It’s Spring Break Week here in Clear Lake and many families are taking advantage of the days off from school for day trips and vacations. Our family was able to sneak away for a day to the Twin Cities on Sunday to see the Newsies production at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and stay overnight at a hotel.
After years of following “abnormal” dietary practices, traveling is no longer stressful to me. However, it wasn’t all that long ago when figuring out what we were going to feed our son while away from home consumed every trip. It was incredibly difficult and distracting—so much so that I often dreaded leaving home and rarely enjoyed travel or vacation experiences.
When you can’t just eat the Standard American Diet, a quick run through a drive-thru or grabbing food at the gas station is not part of your reality. When you follow a Gluten Free, Paleo, Whole30, Vegan, AIP, or some other individualized dietary approach, travel can be especially stressful. No one wants to be consumed by thinking about what she or her family can and can't eat while on vacation. However, for many people, it is essential that appropriate care and consideration be taken for dining experiences to prevent sickness, allergic reactions and possibly even having to cut a vacation short.
I’ll never forget one of our first road trips with Mikha after we’d returned to Iowa from Ukraine. He was just over 2 years old (Lauryn was 2 as well) and we decided it was a great idea to take a Christmas vacation to Texas…in our van. At that point, Mikha hadn’t been diagnosed with food allergies and we were still eating Standard American Diet; so deciding what to eat wasn’t a problem at all. We just stopped at McDonald’s or some other fast food chain anytime we needed to eat. It was not a problem, of course, until it was a problem. Mikha had been experiencing some GI issues those first few months, but we just chalked it up to all the new foods he was being exposed to. Little did we know we were actually filling him full of food that was essentially toxic for his body. We had just checked out of the hotel after our first overnight. We were in Kansas, in a little town that hosted the Wizard of Oz Museum. We planned to check out the museum before continuing on to Oklahoma City. At the exact moment I lifted Mikha up from his carseat, I heard a horrible noise, followed by a splash sound. Remember those GI issues? Huggies was no match for Mikha. The explosion found its way through his diaper, through his clothing, onto the carseat, the van floor, the pavement, and all down the front of my clothes. I’m normally a very frugal person, but this was an exception. We literally removed all his clothing and bathed him with baby wipes in the van, and all the clothes he was wearing, and my clothes, got pitched in a nearby dumpster. When I say it is essential that appropriate care and consideration be taken while traveling to prevent sickness, allergic reactions, etc., this was the start of many experiences that brought about my current travel strategies. Obviously, it helps tremendously to know what foods he can and cannot eat now. And, I’ve had 5 years of practice traveling as a gluten/dairy-free family.
I’d love to share some of my tips and tricks for traveling with food allergies (or while following a special dietary protocol). I've included a Top 10 below:
10. Hit the grocery store instead—At grocery stores you can read labels and ensure that food is what it says it is, to avoid cross contamination and hidden ingredients. And, most grocery stores now have Apps that you can use to find coupons to save yourself some money. I saved $14 this past weekend at Fresh Thyme in Bloomington because I found a $10 off a $50 purchase coupon and a coupon for our favorite dairy free yogurts.
9. Picnic—After getting some groceries, find a spot to picnic so the kids can stretch their legs and aren’t confined to sitting even longer (as they would be in a restaurant). We always travel with a picnic blanket and have been known to spread it out on a grass patch near the grocery store if there is no park nearby. Some of the things we often buy include organic romaine, GF deli meat, cheese sticks (for our girls), hummus and mini peppers, berries, GF chips or pretzels, applesauce or fruit cups, carrots and dip, olives and/or nuts.
8. Stick to Water—It is very easy to get dehydrated while traveling so we always stick to water for long trips. I label a bottle for each person, so I can track how much water we’re getting in. If we are driving, I always bring our own water to save money and so that I know the quality of the water. I recommend waiting until you’re within 30 minutes of a restroom before offering more than just a sip of water to little passengers. This lesson has been learned the hard way traveling with three children under the age of 9. When we have reached our destination, I allow splurges on fruit juice and fruit smoothies. It is vacation after all. And, our driver is always allowed as much coffee as he wants 😊
7. Emergency Snacks—I always have some snacks in my purse in case our only option for food is something that could be risky. We have dealt with this struggle many times while traveling in the South or in rural areas. Some of my go-to emergency snacks are Nick’s Sticks (beef or turkey), Larabars, Ona Bars, Trail Mix, Dried Fruit and Plantain Chips.
