If you have food allergies or intolerances, you’ll know that eating requires a bit more thought and consideration. That’s particularly important when you’re on the road. Since I found out a few years back that I have coeliac disease, and I’m also lactose intolerant, I knew I needed to manage my diet properly, including when I’m on the road. So whatever your food allergy or intolerance may be, here’s how to travel safely.
Before You Go
Depending on what food allergy or intolerance you need to manage, some destinations are always going to be easier than others. Italy and Spain, for example, both have brilliant options for people with coeliac disease; Italy has a higher proportion of people affected, which may have prompted that availability.
My research tends to focus on the following channels:
Of course, I hear you say, but there are particular searches that I find helpful. Before we went to Tennessee last year, for example, I looked at gluten free Memphis and Nashville. I also looked at which supermarkets were recommended for free from shopping, and made a note of branches near where we were staying.
There are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to eating with allergies. Some of those have great recommendations for travel too. Don’t neglect groups that are based in your favourite travel destinations. I’m a member of a Belgian gluten and lactose free group that has signposted me to dining options I wouldn’t have found by other means. I can manage the posts in French, but when my limited Dutch deserts me, the translation options works well enough.
There are a number of allergen-friendly travel blogs, all reporting back on destinations or experiences. This can be great for getting under the skin of a destination or country.
What it means for your choices
There is no doubt that some destinations offer far more choices of safe dining than others. In some cases, this means that I will elect to book self-catering accommodation, so I can prepare food on some nights and make my life easier. This doesn’t mean that I will miss out on local tastes and flavours, but I then don’t have to rely on other people’s vigilance every night.
When You’re On the road
People with food allergies tend to report mixed views on each individual airline. Most will cater for only one allergy, so if like me, you have multiple allergies, you might want to select carefully when you book upfront. I tend to opt for gluten free rather than milk free, on the basis that it’s often easier to spot stealth milk than gluten. My best experience so far has been with United, who provided a good main (and sorbet – yay!) meal and an ok snack. Air France decided the day before I traveled that there would be no special meals and called me to let me know. This did mean being able to snag a rather good Salade Nicoise at CDG while changing planes.
I always pack some kind of picnic for long haul in case the special meals don’t get loaded. As anything sloppy tends to run the risk of being taken from you, and I don’t want to risk incubating something nasty with unchilled food, I modify what I take. Normally it includes some lactose free cheese, nut bars like Kind or nakd and some crackers. I can usually snaffle a salad or fruit salad, and that’s all good.
Don’t forget that you are allowed to pack food for medical reasons. I travel with a GP letter in case I get questioned, but it’s not happened yet. I’ll normally take mini-lactose free UHT milks and some basic gluten free carbs, as that is the part of a meal I struggle to replace.
It’s a good idea to start off with a stash of the foods that are most difficult to find in out of the way places. For me, that’s crackers and long-life milk, and perhaps some snacks.
You can usually find something suitable along the way to go alongside the basics. Don’t forget to use a translation app, book or card where needed. I can now spot most of the things I can’t eat in a variety of European languages, but it takes a while to get attuned to it.
Don’t let embarrassment or a sense of being awkward stop you from eating safely. Stopping in small town America one night, we had the choice of Taco Bell or McDonalds. A search on both indicated radical disagreement on whether Taco Bell was actually a good choice for coeliacs, so McDonalds it was. I was pretty ravenous, so I ordered a bunless burger and fries. The burger arrived, splendidly positioned at the bottom of a plastic bowl large enough to wash up in. Along with a whole crowd of staff and friends, wanting to know if it was ok. I was sure it was, and my “strange” order certainly broke the ice.
Conversely, if you’re really not sure, don’t eat it. It’s never worth the risk. I shan’t share the full details with you here, as you really don’t want to know them. But suffice to say one quarter of a roll which contained milk made for a memorable seven hour flight, two hour layover, and two hour connecting flight. On which note, be particularly vigilant the night before you fly long-haul.
