A few toasted croutons to accent a colorful salad. A handful of crushed peanuts to garnish a plateful of pad thai. A dollop of sour cream to top off a steaming bowl of soup. These finishing touches add to the flavor and presentation of culinary creations, but they can wreak havoc for travelers with food allergies. And in some cases, ingredients and garnishes can be deadly.
After regularly breaking out with hives during her last semester of high school, my daughter was diagnosed with dairy, egg, and beef allergies right before she went off to college. An adventurous, healthy eater for nearly two decades, my world traveler suddenly had a lot to learn about accommodating her food allergies at home, on campus, and on the road.
Researchers estimate that 26 million American adults have a food allergy. The foods most commonly associated with allergies are dairy products, eggs, nuts, wheat (gluten), soy, and fish. While most food allergies develop during childhood, approximately 5 million Americans (like my daughter) develop food allergies as adults. Accommodating dietary restrictions after a lifetime of carefree dining can be difficult, and the challenge only grows more complicated when traveling. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly half of all fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside of the home.
Here are some tips for traveling with a food allergy -- whether domestically or abroad.
1. Do Your Research
Before you jump in the car, board a plane, or set sail on your trip, do your research. If you know what restaurants are on the itinerary, pull up the menus online and evaluate your options. Otherwise, identify eating establishments near your accommodations and near the sights you want to see on whose menus can most easily cater to your food allergy.
2. Choose Scratch Kitchens
In a world full of pre-packed foods with artificial dyes, preservatives, and other added ingredients, dining at a restaurant with a scratch kitchen is always a healthier alternative, even if you don’t have a food allergy. Scratch kitchens make meals in house using basic ingredients, so their culinary teams are typically able to accommodate your special requests with ease.
Pro Tip: If you eat at a national chain while traveling with a food allergy, consider an option like Chipotle or Red Robin, which publish food allergen information and work hard to accommodate diners with food allergies.
3. Plan Ahead
While the chef running a scratch kitchen will usually have fresh ingredients available to accommodate food allergies, he or she can deliver an improved dining experience for you (and the rest of your party) with advanced notice. When possible, contact the restaurant before you go so the staff can ensure your salad is crouton-free, your panini is made with vegan cheese, and there is no fried egg on your gnocchi, if necessary, to accommodate your food allergies.
Beyond the kitchen, be sure to provide as much notice as possible to others you’ll encounter on your trip, including the airlines, your hotel, the cruise line, and tour guides.
Pro Tip: Check out this printable checklist from FARE, a food allergy research and educational organization, to help you plan ahead before traveling with a food allergy.
4. Use Allergy Information Cards
Whether you’re enjoying authentic Peruvian food in the U.S. or traveling throughout Thailand, it is important to overcome any language barriers when communicating with waitstaff and the kitchen crew about your food allergy. Available in nearly any language, allergy information cards are wallet-sized tools that help you ensure you clearly communicate your food allergy with confidence to the chef, no matter where you are in the world.
If your food allergy is severe -- like a life-threatening peanut allergy -- don’t be shy about communicating your condition. A friend of mine had the phrase, “If I eat peanuts, I will die” translated into Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese for her travels in Southeast Asia to help ensure that her dietary restrictions would be taken seriously.
5. There’s An App For That
From crowd-sourced information about restaurants near you that can accommodate a specific type of food allergy to an on-the-go translation tool specifically designed for communicating food allergies, be sure to explore smartphone apps that can help make it easier for you to travel with a food allergy. Just remember to have an old-school backup (like the allergy information cards mentioned above) in case your phone battery is dead or you don’t have reliable coverage where you’re traveling.
6. Don’t Succumb To The Stigma
Because my daughter is allergic to dairy, eggs, and beef, she often seeks vegan options when we travel. But because she doesn’t otherwise observe a vegan diet, she occasionally receives judgemental comments from our server when she adds chicken to the vegan meal she’s carefully selected with their guidance.
The unkind and unprofessional response can be deflating. Not that she is required to share medical conditions or owes anyone an explanation, but she has learned to proactively explain her food allergies so that they understand why she’s adding chicken to a vegan dish.
Don’t be shy about politely and respectfully ensuring that your dietary restrictions are fully addressed when you dine out. If your food allergy is severe, you can and should ask detailed questions about the condiments (which often have hidden ingredients that impact people with food allergies).
It’s also understandable that you may have questions about how the food is prepared. For example, if you have celiac disease, you’ll want to ensure there is a dedicated fryer for your French fries so you don’t experience cross-contamination from oil in a fryer basket also used for breaded items.
7. Pack Your Own Food
It’s not always possible to predict where you’ll be eating each meal of the day on a trip. So be sure to have plenty of your own food available for times when you can’t find a safe option when traveling. If you’re allergic to gluten, peanut butter and gluten-free pretzels or homemade trail mix made with almonds and dried fruit are portable and packed with protein to help fill you up. If you’re allergic to nuts, consider roasted chickpeas or jerky to keep you feeling full until you can find a food allergy-friendly meal.
8. Travel With Extra Medication
Reactions to food allergies can range from mild to severe. Mild reactions include itchy or swollen lips or a few hives. As symptoms worsen, people with food allergies may break out in hives from head to toe, experience chronic vomiting or diarrhea, or have difficulty breathing. And, if severe reactions aren’t treated promptly, they may result in death.
So whether you treat your food allergies with an antihistamine (like Benadryl) or an auto-injector of epinephrine (like an EpiPen), be sure to pack more medication than you think you’ll possibly need when you travel with food allergies.
Pro Tip: If you have severe food allergies, contact your physician before your trip so you can develop a plan for obtaining additional medication if needed.
Whether you’ve battled a food allergy most of your life or developed one as an adult, making special requests can feel like you’re ruining the rest of your table’s evening or burdening the kitchen staff. But when your alternatives are to go hungry or face the consequences of your food allergy, you should be confident about respectfully requesting dietary accommodation. These tips should help ensure your adventures are delightful with a cherry on top, wherever you travel with a food allergy.