Taking the full measure of life

Travel Food (Managing Food Restrictions on Trips)

October 20th, 2008 · 15 Comments

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Today's lunch

Today's lunch

10 days, four Northern California cities. (Well, five if you count dinner in Oakland . . . and six if you count dinner in Palo Alto. But four cities where we’ll be spending the night.)

At a gluten-free event I attended recently, someone told me she struggles with what to eat on trips and wishes there were more info out there for people like her.  As I made my lunch today, I thought, Ah-ha, travel food.  And a post was born.

When I travel (which almost always means, “When my husband and I travel”), if I am not going to be staying with family or friends, I always try to rent somewhere with a kitchen.  To find somewhere that has a kitchen and is affordable (somewhere that is not, for example, the penthouse suite of a hotel), I usually utilize VRBO, though I google around using a variety of phrases (e.g., “one-bedroom rental Monterey full kitchen”)  to find somewhere that will let me make some of my own meals.   Usually, I end up in close proximity to my ideal location; my husband is attending a conference right now that is on the shoreline of Monterey, and the little guest house we rented—for half the price of the conference hotel rooms—is about a mile from the beach.  Before this, for the conference I attended in San Rafael, we utilized a house stay program where we had access to the owner’s kitchen.  (By luck, we got a homeowner who eschews wheat and dairy.) If all else fails, I google around a city to find a bed-and-breakfast or hotel that specifies it will work with people who have food allergies—and I email a list of my restrictions to the owners with a note asking them not to confirm my reservation unless they can work with my particular restrictions. (I’ve found hotels are often glad to clean out minibars to make room for your allergen-free food, if you give them warning.)

Now, for me, one of the joys of travel has always been having a good meal out at a location where I otherwise would not get a chance to eat, with the additional bonuses of not having to do the prep work beforehand or the clean-up afterward.  I still feel that way, but with my food restrictions, eating out is certainly more hazardous.  I rarely leave a meal location up to chance; I do a good bit of research before I make plans to eat out somewhere over 90% of the time.  I don’t assume that a restaurant will have options for me; I check menus online, I find places that source local and organic food (they are less likely to use processed foods that contain my allergens), and I call or email to ask questions.  I have an Open Table account, and if a restaurant where I am considering eating uses Open Table, I am more likely to eat there, because I can put notes about my food restrictions into the reservation system myself. (Plus, I love that I get points toward gift certificates with every reservation!) At the restaurant, I make sure that my server knows my restrictions; the best restaurants for me are the ones where the server has prepared a list of what I can eat or where the chef himself/herself comes out to talk to me about my options; those are the restaurants I am most likely to give my repeat business.  These precautions don’t mean that I never have a bad meal or never accidentally eat one of my allergens or intolerances, but they do minimize my risk and maximize my opportunity to be able to enjoy a relaxed meal.

Of course, I know that the more meals I eat out, the more I relinquish the control over what goes into my body, and the greater the likelihood is that I’ll end up sick.  If I get sick from a food, the illness lasts anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days.  Depending on the length of a trip, one or two bad meals can trap me in my room for the duration of my visit, and obviously, that’s no fun at all.  (In fact, it comes very close to being the epitome of frustration, especially when I’ve researched all the places I want to visit, the locations I want to take photographs, etc.)  Therefore, eating food I have prepared for myself makes sense for the majority of the meals I have on a trip.

