Allergy Awareness Week: Tips For Having a Food Allergy Friendly Vacation
Back in April, it was Allergy Awareness Week in the U.K. I was so honored to be a guest blogger for Foods You Can, a great site based in England, where you can search for info on products, recipes and restaurants that cater to multiple food allergies. (They have sites based in the U.S. and Canada too. Check it out!) You can search by each of the top 8 allergens, as well as things like sesame free, salt free, yeast free and MSG free – it’s pretty cool.
My guest post was entitled Allergy Awareness Week: Tips for Having an Allergy Friendly Holiday. To Americans like me, “holiday” means something different than “vacation,” so I have reproduced my post and “Americanized” it, below. This will make more sense to those of us on this side of the pond. Summer is already underway, so here are some tips for having a food allergy friendly vacation!
Tips for Having a Food Allergy Friendly Vacation
Sunning yourself on a warm beach, hiking through the wilderness, skiing the mountains. These are thoughts people have when dreaming up their next vacation. But for those of us with food allergies, our very next thought may be full of stress. How will we find safe foods? What if we have an allergic reaction? How will I enjoy myself when I may be starving the whole time?? Relax! With a little planning, you can have a vacation that is both allergy friendly AND lots of fun!
I’m a bit of a worry wart, and planning vacations can be stressful, given my family’s food allergies. My young son is highly allergic to milk, tree nuts and eggs, and we carry EpiPens with us wherever we go. In addition, I’ve been gluten-free for many, many years, and have various other (and highly annoying) food sensitivities. But we travel all the time and haven’t had any (major) problems. So here are a few tips for having an allergy friendly vacation. These are things I have learned over the years, and hope they are of help to you!
Do Your Research
The internet is your best friend. Before your trip, spend a little time and research your destination. You’ll want to find restaurants where you can safely eat. I’ve been to restaurants which say they have a gluten-free menu, but had horrible experiences, where they really didn’t know much about gluten. On the flip side, a restaurant’s website may not say anything about food allergies, but they may be the most accommodating. If you hear of a restaurant that you want to try, check out online reviews to see if food allergic patrons have had good experiences there. Call the restaurant and ask to speak to the manager or head chef about your allergies. Also, try to find quick-service restaurants or fast food chains where you can get a safe meal on the go. That kind of place may not be your first choice for a meal on vacation, but it is good to have a backup plan if the restaurant you try isn’t allergy friendly. If you aren’t fluent in the language spoken at your destination, buy or make cards which explain what food allergies you have in the native language. Show these to the server and chef at restaurants during your adventures in finding a safe meal.
You will also want to locate grocery stores nearby which carry allergy friendly foods. Some grocery stores let you place an order online, and will deliver it to your door. It’s helpful to buy a stash of safe food to keep with you in case of food emergency. I’ve found that relying on finding safe restaurants to provide all of your meals and snacks is a sure-fire way to make your vacation stressful. If you plan ahead and always have something to eat as a backup, things will go much more smoothly. I get really cranky when I’m hungry (some may call it “hangry” = hungry + angry), and add to that the stress of trying to find a safe restaurant – it’s a recipe for disaster. Which brings us to our next topic….
Stay Somewhere With a Kitchen
Although no one really wants to cook while on vacation (dishes, ugh!), those of us with food allergies know that it may be a necessity. Get a hotel room with a kitchenette. This can really help keep stress levels down. When we went to Walt Disney World last year, I found a condo which included a full kitchen. It was great to know that if we couldn’t find a safe place to eat, we could just go back to the condo and make something ourselves. Also, if you’re traveling for more than a few days, it can be hard to find a different allergy-friendly restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner of every day of your trip. It was really great in the mornings, too, because we could leisurely eat breakfast while getting ready. Rushing out in the morning to get breakfast is really difficult with small children!
