Tips for Traveling Gluten-Free

Traveling gluten free involves advance planning. What will you eat on the road, in the sky, on the ocean, or on the rails? What food should you bring with you? Should you send food to your destination? What restaurants in the areas you are visiting are gluten-free friendly? If traveling out of the country, what local food is gluten free? How are these foods spelled and how do you pronounce them? The list goes on and on.

One of the best people to give tips on gluten-free travel is my friend and colleague Melinda Dennis, MS, RD. Melinda, who was diagnosed with celiac disease 18 years ago, specializes in celiac disease at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She is the owner of the nutrition consulting service Delete the Wheat (www.deletethewheat.com) and offers dietitian coaching, nationwide lecturing, gluten-free classes, shopping tours and home visits for those following the gluten-free.

Along with Eastern Mountain Sports, Melinda runs adventure travel trips that are 100% gluten free. If you are interested in group travel, please visit Melinda’s website.

What advice do you have for someone who is afraid to travel because they are gluten free? If someone is planning their first gluten-free trip and feeling overwhelmed, where do you suggest they begin?

Certainly, it takes time to adjust both mentally, physically and emotionally to a new diagnosis of celiac disease. For that reason, many people spend some time learning how to read labels, shop comfortably and more quickly and adjust to preparing new meals. Then, it’s time to head out and enjoy travel as you did before. With thought and preparation, it can be done!

Carry your restaurant card listing safe/unsafe ingredients (available from Gluten Intolerance Group, CSA/USA, Inc., Triumph Dining, and Celiac Travel). Visit the archives of the Celiac Listserv and read what others have done for restaurants, lodging, food stores, etc., in the city you live or will visit. Ask for a kitchenette and refrigerator so you can store and prepare food. Access to boiling hot water or a microwave allows you to eat from some of the gluten free (GF) prepackaged meals and pre-cooked rice pouches.

Call lodgings ahead of time and find out if they can store food for you. Ask where nearby convenience stores are to purchase fruit, milk, yogurt, coffee and other necessities. Carry ice packs (not allowed on carry-on baggage so store in your suitcase) and freeze later. Rent a car that has an electric outlet in the back and take along your own mini-fridge. Plot some of your stops along the way, visiting known celiac-friendly inns, B & Bs and restaurants, but leave room and time for spontaneity, too.

If you’re visiting friends, have them pick up a few refrigerated necessities for you in advance. Save room in your suitcase for your sealed packages – dried pasta, liquid supplement drinks (suitcase only), crackers, cookies, trail mix, energy bars, packaged meals and soups. I always take along extra clean containers with tight-fitting lids. Also, do not attempt to carry large bags of flour onto a plane. I was stopped for carrying 4 bags of sorghum flour on board after a celiac convention – security was suspicious of what they considered to be excess plant matter.

What about foreign countries? Do you have tips for getting around language barriers?

Fortunately, most countries of the world do not rely on wheat and wheat-based products as much as the U.S. does. Celiac-friendly ethnic cuisine includes: Italian, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Southeast Asian, etc. If you’re headed to Brazil, go to a Brazilian restaurant in your own city and talk to the Brazilian waiter or chef to find out how the typical dishes are prepared in that country.

I lived in Japan for two years in my early twenties and then returned years later having been diagnosed with celiac disease, carrying my gluten free soy sauce with me everywhere. I asked a Japanese friend to write out a page-long explanation of my diet. Print out one of the safe/unsafe ingredient listings that have been translated into many languages – see resources at the end.

You might consider bringing a letter of medical necessity from your doctor – it might be helpful at immigration points if an officer questions why half of your suitcase is filled with packaged food. Ask your hotel or lodging if you can send a package in advance. I use the list-serve’s archives to read where others have found good meals and service and I visit those places, making sure to mention that I heard about them on a national listserve.

Visit the websites of the national celiac association of the countries that you will be visiting (eg. AOECS.org – Association of European Celiac Societies).

Even for seasoned gluten-free travelers it can be difficult. Are there certain areas that individuals seem to forget or neglect when planning a trip?

Take enough prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications to last your trip so that you don’t need to search for a reliable pharmacist to check ingredients or try to read hidden gluten on a medication label. Bring your vitamins and supplements. If you have one, take your palm pilot or booklet of nationwide GF products so you can check unfamiliar brands away from home.

People travel to their destinations using different modes of transportation. Air travel may be one of the most difficult right now. What recommendations do you have for making sure someone is able to eat safely on the plane? What about airport delays and stopovers?

On airplanes, delays and long layovers are inevitable. I make sure I eat before I leave the house – more food than I normally might, and I carry at least the next meal that can be eaten without refrigeration (peanut butter sandwich or peanut butter with crackers, fruit that doesn’t bruise, nuts, energy bar etc.). I bring extra bars and non-perishable foods with me on the plane and an empty water bottle to fill up once I pass security.

Take enough prescription and OTC medications to last your trip. Bring your supplements. Bring small sizes (under 3 ounces) of soy sauce, salad dressing (double bagged), if you like. Fortunately, more celiac friendly dining is showing up around the country – Legal Seafoods is in the Boston Logan airport. You can usually find a plain burger or breast of chicken to put over salad greens, baked potatoes, and fruit.

Most people eat some, if not most of their meals in restaurants when they travel. What are your suggestions for making sure the meal is gluten free?

Even if you are at a “celiac friendly” restaurant or one with a GF menu, continue to ask your normal questions: check marinades and seasonings; ask if the vegetables can be steamed over pure water rather than boiling pasta water (as is customary); avoid meat, chicken, fish, etc., that has been dusted w/ wheat flour; avoid baked potatoes that may have been dunked in the deep fat fryer. Ask if your server can change gloves (might be difficult to do but it’s important in a Mexican restaurant where they handle corn and flour tortillas interchangeably).

If a meal comes out as a mistake (croutons on the salad) be sure to ask for a fresh salad. Ask for your meal to be prepared in your own skillet whenever possible. If you feel you are not getting a confident response from your server and you wish to stay at that location, ask to speak to the manager or chef. Show your restaurant card – this helps to clarify that you have a medical necessity diet and are not simply following a personal preference or whim. Tip graciously, particularly if your server has been helpful.

Thank you Melinda!

Travel Resources

Triumph Dining (www.triumphdining.com). This company offers a restaurant dining guide and multilingual dining cards available for ten different cuisines.

Gluten-Free Passport (www.glutenfreepassport.com). This company offers a Let’s Eat Out series of books. Their website also includes tips for traveling gluten free.

CeliacTravel.com (www.celiactravel.com). This website offers an abundance of tips for traveling gluten free.

Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (www.glutenfreerestaurants.org). This program is run by the Gluten Intolerance Group. Their website offers a state-by-state listing of restaurants who offer gluten-free dining options.

Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD

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