Before we leave for a trip, I google around to see what types of health foods stores, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets are in the area we’ll be visiting.  If we are going to visit friends or family, I ask them to scout their stores for a few key, fairly common items, like Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free mix, so that I can see how easy it’s going to be to source baking supplies on the trip.  My husband keeps a master list of ingredients that we always take with us on trips; for trips with flights, these items go into our checked luggage.   The list includes our most common ingredients that are either hard to find or used in quantities too small to keep buying on trips:  flax meal for egg replacer, one unopened box of hemp milk or other milk alternative, seasoning salt, Mrs. Dash garlic and herbs seasoning, a basic gluten-free flour mix, ghee and/or organic olive oil, cinnamon, ginger, and sometimes aged balsamic vinegar.  If we’re traveling by car and don’t have to worry as much about how much we carry, we pack our good chopping knives, a cutting board, a one-cup liquid measuring cup, and any other implements that might make food prep easier if the rental kitchen is lacking.  I throw in any extra season-specific or location-specific additions; for this trip, I packed poppy seeds in the hope we’d find some local citrus fruit to bake with while we’re here.  My goal is to balance packing what we might want to utilize on the trip with the volume of the stuff we’re packing.  I certainly pack more heavily than I used to before I knew I had gluten intolerance and food allergies, but I just accept that as part of this way of life.

The initial food for the travel to a location is very important, as traveling with an upset stomach is miserable.  We generally pack gluten-free/allergen-free crackers (rice crisps also work in a pinch), hummus, and cut vegetables; a trail mix of nuts or seeds, dried (organic, unsulphured) fruit, and sometimes chocolate chips; and some sort of treat, usually a package of homemade cookies. These days, when we are going to fly somewhere, I splurge and get us meals from Improv’eat, an organic and locally sourced prepared-foods company in Atlanta that recently went entirely gluten-free. (I don’t know how they make wraps out of coconut meat, but they’re awesome.) Because I know that a good number of airports have absolutely no food that meets all of my restrictions, I make sure to carry at least one quart-size bag of trail mix in my carry-on bag to get me through any unexpected delays.  The longer my flight, or the greater my number of stops, the more of my carry-on bag will be devoted to providing me food.  Small bags of organic potato chips, homemade pb & honey sandwiches, and small containers of homemade quinoa or pasta salads are all options we utilize—though on my most recent flight, we forgot to bring forks and the Delta flight attendants refused to give me or my husband a plastic fork because we weren’t buying any foods. (Fortunately, my seat neighbor only needed his spoon and gave us his fork from his pack when I asked.) The key, of course, is to bring foods that are okay to sit at or above room temperature for a while before we eat them. (Unintentionally wilted salad is gross.  Meat accumulates bacteria too quickly at room temp. Etc.)  That makes it hard to focus too heavily on super-healthy meals when we’re in motion, but I try to keep the food at least moderately healthy and make up for it when we are at our destination.

One note: you should also be able to carry jars of nut or seed butters through security for flights; however, some people have had them confiscated or have had to fight with security about them, so I don’t carry them. I have never had that problem with hummus, though I couldn’t tell you why peanut butter would be any more likely to be a bomb than hummus is.

When we arrive at our destination, it is always one of my goals to go shopping for supplementary food within the first few hours after arrival—it may initially seem like aggravating to do so soon, but it’s relaxing to know I have food available.  (If I know I’m going to be arriving very late at night, I make sure to pack enough trail mix that I’ll have a breakfast option before I hit stores.)  Kitchens in rentals vary widely in how heavily they are stocked with cooking implements.  I check the kitchen before I make a meal plan to see how prep-light my purchases need to be.  I also consider how much time I’m going to have available for meal prep.  For environmental, health, and taste reasons, I am usually someone who wants to make most of my food from scratch, but on a trip, convenience may trump slow food.  Here are a few easy meal ideas to prepare quickly in kitchenettes:


A tube of pre-cooked polenta or grits–sliced, baked or pan-fried, and topped with salsa or marinara;
Whole Foods gluten-free muffin mix (or another gluten-free muffin mix—the WF one works well with egg replacer) with nuts, seeds, dried and/or fresh fruit thrown in (Many small kitchens may not have muffin pans; you can either bake the mix longer in a small cake pan or bring metal foil muffin cups of your own to use.)
Fruit and nuts and/or cheese (if you can eat cheese)
Gluten-free cereal with a sliced banana or dried fruit and a milk alternative
Stovetop grits with sundried tomatoes and garlic
Stovetop oatmeal with dried fruit, a touch of oil or ghee, toasted nuts, and a bit of sweetener (honey, maple syrup, brown sugar)

