Yes, You Can Love Gluten-Free Travel
Updated Jan 16, 2020
This post may contain affiliate links. See my disclosure policy.
In my former life (meaning, pre-celiac diagnosis and during my 20’s/early 30’s) I was a big time traveler. The more I traveled the more I wanted to travel. Call it wanderlust, call it a travel addiction…but if I hadn’t been there, I wanted to go. Correction. I needed to go! Just as our bodies need oxygen and water to survive…well, I needed my passport.
I was born in New Zealand and moved to the US when I was two years old. So for as long as I can remember I’ve had a passport. But really, it wasn’t until my 20’s and 30’s that I realized, perhaps I’m not like most folks?
Even though my brother had been telling me that for yeeears!
With One Continent I Became an Addict
I specifically remember the trip that got me hooked: Heidelberg, Germany. Though in all honesty, it was so much more than a trip. It was my junior year in college and I was studying abroad for an entire semester.
This meant three months of no parents, no brother and….(wait for it)… I could drink! As in, LEGALLY! (I was still underage in the US).
After getting over the novelty of drinking endless quantities of German beer from a glass boot (ahem, the first two weeks), I discovered and fell in love with the Eurorail system. Every weekend I was exploring a new country, visiting historical sites and gorging on local cuisine.
I was collecting passport stamps like a champ!
When the semester was over, I had visited 13 countries. And me…hook, line and sinker, I became a wanderluster. You could plop me in any foreign country and I’d never get lost.
Until I Became Lost
After my European adventure I was fortunate to travel to all 7 continents. BUT (and this is a biggie)… that was ALL before my celiac diagnosis. After my celiac diagnosis, I didn’t travel for nearly 2 years.
Which, as you can imagine was like eons in LisaLand!
This “thing” that I just knew how to do, I didn’t know how to do anymore. I was in uncharted territory and never-ending questions flooded my mind. What could I eat? How would I know if the food was safe? How could I control cross-contamination? What if I became sick?
But one day I realized two whole years passed by and I had become paralyzed by my fear. The thing that I enjoyed most in life I had given up. I needed to snap out of it.
And so I did. Right then and there.
Because ultimately, what became scarier than the prospect of getting sick was the idea that I’d never feel that rush of excitement. The one that comes from climbing down dusty tombs in Egypt, kayaking in frigid waters in Antarctica or venturing solo in Pakistan after a global riot (though I don’t really recommend that last one!)
Making the Seemingly Complex Simple
As is the case with most fears, I had completely blown it out of proportion. Traveling with celiac wasn’t the monstrous, fire breathing beast I envisioned it to be.
With a little planning and preparation, gluten-free or paleo travel can be smooth sailing. And because I’m paleo (after not healing on a standard gluten-free diet), you’ll notice my recommendations below do not include gluten-free crackers/snacks, highly processed foods or loads of sugar.
Just good ol’ real food nourishment!
So how do we do this paleo travel “thing” as safely as possible? Let’s break it down:
*Note: these tips are for domestic travel. I’ll discuss foreign travel in a future post
Before you leave, research your destination. Look at a map online to get your bearings. Will you be in a city or rural area? What is the typical cuisine of the area? For instance, will you be in a coastal town known for seafood or in the Midwest where beef is prevalent? Take-away: have clear expectations and understand the limitations (or advantages!) of your temporary locale.
While you’re online, research your surroundings. Specific things to look for: where is the closest supermarket and what restaurants are nearby? Google a few of those restaurants ahead of time to review their menu and call ahead (at non-busy restaurant times) to inquire about their procedures for patrons with food allergies/sensitivities. Supermarkets (particularly health-focused ones like Whole Foods) now also serve meals (with listed ingredients) in addition to food. Take-away: prior planning will reduce stress and that “stuck” feeling of nothing to eat.
