Tips & Tricks For Travelling Gluten Free
I have always been a traveller. I was late to marriage and to kids and before the attachment to group domesticity, all I wanted to do was to earn enough money to see as much of the world as possible. I met my husband whilst travelling in Egypt and we had big plans to head for South America after we were wed… then I fell pregnant!
We had a difficult babyhood with our daughter. She was not a sleeper and needed constant entertaining and stimulation. We watched with envy at other parents out in restaurants with sleeping, content babies in car seats, whilst ours screamed her lungs out if the rocking stopped even for a second. Slowly… the prospect of booking a flight became an increasingly distant dream… the thought of subjecting a plane full of passengers to the high-pitched wails was way too stressful.
When she reached about 5 we started to revisit the possibility of a trip. I wouldn’t say she was easier (she will always be a child who has unending energy, needs lots of stimulation and her ability to argue and remain steadfastly stubborn can seem like a force of nature at times), but we had reached a point when we felt we would be able to manage things enough to make a start on that bucket list of travel plans… Then came the bomb-shell… She was diagnosed Coeliac!
Maybe that accounted for the hellish behaviour we had endured… Either way, it immediately set back all intention of getting on a plane. After initial panic that seeing the world may now be permanently off-limits and a disproportionate amount of grief about this prospect, I pulled myself together… ‘Really?’… How many gluten-intolerent people must there be in the world? They must be everywhere! They survive where they live right? They still eat? So there must be safe food out there…
It is just a matter of getting perspective and planning properly… You can’t live in a gluten free bubble and whilst it is always important to take steps to avoid eating gluten (it will of course make you unwell if you are Coeliac) you should keep the overall risk in perspective. Occasional mistakes might (in fact probably will) be made and when they are you will have to live with the consequences (whether these are more or less painful). This will be the case whether you travel or not. Stick with it… the consequences will settle back down… they have done before… and it is always important to remember that an exceptional glutenous mistake with not kill you!
Your alternative is to live in a gluten free, crumb-free zone… all doors closed to outside food-intrusion, nothing made by anyone else… and never venture out to enjoy all the world has to offer.
I don’t know about you, but that is not a way that I wish to live and not a way I want my daughter to learn to live. Life should be about experience, adventure and exploration… And we are finding that our fears about travel have been worse than the reality. Slowly, but surely, our confidence is growing. With a few extra considerations and a little extra planning, you can move about the world safely and enjoyably…
Thoughts On Where You Stay & How To Pack to Eat Safely
When we book a holiday, the accommodation we choose will often be a crucial factor in ensuring the experience we intend to achieve. Do we want an action-packed, close to nature camping experience? A totally flexible on-the-go road journey, staying wherever we find along the way? An all inclusive, waited-on, everything on site hotel? A self-catered, ‘in control’, but choose day to day option? Or something of a combination/in-between any of these?
Whichever you choose, when you are gluten free the same question will arise… How do I make sure I can eat safely so that ill-health caused by my gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease does not end up blighting my well-earned break? It pays to plan ahead, to think about the implications of your choice of accommodation and to pack some basic ‘essentials’ for your gluten free journey.
Food we have at home is mostly prepared with fresh ingredients and we know, with certainty, what is in each meal. Staying in hotels and eating food prepared by others will never be able to guarantee that surety. We know from experience that however well you brief your ‘hosts’, many of them will still not fully understand your dietary requirements or the implications of getting it wrong. As a family, we try hard not to get too anxious about it and expect that we may need ‘plan B’ up a sleeve… Some basic gluten free staples in the suitcase will ensure you won’t go hungry when in a tight spot.
It may be wise, particularly with children, to consider the self-catering option when booking accommodation. In my experience, this ensures peace of mind that if you need complete dietary control or simply can’t find dinner to suit your needs or preferences (or those of the kids), there is always the fall-back of being able to cook up something ‘back at the ranch’. You may find that you don’t use it much, but it is a great reassurance to have ‘there’ and takes the stress out of ‘hunting for a meal’ when you are exhausted from your day of site-seeing or beach-combing and just want to chill.
So what should you take? Think ahead when you pack… Wherever we stay, we always take a small stash of gluten free rolls, a loaf of bread, crackers and biscuits to pair up with local fresh ingredients – cheeses, ham, pickles, fish, vegetables, beans, fruit or whatever else you fancy. If we have access to self-catering or are camping, a bag of gluten free pasta is a must. Providing you have a heat source and a pan, you can prepare it anywhere and a pack goes a long way! Throw some tomatoes and local veg on the top, add some cheese, nuts or meat as you wish… meal done!
Wherever you stay, be sure to contact your accommodation ahead of your arrival to check the facilities available to you. A fridge or even a small microwave oven can be a real life-saver. If necessary try and negotiate the availability of these basics with the owner/hotelier. If you explain your particular health needs, some will go well out of their way to ensure you are catered for.
