The gluten-free traveler: On the road with celiac disease
If you like to travel, celiac disease doesn’t need to be a roadblock.
With some planning, you can eat safely when traveling by land, sea, or air and maintain a gluten-free diet once you reach your destination, according to celiac disease experts.
Here’s what they suggest:
Do some research.
Find out if the hotel, bed and breakfast, or resort where you will stay offers gluten-free food. If you have a choice of accommodations, choose a place that caters to special dietary needs or has a kitchenette that will allow you to store and prepare food. Even a microwave or small refrigerator is helpful, especially if you are traveling with children who are on a gluten-free diet.
Before you leave, try to find out if the city or area you will be traveling to has a celiac support group or organization, which could be a great source of information about local places to stay, eat, and shop for food. Or, if you are part of a celiac support group or organization at home — or have friends with celiac disease or gluten intolerance — check with them before you begin making travel plans. Someone from home who has been where you are going may have invaluable advice.
Before your trip, you also can search online for gluten-free restaurants by city, state, type of cuisine, or restaurant chain through a program run by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG). The Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) currently lists close to 900 US restaurants that offer gluten-free menu options, and the list is growing, according to GFRAP Manager Madelyn Smith.
If possible, pack food to bring with you when you travel. Good choices include a jar of peanut butter, a foil pack of tuna fish, or some gluten-free crackers or pretzels, according to Anne Roland Lee, MSEd, RD, a nutritionist with Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center. Even if you think you won’t need it, delays or other unforeseen events could arise, leaving you hungry and without access to gluten-free food.
Roger Elliott, founder of celiactravel.com, recommends carrying at least one meal’s worth of calories with you. “If you don’t, you’ll find yourself hungry and taking risks you wouldn’t otherwise take,” he said.
Depending on how you are traveling, you also might want to consider the following:
By air: Request a gluten-free meal in advance and remind the flight attendant about it once you board the plane. It’s also a good idea to double check with your server before you eat. If for some reason your pre-ordered meal doesn’t arrive or gets contaminated with gluten-containing food, you’ll have the food you packed.
Good snacks to bring to the airport include gluten-free rice cakes, corn chips, nuts, and dried or fresh fruit.
If you find out the airline does not prepare gluten-free meals, eat before you travel or bring a sandwich or more substantial snack to eat at the airport or on the plane.
If you are traveling internationally, avoid packing large amounts of gluten-free food in case customs makes you leave it behind.
By sea: Work with the human resources staff of the cruise line you will be using to order your gluten-free meals in advance. Be sure to follow up right before your trip and again when you board ship. Nearly all cruise lines can now accommodate people with gluten intolerance, according to Smith, who has celiac disease.
By land: If you are driving or taking a train, bring gluten-free crackers, cookies, and other snacks, or meal supplements such as bread. You also can bring a cooler and pack perishable, gluten-free items such as meat, cheese, and yogurt, recommends Smith. You might want to invest in a cooler that plugs into the car and does not require ice, she said. You can plug the cooler in once you get to a hotel room so you will have enough food for the duration of your stay.
Once you reach your destination, follow the same guidelines you did while traveling. Call ahead to restaurants with your request for a gluten-free meal, and confirm it once you arrive and again before you eat.
Ethnic restaurants might be a good option because they often serve foods, such as black beans and rice or pad thai, that are naturally gluten-free, healthy, and tasty, said Lee. If you don’t like ethnic food, Lee recommends an old standby: steak — grilled plain with nothing added — and a baked potato.
Another approach is to hand your server a restaurant card explaining celiac disease and its necessary dietary restrictions. With the cards, you don’t have to rely on servers to remember to convey your information to the chef or to understand what you said. Elliott, who has celiac disease and likes to travel, created restaurant cards in 38 languages to help people like himself.
If you can prepare food where you are staying, go grocery shopping. Be careful when checking nutrition labels if you are in another country — different countries have different rules about food labeling. If you are used to gluten-free bread and other baked-good mixes, you might want to bring some from home in case you can’t find them at your destination.
Another useful item to bring, according to Smith, is a special bag made to cook food in the toaster oven or microwave to prevent cross contamination from gluten-containing breadcrumbs.