As my two year Celiac diagnosis approaches, I have had time to reflect on how my life has changed in the last two years. When I was first diagnosed, I was naive, and thought I could perhaps cheat and enjoy a bit of gluten now and then. After my first month gluten free, I quickly came to realize that when I gave my body reprieve from gluten and then accidentally re-introduced it, my body now had violent reactions. I went from having no visible signs of a gluten allergy, to being a vomit comit if so much as a crumb of gluten made it into my body. There was no playing around, this was serious, and I could never ever have another bite of gluten in my life. That was really hard to come to terms with. Really hard. I LOVE food. If I won the lottery, I would enroll in culinary school, and spend my days perfecting new foods. Food was a huge part of my life, and a big chunk of that was taken away. I could no longer to go restaurants and eat anything I wanted. I couldn’t have canapes at cocktail parties, and I couldn’t enjoy most of my first post diagnosis Christmas dinner. (No turkey if it has been stuffed, no stuffing, no rolls, no gravy, no casseroles, and no pie.)
About 6 months post diagnosis, I had my worst gluten reaction to date. I ate a bunless hamburger that I purchased from my local butcher shop, and spent 6 excruciating hours vomiting. It was so bad, my body was in uncontrollable convulsions, and I was vomiting blood (later learned that I tore my esophagus.) That was scary, and something I never want to relive.
Two weeks after that episode I was scheduled to travel to Las Vegas. It was my first trip as a Celiac sufferer, and I was petrified of not having anything safe to eat, or worse yet getting sick away from home. That trip taught me a lot, and since then I have traveled to New York City, Copenhagen Denmark, and Cuba
Here are my secrets to traveling with Celiac Disease without missing out or getting sick.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
I cannot stress this enough. Before traveling anywhere I do a ton of research on safe places to eat. When we traveled to Las Vegas we stayed at Mandalay Bay. Before traveling I made a list of places with known gluten free options, or full GF menus, and where they were located. For instance, I knew that there was a pizza place in Mandalay Bay called Slice of Vegas that had a whole GF menu including gluten free pizza, pasta and buns. I also knew that Border Grill has gluten free menu options, and as does Verandah. All this was available without leaving the hotel. Some other places with Gluten Free options nearby were Nine Fine Irishmen, In & Out Burger, PF Changs, Mon Ami Gabi & Chipotle. I even marked out these places on a map, and carried it with me.
How did I learn about all these restaurants? I hit up Trip Advisor first, searching for things like “Las Vegas Gluten Free”. If I didn’t find enough results, I would often ask a new question to the Trip Advisor forums. I also started Googling, and checking out the menus online of the local restaurants. The next step is calling or emailing restaurants that do not have things marked on their menu. You will soon have a list of safe spots to eat. If you are traveling to a place that does not speak your native language, always print and carry around these Celiac travel cards. They are available in a multitude of languages and they explain the disease, and what you can and cannot eat. They were a life saver in Cuba where most servers speak English but may not have an understanding of what gluten is.
STAYING WITH FRIENDS OR FAMILY? EDUCATE THEM.
When I traveled to Denmark, we were staying and visiting with family. The last time I saw any of that side of the family I was still eating gluten, and they didn’t even know about my diagnosis. My Mom emailed the Danish family ahead of time and told them about the seriousness of my Celiac, and my special diet. When we arrived in Denmark I was absolutely blown away with my family. I cannot express enough how amazing they were. They all knew about my diet, and had went above and beyond to ensure I had things to eat. The spouse of one of my cousins is a chef, and everything he made, he made a gluten free option for me. From gluten free sausages and sauces, to toast points with foie gras. It was spectacular, and incredibly moving how much effort they put in for me.