Breakfast – How to Prepare for the Day Ahead
If you are staying in a hotel, think twice before booking expensive hotel breakfasts unless you have managed to negotiate a gluten free option in advance. Check ahead…… Can they ensure enough gluten free options (this may be easier if it is a cooked breakfast) or is it a buffet predominantly made up of croissants, rolls and danish? If you do want to join the other hotel guests for breakfast (or it is included in the room rate), make sure that you take a loaf of bread or rolls and pack a couple of toaster bags to protect from cross-contamination if you fancy toast.If you are managing your own breakfast arrangements, be sure to pack some bread/rolls and cereal and make good use of the room fridge (check ahead to be sure you have one) to store milk and cheese. You get to eat breakfast in your PJ’s (or even in bed), on the balcony or in the garden at your leisure and without the need to queue. Just make sure you have a good supply of local juice and coffee to complete the experience!
Staples – Gluten Free Stuff on my Packing List
Bread (Sliced) and/or Rolls (pick a brand that will last a few days and is air-packed for freshness if possible)
salt, pepper & dried herbs
Cereals/GF Porridge for Breakfast
Plastic Food Bags
Bread (and Cake) Mix – if self-catering
Some home-made biscuits/cake/muffins for the first few days
(Think ahead for birthdays that are happening whilst away, particularly if you are abroad. Do you need to take a cake mix for that all important celebratory bake?)
This can seem like a lot, but you may be pleased you have it available and you will reap the benefit of space on the return journey for all those locally bought gifts and goodies – from clothes, jewellery and carvings to local honey and spices.
Getting There – Tips for Transport
Make sure you ensure you have enough ready-to-eat food for the journey (from leaving your home to arriving at your accommodation and possibly through breakfast the following morning), until you have time to check out the local supermarket. Factor in the possibility of a few hours delay and possible Sunday shop closures, particularly if you have children. Trust me, when they get hungry, you will be really pleased you packed an extra GF sandwich, sausage roll, muffin or pack of biscuits.
Think about : How many meals will the journey cover? Will you be able to get a decent GF meal at the airport/station/service stop? Is there a meal expected to be served on the plane/train/boat?
Contact the transport carrier well ahead of your journey (particularly on longer-haul journeys) to check whether they have a gluten free option for food served ‘in flight’. If they do, be sure to book it in advance. If you have children, take extra sustenance for them anyway, as the chances of them liking what is served is minimal and you really won’t need extra whining or complaining at 30,000 feet.
Bear in mind that some airlines will give you a little extra free baggage allowance if you are able to demonstrate you have a dietary medical condition such as Coeliac, which will cover any extra weight for basic food packed on the outward journey. Check with the carrier for their policies and rules well ahead of travel.
Foreign travel with an intolerance or allergy can be a scary prospect. The question of whether you will be able to eat out/eat safely, may be the one thing that helps you to decide whether to actually book the trip. Getting the confidence that all will be fine may take time, but as with every other aspect of a GF-safe holiday, thinking ahead and planning makes all the difference.
One of the biggest worries when travelling abroad might be the language barrier if you are visiting a country which does not speak your home language. How will you manage to explain your dietary needs in a restaurant well enough to make sure you are fed safely?
It is now really easy to print off Gluten Free Restaurant Cards free, from a site called Celiac Travel, which when I last checked were available in 54 languages (they do ask that you consider a small donation for the privilege of using their invaluable work). The cards explain in simple terms that your dietary requirements are linked to being coeliac and what you can and can’t eat.
I always print off a few in a size that fits my purse and cover them with sticky back plastic to make sure they last the trip. They have got us out of many a tight corner when waiters and chefs have looked blankly at our attempts to explain our predicament in a language we have no grasp of and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t now travel without them.
Gluten Free Passport do a similar set of cards for gluten, dairy and allergy issues, although they are not free.
Where to Eat
Where possible check out restaurants ahead of your plans to eat to save disappointment. Better still, make lunch your main meal so that you have time to re-jig your eating arrangements if necessary, without having to manage tiredness as well as hunger. If you pass a place that you think you want to try, pop in and check the menu and speak to the staff earlier in the day. This will help smooth the process when you are hungry!
If you can’t check ahead, don’t let this limit your decision to walk into a restaurant on spec. Remember you can look at the menu, ask at the door and even ask to see the kitchen or speak to the chef. If you are not happy with the response you receive or lack the confidence that you will be able to eat safely, walk out and move onto the next place. Irritating, yes. And sometimes time-consuming, but it is your health and you need to be sure. Your diligence will hopefully result in a tasty, healthy meal from restaurant staff who care.
Don’t be afraid to make specify requests. – If there is fish/meat/vegetables in a (non GF) sauce on the menu, ask whether they have some plain (without sauce) that can be grilled or prepared on its own. Ask for plain boiled potatoes, rice or veg if you are concerned about side dishes. Baked potatoes and omelettes are always a reasonably safe bet if unsure. It may not be what you would cook at home, but you will at least limit the risk of ‘contamination’.
Ask how food is prepared. This will help you to make safe judgements about whether to eat at a venue, as well as an opportunity to state certain necessities to avoid cross-contamination. I have on many occasions asked for (and in some cases provided) clean foil to grill something on, so that there is less risk of cross-contamination from any gluten-containing foods previously grilled in the same area.