Know the options at your hotel. Are there restaurants in your hotel? Does your room have a mini-fridge you can use? If so, my first order of business is making a supermarket pit stop and filling it with a few healthy munchies, like fruit, baby carrots and (if I can find it) organic lunch meat and organic Greek yogurt. Take-away: never go hungry! Always have a few things in your room that you can eat in a pinch.
Google “farmer’s markets” and “paleo” with your city. It’s amazing what you can find online nowadays. Many cities have fabulous farmer’s markets, offering great sources of fresh, local and seasonal food. A search for “paleo” could also return some new options you didn’t find on your above restaurant search. Case in point: I recently found this AMAZING paleo food truck during a trip to Portland, Oregon. Take-away: get out and explore some local, under-the-radar, healthy food. If you do find a paleo option, they’re probably a great source for other food tips!
Packing & Supplies
Pack foods that travel well. Even though many airports are starting to carry healthier food options, it’s always best to have a supply of munchies on hand. My carry-on bag usually has an assortment of these items: nuts, homemade trail mix and/or individual packets of nut butters, ziplocs of baby carrots/chopped celery/sliced cucumber, bananas, oranges, apples, avocados, hard-boiled eggs and a small tupperware of blueberries/strawberries. While not the healthiest, you could even pack sweet potato chips, plantain chips and dark chocolate. Paleo-approved packaged foods that are great for travel include Lara Bars, Epic Bars, Chomp Sticks, Rickaroons and organic fruit strips. *Note: I don’t recommend canned fish on a plane. The stench will make you very unpopular very quickly!
But make sure you pack more than munchies! Even though snacks are good, most likely they’re not going to fill you up. Airports don’t restrict most foods, only liquids – so get creative! As long as it’s not too hot out and you’ll eat within a few hours, sandwiches (with grain-free bread), lettuce wraps and salads are great. Just make sure you pack the dressing separately, in a small container. You could even take some frozen meals on the flight and have the flight attendants heat them up. Just make sure you ask with a smile!
Take some ziplocs, tupperware and utensils. I always make sure I have a stash of ziploc bags with me when I travel. Not only for the food I bring, but for what I might find at the supermarket or farmer’s market. Same goes for tupperware. I use this great twist top tupperware container ALL the time. I prefer the twist top to ensure the lid doesn’t accidentally pop off in my bag. And I love my titanium utensils and bowl! They’re lightweight but sturdy. Much better than plastic which has a tendency to bend or break.
Leverage local expertise. Talk to people – the hotel concierge, local business owners and really anyone. Without giving your entire life’s story on food sensitivities, politely ask about healthy food options. Most people are usually more than willing to help.
Understand who is making your food. There’s a difference between a chef (who is making the food from scratch) versus a cook/kitchen worker (who may just be heating it up). Restaurants with chef’s will usually be more apt to customize and understand your food sensitivities, whereas a cook or kitchen worker will most likely be assembling what’s already on hand with “pre-made” and potentially unsafe ingredients (similar to a fast food restaurant).
Pack digestive enzymes and/or supplements. Traveling can sometimes get your body out of whack. And if that happens, you may not be able to find the appropriate aids you need while in a foreign place. Digestive enzymes can help to reduce that bloated feeling, while magnesium is always great to keep “things” ‘a moving! But the best aid out there: water! Drink lots of it while traveling.
Don’t beat yourself up. While I’m always 100% strict about being gluten-free, if I’m 80% paleo when I travel, that’s ok. I don’t fret about my veggies being organic or my meat being grass-fed. I just do the best I can. Remember that travel is supposed to be FUN! The paleo police are not giving out tickets!
So get out there, walk around, explore, soak it all up, make some memories – that’s what traveling is all about! And if you’re fearful, don’t be. Sometimes the things that we fear most in life aren’t so scary after all.
What is your best advice for traveling with food sensitivities? Do you have a favorite travel destination? What’s your biggest travel fear? I’d love to hear!
Make sure to check out Roaming Free – A Whole Food Approach for Traveling the World Healthy, Happy and Gluten-Free for more tips, advice and wanderlust inspiration!