A version of this article was originally published in Glutenfreeglobalicious Magazine (May 1 2018 Edition)
Travel can be equally exhilarating and stress-inducing. And when it comes to traveling as a celiac, that goes twofold! The question of “will I find food that I like?” suddenly becomes “will I find food that I can safely eat?”. For many of us, it’s a daunting process – especially when you add on foreign languages and/or traveling companions that don’t share your allergy. Despite the difficulties, I’m a strong believer that travel is for everybody and that with the right preparation even the most sensitive celiac CAN get out there and explore! Not sure where to start? Here are my top tips for celiac travel:
When it comes to life, I’m a Type A/B combo. When it comes to researching restaurants before a trip, I’m a Type A Tornado: spreadsheets, links, hours of availability – you name it, I’m noting it down. Doing this (at whatever level you feel comfortable), can save you a LOT of grief once your vacation starts. Few things are worse than dinnertime rolling around and having a group of friends turning hangry on you because you forgot to do your homework and scout out a safe place to eat! Additionally, some foods we may take for granted as “safe” aren’t necessarily that way in other countries, so it’s a good idea to read up in advance. Resources for this include:
- Apps/Websites such as:
- The “Find Me GlutenFree” App
- Yelp (search Gluten Free in both English and the native language to be sure you find all relevant reviews)
- FourSquare (same goes as with Yelp)
- Celiac Travel – the Celiac Travel website has a generous collection of pre-made travel cards explaining celiac disease in a number of languages. Print them out and bring with you – but don’t forget to donate!
- National celiac associations – many countries have these and they are GREAT ways to find approved restaurants and stores
- Labeling Laws –Some areas (such as the European Union), require that all packaged items list allergens in bold and instruct manufacturers to state if any trace amounts of allergens are possible. Doing a quick search for labeling laws where you’ll be going can help you avoid confusion later on.
Most Americans have heard the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “- Practice, practice, practice”. Well, when traveling as a celiac, the same rule applies. Before jumping into a two-week, cross-Atlantic adventure in a foreign country, for example, start small. Go on a weekend away (or even to a new town a few minutes away), before your big trip and use it as an opportunity to get comfortable with the process of eating out in new places and explaining your allergy to wait staff. Even if where you dine has nothing to do with the location you really want to go, the simple act of going to new places – extra points if you bring new faces with you! – will help you build confidence and get used to the rhythm of explaining first, eating second.
Even if it looks like there are a plethora of places to go, life rarely follows the plans we have in our heads – especially when we’re on adventures! Buying pre-packaged, single serving foods that you can bring is one of the best ways to stay safe when you travel. It’ll also help you to stay in the moment (read: panic-free!), when places you’d counted on turn out to be closed or you end up on the beach instead of in town for lunch. A few of my tried and true foods include: power/protein bars, nut/seed mixes, tuna cans, cracker packets, dried fruit packets, single servings of nut butter & granola bars. It can also be handy to pack a set of reusable utensils (or a pack of disposable ones, if you’re going somewhere that cleaning them well will be an issue), and a Swiss army knife (in your check bag, of course!), to use on fruit and cans once you arrive.
Pick Your Travel Companions Wisely
I’ll never forget being on a group trip in Morocco. I was with fifty of my partner’s MBA peers and every time we sat down to a meal, whether I was eating something I’d packed or ordering off a local menu, the topic was inevitably my celiac situation. And since the table companions kept rotating, I basically ended up spending four days explaining how sick I could get – and did get, eventually, on that trip! – instead of enjoying myself. Just goes to show: pick your companions wisely. Overall, small groups tend to be easier to manage and venturing out with people who are already aware of your allergy pre-travel makes mealtimes go more smoothly.
Trust Your Gut
When it comes to eating the unknown (or at unknown/non-researched locations), trust your gut. Ironic, but true. If a delicious looking dish or the scent wafting across the room when you first enter a restaurant tempts you, make sure you are REALLY convinced by the wait staff and/or chef before ordering. In many cultures it’s considered normal to “strongly reassure” the customer that “everything will be fine”, but nobody knows your body better than you do. If you aren’t getting the answers you’re looking for, weigh the risk. A few “red flags” that I look out for are:
- “Yes we can do gluten free – just don’t eat the bread” (Same goes for “just don’t eat the pasta”.)
- “We have a very small kitchen.”
- “Can you eat flour” → while this can sometimes be indicative of a language barrier, it can also be a sign that the staff hasn’t been trained on gluten/celiac/wheat allergies.
At the end of the day, having a flexible mindset and reasonable expectations (not to mention a little creativity!), is key. See a grill that doesn’t look strictly safe? Talk to the kitchen about using aluminum foil. In a rush and not sure where the day will take you? Hard-boiled eggs and fruit that has a peel (bananas are particularly handy!), can be a life saver. It’s not always the most glamorous, but with some creativity and a sense of adventure, celiac travel IS doable!