Lunch & Dinner

You can, of course, make a million variations on salads—but be aware that many pre-made, packaged salads-to-go in grocery stores have weird ingredients in them. Better to make the salad yourself from ingredients you pick out fresh or frozen. See my “learning to love salads” post for more thoughts about salads.
Taco salad/nachos: Corn chips, salad greens, canned black beans, ground soy meat, beef, or bison (if desired), store-made salsa, store-made guacamole, frozen corn, jarred olives
Pasta: gluten-free pasta (pack a bag of it if you’re not sure you can get it at your location) with sundried tomatoes or marinara sauce, olives, canned beans, spinach (wilts enough stirred into hot, just-cooked pasta), gluten-free chicken sausage (if desired), cheese or nutritional yeast, and/or roasted vegetables tossed with herbs, salt, oil, and balsamic vinegar before roasting

Generally, unlike my usual, at-home meal plans that involve trying not to repeat ingredients very often, on trip, I try to create meal plans that will use up all or most of an ingredient before I go home.  For example, I had sundried tomatoes on my taco salad for lunch today.  Tomorrow at breakfast, they’ll go in the grits, too.  And tomorrow for lunch, they’ll be in my pasta.  Waste not, want not, right? (Of course, some ingredients can be sealed up to go home with us, but in these days of shrinking luggage allowances, I’ve nearly used up my luggage allowance on my trip over!)

As a bonus, making most of my own food on trips usually ends up being both healthier and cheaper than going out all the time!   I know cutting back—on calorie splurges and expenses—is a desire for many of us.

These are a few ways I’ve made my traveling food needs less stress-inducing, but I’m sure some of you have great ideas, too.  What makes healthy/gluten-free/allergen-free eating easier for you when you travel? Alternately, what do you wish you knew how to handle better when it comes to travel and food?

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15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Karen // Oct 20, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Peanut butter is more likely to be confiscated because it is the same consistency as the explosive C4, which is putty-like in consistency and can be molded to fit any container. Even if it looks like peanut butter when they examine it later, they can’t take the chance that it may have C4 inside – they can’t tell with x-ray.

    this is according to my military husband.

  • 2 sally // Oct 20, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Karen–Peanut butter (under 3 oz.) is actually on the approved list of foods. It appears to be merely TSA error (or profiling? or power-tripping?) when it is confiscated. Your husband may have more advanced knowledge about this, but from what I understand, the chemical sniffers that TSA has access to could tell instantly if a product were C4, if they were actually concerned about it. . . . If you’re interested in further reading, Bruce Schneier has written fascinating info about why the TSA stuff is largely designed only to make us think we’re safe rather than actually for making us safe: http://www.schneier.com/ Scary to think, but incredibly interesting.

  • 3 monica // Oct 21, 2008 at 9:48 am

    This is a great post! (And I LOVE the idea of sundried tomatoes in grits!)

    “…it is always one of my goals to go shopping for supplementary food within the first few hours after arrival—it may initially seem like aggravating to do so soon, but it’s relaxing to know I have food available.”

    This makes me feel SO much better about my own travel habits. I’m a mostly-vegan vegetarian, so my food restrictions are self imposed. But they are what they are, nonetheless, and I often feel guilty when I tell my travel companion I need to go to the grocery store. It’s as if I can feel their unspoken words “why can’t you just relax and enjoy whatever may come” burning into my soul!

    I am glad I am not alone. Thank you for sharing your strategies. I will put some of them to use next time I go travelling! (Let it be soon!)

  • 4 carolyn // Oct 21, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I really like the Glutino Crackers. Completely GF and a suitable substitute for saltines, minus the salt. I take those with me on all my trips.

  • 5 Tom // Oct 21, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Man, Monterey itself is the only thing I miss about language school. I loved that city.

  • 6 Lizzie // Oct 22, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Great, great, great post! I think you covered it all Sally. I too find a health food store within a few hours of arriving somewhere — it’s like a weigh gets lifted off my shoulders when I know I’ll have some real food to eat.

