab in the middle of school holidays here in France, so we decided to make a family vacation out of it.

Amidst all the planning, I started getting some messages from Celiac and gluten intolerant people through the contact form on my site and via email, mentioning that they have been too afraid to travel since being diagnosed. The fear of not finding anything safe to eat, or getting sick on the road in a foreign country where they don't speak the language is enough to make many people decide the risk isn't worth the reward. For some, they mention only taking local road trips where they pack absolutely every morsel of food that will pass their lips while they're away.

This makes me incredibly sad, although not at all surprised. The "gluten free diet" has become the butt of many a joke recently, and instead of the illness aspect behind the need to adopt a gluten free lifestyle being the focus, it's the fad element that the general public has grabbed hold of. As a result, many people don't truly understand how sick eating gluten can make a person who must medically abstain from it. Add to that the fact that it's complicated enough in your own mother tongue, and the thought of having to explain it to someone in a different language can be overwhelming. It can often feel that it's easier to just stay home.

As a mom to a gluten free child, I also worry every time we book a trip. Will the airline forget his meal? Will the restaurant staff really be able to prepare him something safe? What happens if he accidentally gets glutened and has diarrhea for the whole trip? Or throws up? Or breaks out in a rash from head to toe? These things can happen, and I worry about it all the time.

But I don't let it control me, and I don't think it should control you either.

Here's why I travel gluten free, and why I think you should too:

1- Because safe gluten free food can be found all over the world.

It's true. It may mean you have to change the way you eat when you travel, but that doesn't mean that safe food isn't available. Fruits and vegetables, plain meats and fish, and many grains are all gluten free. Internationally, more and more supermarket chains are stocking prepackaged gluten free items on their shelves. Maybe you won't be able to enjoy a meal at the hottest restaurant in town, but purchasing fresh food from a local market can be just as authentic a travel experience and equally delicious. Plus, sometimes the best meals are the ones from that little place most people have never heard of, only you do because you had to look beyond the typical tourist traps. Plus, with the increasing popularity of local home rental services, it's possible to rent out an apartment and cook most of your own meals, avoiding the need to rely on hotel restaurants at all.

Gluten Free Lemon Tart in Paris

2- Because some countries do gluten free extremely well.

Have you ever been to Italy? Ireland? Canada? Most Latin American countries? You should go! In Italy gluten free food is considered medicine, and almost every pharmacy carries some prepackaged gluten free foods. Restaurant and hospitality workers are extremely knowledgeable and often have gluten free items available even if not stated directly on the menu. Ireland has a ton of gluten free options in stores and restaurants. And my home country of Canada? At least in the big cities, safe gluten free grub is not hard to find. In Central America, we never have trouble finding safe food for my son because most items are rice or corn based.

Gluten Free pasta at a restaurant in Caramanico, Italy

3- Because the travel industry is catching on, and only continued demand will ensure that gluten free travel gets easier.

The first time we asked for a gluten free meal for my son on an airplane he got a piece of dry chicken and plain white rice. Today, his gluten free meal often looks better than my regular one. It may be partly due to the "fad" but an increased demand for gluten free items on planes, cruises, and in hotel restaurants is leading to increased availability. That means more choice and safer options, if you do a bit of research first.

My son's gluten free meal on Aer Lingus

4- Because I won't let fear control his life.

Following a 100% gluten free lifestyle is time consuming, can be complicated, and sometimes means that my son is left out of things even if that's not the intention. There's no getting around it. He's not gluten free by choice, which means he can't cheat when he feels like it. He asks if food is safe almost constantly, even when it's me who is feeding it to him. It is a big deal if he takes one bite of something unsafe. He will get sick for days if we mess up. Isn't that enough restriction in his life? While I certainly ensure that he has a healthy respect for the need to be careful with his food, I don't want him to have a fear of the world around him. I want him to understand his limitations, and then find a way to overcome them. I don't want him to be afraid of new experiences because of his food restrictions, and for that to happen, I have to show him how to navigate those challenges.

Enjoying a smoothie on the balcony in our newly adopted city of Paris

5- Because I want to give him the skills he needs to flourish and be self-reliant. 

What does that have to do with travel? Everything! There will be many situations in which he will have to navigate the world of food outside of what is provided at home. Should I keep him home from school trips? Refuse to let him join sports teams or other social groups because they may go away on tournaments where he will have to eat? Birthday parties? What about dating, college, business meetings? Life happens, and I don't want him missing out on any of it. Travel teaches him how to be assertive and confident. He is learning how to ask questions and search for alternatives. He is also learning that he can be a part of the world around him in a meaningful way, even if it means he has to do things a little bit differently.


Climbing a gigantic slide in El Salvador

6- Because there's more to life than food.

Food obviously plays a larger role in my son's life than in the lives of people without any restrictions, but I want him to know that there's more to life than just worrying about food. There's music, and books, and friends, and sports, and family, and travel, and languages, and on and on and on. And I want to expose him to as much of it as possible while he's still young and excited about everything. He's not afraid to pick up an instrument, or dance in public, or practice saying something in a new language. He's not afraid to try a new sport, or practice a new skill, or learn a new game. Food is but one aspect of his existence, and I refuse to let it have more control over his life than it already does.


Some of our memories from an incredible trip to Costa Rica


7- Because the world is a big place, and I want him to experience it.

Climbing the steps to Montmartre in Paris. Watching crocodiles from a bridge in Costa Rica. Visiting museums in Washington, D.C. Climbing a volcano in El Salvador. Accompanying his grandfather on his first trip back to his hometown in Italy in over 60 years. All of these experiences are things my son has been blessed enough to have done in his short life, despite being gluten free. And I hope he will continue to have more. I can't wait to show him Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the beaches of the Costa Brava. I want to see him climb the Great Wall of China or visit his Tio in Colombia. I want him to hear new languages, experience new cultures, and try new foods. And I want to teach him how to be careful and confident, respectful and self-assured, and to embrace everything this world has to offer. As long as it's gluten free.





Do you travel gluten free? What are your reasons for setting out to explore the world?

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