When looking for a restaurant, bear in mind that if you have kids in tow, there will be a point at which the hunger threshold turns into whinging, frustration and eventually potential tantrums… Start your search well before that threshold arrives, prepare them for the possibility that you may need to check out a few restaurants before you actually find one to eat at and take a small stash of fruit or a healthy snack to keep them going. Believe me, they get used to the routine pretty quickly… and you can reassure yourself that for children with Coeliac, it is a life-lesson of negotiation that they are learning and practicing under your expert guidance. If your kids are anything like my nine year old, they’ll be interviewing the chef, the waiters and the front of house staff confidently and independently in no time at all!
Beware however that children can be fickle little beings… they are often a lot fussier than the adults, so ‘fitting in with whatever is safe on the menu’ is not always the easiest option. That restaurant you have just traipsed up and down for an hour to find may still need to be ditched in favour of some ‘grab and go’ cheese, salami, prawns, plain crisps, fruit, nuts or yoghurt from the supermarket and an impromptu picnic… Make sure you remember to grab a bottle or two of wine (screw-top) to soften the desperation for the adults, but put it down to experience and reassure yourself that it will be different tomorrow (it almost always is).
Holidays are usually short-lived things and not getting the restaurant meal you hoped for is really not worth getting stressed over. It puts a pointless damper on the rest of the day and gives your gluten free child the message that they are inadvertently ruining the holiday… Not good for relationships or self esteem! Remember this is his/her future… It’s a hard enough prospect for them without you throwing your grown-up toys out of the pram… so make sure you role-model it properly…
Planning Before You Go will make your holiday better
It pays to plan well in advance of your holiday. Whether you are holidaying in your home country or abroad, make time to research eating venues, gluten free foods, supermarkets, specialist bakeries and local specialities on the internet before you go. The world-wide web is an amazing thing… It is a world resource at you fingertips day and night that will give you pretty much any information you require.I confess that I can be a bit OCD on the ‘prep ahead of time’ front. I will end up with everything from restaurant cards, to addresses, phone numbers and maps which might ensure we have the best eating experience we can. This is partly because I want to make the trip as successful as possible, but also because I want to make sure I know about any and all of the hidden gluten free foodie gems a destination has to offer… I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to visit any of them.Take Paris for example… planning discovered a whole bunch of dedicated gluten free eating places which were fun to seek out as holiday activities in themselves and left us feeling valued and happy!
I also make time to research the translation of key gluten-related words (wheat; barley; rye; wheat flour; barley malt extract; wheat starch; etc). This education is essential when reading ingredient labels on foods in supermarkets and shops as well as when providing information to restaurants on what to avoid. Make sure you also have the translation for the phrases ‘without gluten or wheat’ and ‘no gluten or wheat’ for the same reason.
Remember that even abroad, some restaurants may have a dedicated gluten-free menu or a store of gluten free bread in the freezer, so don’t hold back on asking. Even if they haven’t, the question will draw their attention to the possibility of it being a good idea!
Things to Check on the Internet Before you Travel :
- gluten free restaurant cards
- dedicated gluten free eating venues and GF-friendly restaurants.
- local specialities on the food front and a list of likely dishes on the menu – What are they likely to contain? This gives a good starting point when restaurant dining.
- Local main supermarkets : names and what possible gluten free options they might stock.
- Advice from national gluten free organisations (Celiac.com; Coeliac UK; national coeliac organisations for the country/region that you are visiting).
- Check TripAdvisor; Gluten Free Roads
- Check/learn/write down the language translation for key gluten-related words : wheat; barley; rye; wheat flour; barley malt extract; wheat starch; etc. Also translation for phrases ‘no gluten’ and ‘without gluten’.
Foods In Restaurants to beware of & That Require Extra Caution and Questioning
- Chips – beware of hidden seasonings/coatings that contain wheat and cross-contamination from gluten in frying fat that has been used to fry other ingredients.
- Sauces – hidden wheat flour used as thickeners and stock containing wheat or barley in sauces and stews.
- Grilled Food – risk of cross-contamination from glutenous foods cooked in the same space or where a common spatula has been used to turn several items being prepared at the same time.
- Seasonings that contain wheat flour and are used to coat and flavour foods both before and after cooking.
- ‘Extras’ in salads and soups such as croutons which might not be listed on the menu.
A Final Word :
NEVER let being gluten intolerant or Coaliac put you off travel. The world is an INCREDIBLE place and is there to EXPLORE. You will always find something to eat. Even the most remote places will have vegetables, rice, fish or meat. Just lower your expectations for the duration of your holiday and plan ahead. The chances are you will be pleasantly surprised by your eating experience at least some of the time, and ultimately you may be trail-blazing the gluten free message for your future fellow travellers who tread in your steps.
Most important….. relax…… don’t allow yourself to become stressed unnecessarily and ENJOY the adventure!
GOOD LUCK x
With thanks to the following websites who provided free and accessible use of the clip art used in this post :