When you’re In your accommodation
If you’re lucky enough to have a room with a fridge and/or a microwave, you get a chance to have a break from being hyper-vigilant when eating out. Don’t underestimate how tiring it can be to keep reading menus in detail to check out options, being observant as to whether the venue is taking you seriously, and working out what is most likely to be safe. I did, on that note, have great respect for the waiter in a Beale Street cafe who told me that the only safe thing he could guarantee was the side salad. That was fair enough, and it added a good couple of veggie portions to my day.
So give yourself a break, and maybe do a bit of self-catering if you can. Then the times that you do eat out will be all the more special.
We can’t quite manage to be as adventurous as we were before my diagnosis. And sometimes that makes me sad. But mostly it makes me feel glad that I feel so much better, and avoiding unsafe options is well worth that. I’m unlikely to have a beignet, nor a Belgian waffle. But I’ve still had fabulous Tex-Mex tapas, flat bread pizzette and dairy free ice-cream.
A safe option is normally chain restaurants. While the cooking may not always be exciting, if the menus are noted for allergens, you can expect both the kitchen and serving staff to be properly trained. We had, for example, a great lunch at Chili’s in Opry Mills, Nashville. The attentive and careful service put me at ease, and it was all achieved without any unnecessary fuss.
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants are also a really good option for eating safely with allergies. Whether it’s the attention to ingredients, or simply an appreciation that people want to choose what they ingest, I’ve had great safe dining there. I can highly recommend The Wild Cow in Nashville, where I had the most beautiful tacos, and Yerbabuena in Madrid, full of delicate and unexpected dishes.
Restaurants which focus on healthy options are often good choices. In Ghent I found Plus+ which had safe and massively filling lunches and soups. In Memphis (where eating out was a bit of a struggle), Lyfe Kitchen was my main option. Incredible stir fried veggies, burgers, and even a gluten and dairy free flatbread pizzette made me very happy indeed.
All Inclusive and Cruising
A number of all inclusive resorts now cater for guests with food allergies and intolerances. These include Beaches and Sandals, which also have a culinary concierge who will meet with guests individually to assist with meal choices.
Cruises, which are by their nature also all-inclusive, also cater for guests with food allergies. I have travelled safely on a number of cruise lines. For the personal touch, Fred Olsen offers a meeting on embarkation day to discuss safe dining. They also have a very refreshing attitude by recommending that you ask for what you would like, instead of just accepting the classic “you can have this without….”. Freds want you to request a replacement item – maybe a tomato sauce, or a fruit coulis with dessert – and do their best to accommodate this.
On a cruise, you indicate your requirements when booking. At dinner each night, the waiter will normally bring you the next night’s menu, so you can order your meal upfront and it will be specially prepared for you. Dining rooms with waiter service make allergen management easy. I would, however, recommend you be cautious in the buffet. I’ve seen other guests swap serving utensils across dishes, creating cross contamination issues. Serving staff may not be fully clued up about ingredients, so I always ask for the supervisor who can arrange for food to be brought directly from the kitchen. Sometimes a chef will trundle out to see me to offer some off menu choices.
Eating right on the road
It’s not always worked for me. That epic-transatlantic flight when I’d been lactosed. A cafe where I got glutened from a shared grill. But generally, I’ve been safe and well. And to manage that, I recommend you
- carry basics and snacks
- trust your judgement as to whether a venue can be relied upon
- when in doubt, eat nowt (and snack later)
- do your research
- carry translation aids if necessary
And don’t be put off by previous experiences. Let me tell you a quick tale of Ghent, one of my favourite cities. When we first went after I was diagnosed, I almost cried. Lunch was a portion of sundried tomatoes. I couldn’t eat my favourite Belgian dishes like stoverij and waterzooi. But over time, things change. Ghent now has a thriving veggie restaurant scene (always good for allergen management). There’s an extra supermarket, and the others have radically upped their free from game. We found a fantastic airbnb so we can cook some nights.
I promise you there are still adventures to be had.