    If I’m taking a trip of the shorter variety, I tend to pack five or six bars with me: lara bars, bumble bars, pear bars. They pack easily and are non-perishable.

  • 7 Lebée // Oct 22, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    I have a trick for those who might like to carry a small lunch bag/cooler on planes. I use frozen peas as a cool pack (in either one quart zip bag or two sandwich zip bags). So far, none of the airports I’ve traveled through have had a problem with them.

    Thanks also for the link to Improv’eat. We have family in Atlanta, and I may have to try it the next time we’re there. Have you tried R. Thomas Deluxe Grill? They seem to use a lot of the same nutritional ideas. (They also have several gluten free items on their menu.) http://www.rthomasdeluxegrill.com/ We normally try to eat there when we’re in town.

  • 8 Jennifer // Oct 22, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Sally, I think you’re fantastic; this post is just one of the reasons why I bookmarked your blog. (Okay, enough sincere flattery…)

    Because I breastfeed my son who is allergic to a broad list of foods, each meal we eat is ‘meat and two veg’ with a side of fruit. We’re traveling to San Diego for a week to accompany my husband who will be attending a conference. Unfortunately, he has to stay in the company-mandated hotel. Although I have already spoken to the hotel manager and the room service manager, I still didn’t feel comfortable giving up so much control over our diet. So, I bought a $29 countertop, electrical steamer to take with us.

    I’ve been testing it out over the past week and all of the food that we usually eat fits neatly in the steamer. Luckily, there’s a Whole (Paycheck) Foods Market 15 mins away from the hotel; we’ll have access to all of the dairy-, soy-, corn-, rice-, wheat-, apple-, etc.-free packaged food that we normally eat. Between Whole Foods, the steamer and fruit (dried and fresh), we should be in business!

  • 9 Cheryl // Oct 23, 2008 at 4:33 am

    I’ve found that TSA won’t let me take ice packs on a plane, so I bring a bag of frozen peas or corn to keep my food cold.

    Also, I’ve tagged you as one of my favorite “excellent” blogs

  • 10 Laura // Oct 23, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Great post! Traveling is the most frustrating part of having food allergies. Recently, I found myself at a pizza restaurant with friends in Chicago — it was the only place still open at 10:30 at night. There were no other options. I took a look at all of the toppings they offered for their pizzas and various salads, and I asked the waiter if they could throw together a salad with a bunch of those toppings (artichoke hearts, etc…) in it to make it more filling. They were happy to oblige, and I was happy to eat. Happy travels!!!

  • 11 Iris // Oct 27, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    ah…food, glorious food!!!!

    What I really want to know is how you shot that winning photograph – maybe you’ll divulge your big secrets at our next class…..

  • 12 Iris // Oct 27, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    No, really, i know a couple of hours at the train tracks, but what magic did you do with that camera of yours?? did you focus on the tracks and then whoooosh, the train just rolled by? what settings did you have your camera on?

    filming isn’t until the day after the election. Please please please let me have a smile on my face, otherwise i’m moving to canada.

  • 13 Melanie // Nov 1, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Great post! I travel a couple times a year and it is challenging. Airports are the worst! Last time I had one whole suitcase devoted to food. I even have a small size toaster oven that fits in my suitcase. It’s amazing what can be made in a toaster oven!

  • 14 Tomek // Dec 22, 2008 at 10:32 am

    I work for HomeAway and wanted to say thanks for recommending VRBO.com in your post regarding your trip to Monterey. As someone who endorses vacation rentals, I wanted to let you know about the “Why I Deserve a Getaway from HomeAway” contest in which you could win a $5,000 vacation—on us! Check out http://blog.homeaway.com for more information.
    Best regards and happy healthy holidays!

  • 15 Christine // Jan 26, 2009 at 11:26 am

    It’s comforting to know that you accept your food limitations so readily. I still struggle with that. A lot of foods give me migraines, and because the cause of migraines is so hard to pin down, I feel like if only I worked harder, I wouldn’t get them. Thanks for the great post.

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