A kitchen is also great for preparing lunch or dinner to carry with you. We bring a small Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thermos with us when we travel. I heat up allergy-friendly chicken nuggets or meatballs before we venture out, and they stay warm in the thermos for my son’s lunch or dinner. When you’re prepared like this, the whole/family group can stop at whatever restaurant they like on a whim, and the food-allergic person will have something safe to eat. You can easily make and pack sandwiches as well.
Cooking some of the meals yourself is also a great way to keep costs down while traveling. Eating out for every meal can get quite expensive. Even if you don’t stay somewhere with a full kitchen, just having a refrigerator and/or microwave will be a big help. Keep some safe foods in the fridge, like dairy-free milk, yogurt, fresh fruit, and cold cuts. If you have a microwave, you can cook things like individual mac-and-cheese cups, popcorn, hot dogs, and frozen items that you can buy at the market, like burritos.
If you’re staying in someone else’s home, explain your dietary restrictions and expectations ahead of time. You don’t want them to go through the trouble of making elaborate meals that you cannot eat! Discuss with them whether you can or will be making your own food. Although your ultimate goal is to keep the food allergic person safe, try to take your host’s feelings into consideration too. If you’re staying with someone who loves to feed their guests, they may be offended that you don’t want them to cook for you. See if you can figure out safe things they can make for you, keeping in mind cross-contamination possibilities. If you determine that it won’t be safe to eat food they prepare, gently explain the severity of your allergies and why you or your child can’t eat what they may make. If that person cares about you, they will likely understand.
Ship What You Need
If you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to find safe groceries near your destination, ship a box of food to yourself ahead of time. You can also do this if you want to avoid shopping as soon as you go on vacation. Or, instead of shipping, you can pack a separate suitcase with these things. Pack non-perishable foods, and anything else you may need, like a can opener, plates, utensils, etc. If you will have a kitchen at your disposal, pack a clean kitchen sponge or rag (you don’t want to risk a reaction from shared sponges), aluminum foil (to use in the oven and toaster oven to prevent cross-contamination), and any cooking utensils you may need. Think about what foods you intend to prepare while on vacation and bring whatever equipment you need to avoid cross-contamination from shared kitchen items. If you plan to use a thermos, cooler bag, freezer pack, or reusable food containers, you can ship them in this box as well.
Plan What To Do In Case of Emergency
If your food allergies are severe, figure out ahead of time how to get emergency medical help. Locate the hospitals nearby and how to get to there. Think about how you would get to the hospital in an emergency. Will you have a car? How would you summon an ambulance? If you don’t speak the language at your destination fluently, make sure you know how to communicate what the medical emergency is in the local language. Write down your allergies and medical information on a card in English and in the local language ahead of time. Carry the prescriptions for your medications with those medications. You should also carry a doctor’s note which lists your food allergies. Knowing that you are prepared in case of an emergency will help put your mind at ease so that you can enjoy yourselves.
Keep Emergency Medications Handy
When we travel, I carry different bags at different times of the day. Some days I wear a backpack (like for hiking or running around), other days I have a cross-body bag (when the backpack is too bulky), and other times just a regular purse (like to dinner or shopping). Changing bags often can make keeping track of the EpiPens and Benadryl difficult. So make sure you carry your emergency medications in a container that is easy-to-spot and carry. We use this bright red medicine bag to carry my son’s EpiPens and Benadryl. It’s small enough to fit into a medium-sized purse, and has a strap in case you need to carry it alone. Right after my son was diagnosed, we kept his medications in a zip-top plastic bag within the diaper bag. We never went anywhere without the diaper bag so it wasn’t a problem. But when we outgrew the diaper bag, it was more difficult to keep track of the medicine, with snacks and so many other things being kept in identical plastic bags. With this red bag, we can easily spot his medications when changing bags or running out the door, so they are never forgotten. There are lots of other options for carrying emergency medications as well, so find one that works for you. Things can get hectic when traveling, so you want to do whatever it takes to make sure your medications are always with you.
So there you have it. Preparation is key! With a little extra work before your trip, you’ll be able to enjoy your vacation and keep everyone safe. Happy travels!