TRAVELING GLUTEN FREE IN THE US
Ah, the joys of traveling! I recently went to California and realized I have some tidbits of wisdom that might be helpful for gluten free travelers.
Rule #1 in Los Angeles: Never use your blinker on the highway—it’s a sign of weakness. Rule #2 : The line to In and Out Burger in LA is always at least 10 cars long. I’m not exaggerating. I went to In and Out Burger multiple times and was in the drive through line for about 20 minutes each time.
Traveling used to be one of my favorite things to do but when I discovered I had celiac disease it became an anxiety-laden nightmare. What could I eat? When could I eat? How could I make sure I had food available?
Wait, what?? You heard me right. Some restaurants pour your water out of the fountain hose they use to pour sodas. If they do this, your water may contain gluten, so make sure to ask.
When I first got sick from bottled water, I went online to the celiac blogs and discussion forums and everyone said, “Of course bottled water is fine, don’t be stupid!”
The comments really were that scathing—telling people it was a ridiculous question to ask. And I was really frustrated me because I knew I’d gotten sick from bottled water—it was the only thing I had ingested.
If you’ve asked this question, I’m here to tell you it’s a legitimate concern. I’ve scoured the internet and haven’t been able to find anything helpful, but my guess is the water is bottled on shared equipment or the same factory lines as other drinks and there is cross-contamination.
So find a couple brands of bottled water you know you can trust, and stick with those when traveling. Aquafina is my go-to brand.
Get a hotel room with a fridge and microwave. Being able to grocery shop, refrigerate, and cook your food when traveling reduces anxiety and reduces time-drain immensely! You can always find certified gluten free options at the grocery store. And don’t forget disposable plates and utensils!
3. GRAB & GO FOOD
For day trips (or if you can’t get a room with a fridge or microwave) grab and go food is a traveling must. Always have food on hand so you don’t make hasty or unwise food decisions.
Some good options are certified gluten free chips and crackers or fruits with natural protection against cross-contamination like bananas and oranges (things you have to peel). Dried fruit is also a great option.
Nuts make a fantastic snack or meal. They’re a great source of protein that doesn’t need to be prepared or refrigerated, and they’re typically high in fat, so they’re pretty filling.
I always take nuts with me when I travel. If I get hungry and I can’t get to a gluten free restaurant or grocery store, I have something substantial to hold me over.
4. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Look up local restaurants before traveling and find out what your gluten free options are. I recommend calling restaurants and asking questions before you even leave on your trip.
5. PACK FOOD
When traveling, I typically pack beef jerky, nuts, protein bars, and dried fruit in my carry on bag. I also pack additional food in my suitcase just to be safe. Fortunately I’m seeing more and more gluten free options at airport convenience stores.
6. EAT AT RELIABLE CHAIN RESTAURANTS
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t! While restaurants are only as reliable as their staff is diligent, if you’re familiar with how to navigate a specific chain to ensure you can eat safely, go for what you know.
In and Out Burger is a traveling go-to for me. I know how to state my issue (“severe gluten allergy, please be careful”) and I’m comfortable their allergy training is thorough. I’ve eaten there a number of times over the years and I’ve never gotten sick.
Another reliable chain for me is PF Chang’s. I recommend always telling them you’re celiac and that cross-contamination will make you sick. If you do those two things you should be set.
I really appreciate P.F. Chang’s safety practices. They make gluten free food in a separate kitchen area and have wide brimmed plates to minimize chance of cross contamination.
California Pizza Kitchen learned the hard way about cross-contamination. They introduced a gluten free menu that wasn’t truly gluten free and suffered immense customer backlash.
To their credit, they worked with the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) to educate their staff and now offer a number of certified gluten free pizzas.
California Pizza Kitchen now prepares their gluten free pizzas in a separate area, bakes them in separate tins, prepares them with separate color-coded utensils, the ingredients are stored separately, and the gluten free pizza is brought to your table by a manager.
Do research and familiarize yourself with some chain restaurants you can rely on when you travel. The GIG also publishes a list of establishments they’ve certified.
7. STAYING WITH FAMILY
If you’re staying with family when traveling, then it’s helpful to eat in a way that minimizes the chance of cross-contamination. I recommend disposable utensils and self contained food such as certified gluten free microwave meals. I highly recommend buying food you don’t have to touch with your hands at any time.
8. ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
If you’re trying a new restaurant, ask very specific questions. You can usually tell if you’re going to have an issue if you are thorough in understanding the environment.
Is gluten free food prepared in a separate area of the kitchen or at a different station? Is it prepared with separate utensils? Is cookware or the grill washed before preparing gluten free food? Are hands washed and gloves changed?
Stick to dishes with few ingredients and minimally processed foods like meat and vegetables. Dressings and sauces will get you every time—steer clear of anything with lots of ingredients.
Tell them you have celiac disease and that trace amounts of gluten make you very ill. Being gluten free is very trendy right now and letting the staff know your situation will make them more diligent.
Numerous times I’ve had a waiter or waitress tell me they don’t take gluten free requests very seriously because they feel customers are simply being high maintenance.
9. TAKE A NIMA SENSOR
If you’re not familiar with Nima, it’s a portable sensor you can use to test your food for gluten. The capsules are single use only and not what I consider cheap. That said, the ability to eat with confidence is amazing. I love my Nima and think it’s a fantastic tool for traveling.
10. SCHEDULE A LOT OF TIME FOR MEALS
If you’re going to eat out at an unfamiliar place, plan enough time to go to several restaurants and ask questions before you settle on one. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you don’t have snacks on you and don’t have enough time to find a safe place to eat.