6. Limit Refined Sugar—While we travel we do our best to avoid refined sugar because it suppresses the immune system and leads to hyperactive kids (who are often in a confined space.) We’ve found that there are other ways to celebrate and have fun, and nobody wants to have sick kids or kids bouncing off the walls (sometimes literally) while “relaxing” on vacation. Instead, I look for fruit sweetened treats like smoothies, natural gummy candies or fruit strips, coconut ice cream, dark chocolate and every once in awhile we will hit the jackpot (usually in a big city) and find a gluten/dairy free (GF DF) bakery that uses honey and maple syrup. Those are extra special days. We might know a family that ended up paying $60 for a box of gluten/dairy free donuts in Chicago because parking was not cheap, and how often do you find gluten/dairy free donuts while traveling.
5. Bring Your Own Hotel Food—Something else I have started doing is bringing my own equivalents of traditional “hotel foods.” Things like microwave popcorn, candy (like what you’d find in a vending machine) and soda are replaced with Tiny But Mighty microwave popcorn, naturally colored and flavored Rainbow Drops (from Sunridge Farms) and sparkling flavored waters (like LaCroix or Sparkle) or Virgil’s Rootbeer Zero (stevia sweetened with 0g sugar). My kids don’t miss out on the experiences and I feel good about what they’re putting into their bodies. If I know we’re staying in a suite that will have a kitchen (which we usually do), I’ll also bring breakfast items that you’d typically find on a continental breakfast buffet—things we don’t eat regularly at home (so they’re special), but food that is still made of clean ingredients that won’t cause anyone to get sick. Against the Grain bagels with cream cheese (Kite Hill cream cheese for dairy free), toast and jelly, GF DF breakfast cereal with nondairy milk, premade muffins that are GF DF, pancake or waffle mix (we like Birch Benders Paleo Mix), pure maple syrup, yogurt and organic berries are some of our go-to breakfast items while traveling.
4. Stick to Meat and Veggies—When we do eat at a restaurant (that isn’t advertised as being allergy-friendly), especially for an event that has a limited or fixed menu, we try to stick to meat and veggies. This Sunday at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre for example, I ordered a sirloin steak, baked potato (plain) and steamed (not buttered) vegetables for myself and Mikha. We put salt and pepper on the food and enjoyed a perfectly cooked steak and delicious rainbow carrots and green beans. The baked potato plain was, well, a baked potato plain. But, at least nobody threw up 😉 Chanhassen had also added a GF cheesecake to its menu, so the girls and Shea got to enjoy that for dessert during intermission. The server also offered to bring fresh fruit for the kids in place of the lettuce salad prior to the meal, so that was great for them as well.
3. Search Online—Google “Gluten Free” or “Organic” and whatever town name you happen to be traveling to or through. We have come across some amazing food options (usually small organic grocers or cafes) by doing a simple Google search prior to arriving. Often, we will even plan our routes according to where we can experience the best food on the way. I happen to be a huge foodie traveler, so this is a big part of the fun for me. So many dining places now have online menus as well, so you can check ahead of time to be sure there’s something everyone traveling with you can enjoy.
2. Be Your Own Advocate—I used to feel really bad having to tell a server that we needed a menu item modified to address our allergy/dietary needs. Now, I recognize it is a necessary reality to be an advocate for your food needs. The worst thing that can happen (and it has happened to us) is the server will say s/he can’t accommodate the need. That’s when that Emergency Snacks come in handy. However, nearly every time we’ve expressed a need, our server has been more than willing to do what was needed to be sure our food was prepared accordingly. Tipping well is a great way to say thank you when a restaurant staff goes the extra mile to serve your family’s needs.
1. Be Flexible—I have learned this is the most important part of traveling/vacationing (at least if you want to enjoy yourself). You have to be willing to change plans when the restaurant you were set on visiting is closed for renovations, or the last piece of GF dessert got sold to the customer in front of your family, or someone did eat something s/he shouldn’t have and isn’t feeling the best. I always travel with some “tools” that help in these inconvenient times. The Emergency Snacks I already mentioned, and some others including: activated charcoal, a travel homeopathy kit, GF DF treats, a barf bag (for roadtrips), wet wipes, extra clothes, that picnic blanket I already mentioned, time consuming finger foods for long waits. And, most importantly, grace. Grace for my family. Grace for fellow vacationers. Grace for hospitality professionals/serving staff. And grace for myself when things simply don’t go as I planned.
Whether you’ve already started your Spring Break travels, or will be traveling sometime soon, I hope these tips and tricks will be of use to you and your family. And, of course, if you need help finding any great products for your own Emergency Snacks, we’d love to help you at Simply Nourished. Our store is still on Winter Hours: Open Wednesday through Friday 11-6 and Saturday 10-2. Simply Nourished is located at 18 N. 3rd Street in Clear Lake. Wellness is within reach!