Some family friends even found a bakery called Lagkegehuset that carried fresh daily gluten free bread, and they came over bearing loaves. It was incredible. By far the most delicious gluten free bread I have ever had. I was able to have my bread and cheese for breakfast and lunch the same as my Danish hosts. My family was also amazing for conversing to wait staff in restaurants about what I could and couldn’t eat. The above mentioned chef even saved me at dinner one night, as he suspected the sauce on my plate contained gluten. He told me not to eat it, and went and found the chef at the hotel, and questioned the ingredients. It turned out that there was in fact gluten in the sauce, and they made me a new dish. I am so thankful to my family for taking care of me, and giving me such an amazing trip.
PACK SOME SNACKS.
Even with all the research in the world, there will still be situations where there is nothing you can eat. Carry around some protein bars and other non-perishable snacks for such occasions. When you arrive in a new city, try to find a grocery store or somewhere you can pick up a few things to have on hand for breakfasts and snacks. Fresh fruit and cheeses are perfect for keeping in your hotel fridge.
BRING YOUR OWN MEAL ON THE PLANE.
I have tried calling airlines and requesting gluten free meals to no avail. My last flight I requested a gluten free meal, and this is what I got: piece of papaya and grapefruit, and a roll. While better than nothing (and luckily the fruit was separate from the roll, so I was still able to eat the fruit) it was a far cry from a complete meal or actually gluten free. Luckily I travel with fruit and nut bars, and was able to get something filling in my tummy. Airport lounges don’t often have much better fare. Fruit cups, cheese sticks and loose fruit are the best of the airport slog, but can be costly. On the way to the airport for the Denmark trip, we actually stopped at Chipotle and purchased burrito bowls, with the salsa & sour creme on the side . We took them through airport security (with the liquids in their little containers packed in my liquids ziplock bag). I half expected airport security may find problems with my burrito bowl, but they let me in, and in turn I had a wonderful meal on the plane. That kept me fed until we landed in Copenhagen.
KNOW WHAT FOODS ARE INHERENTLY GLUTEN FREE.
I hate being difficult. I do not like being the person at the restaurant demanding my meal be made special. Even prior to Celiac diagnosis, I was not the person who asked for their meal to be made specially. After diagnosis, I became even more aware of that, and fearful that servers would think I was being a gluten avoider for fad diet reasons, not that I actually needed to eat this way for my health. I had a total fear of server eye roll, and less than careful handling of my food.
As such, before asking for anything to be made gluten free, I will scan the menu for the most plausible gluten free item. A cheese plate sans crackers? Perfect. Salad? Yes! Grilled steak w/ veg? All right! All viable options. I will then broach my waiter with a version of the following “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I have Celiac Disease and I cannot eat any gluten. Do you know if the _______ has gluten in it? Can you check with the kitchen? Thank you so much for your help!” I have found this is MUCH easier (and less eye rolling) than doing the whole “is there anything on your menu that’s gluten free?”
While traveling to Cuba, I knew that Cuban rice and beans were never made with gluten, so this was always a safe meal even at the buffet. If you are staying at an all inclusive resort, the omelet bar will be your best friend for breakfast, and the grill stations will keep you fed with meat and fish at dinner. For dessert, I often hit up the cheese plates with fresh fruit.
CHOOSE SMALLER OR FANCIER RESTAURANTS & AVOID THE CHAINS (unless they are chain restaurants that offer gluten free menus that is)
I find that smaller or fancier restaurants have a more hands on approach. The chef will know exactly what’s in the food they are cooking, and the wait staff may know as well. Heck, I have even had chefs tell me about the farms where the produce came from. People that love and care about food are usually pretty happy to accommodate your allergies. Whereas the kid working at the chain restaurant has no idea what gluten is, or whats in the meal he’s taken from the freezer to the deep fryer to your plate. Find people who are passionate about food and make things from scratch, and they will usually make you a meal to die for. The best is when chefs ask me if they can just make me a custom meal, which I adore, and will let them go wild. As long as it wont make me sick, I will try anything!
With several trips under my belt, I am now 100% confident while traveling and maintaining my gluten free diet. As the world becomes more educated about Celiac disease and Gluten Free dining, I think things are going to get even better.
What are your Gluten Free Travel Tips?