Rachel Ornstein Packer is a freelance writer who began writing about children’s food allergies /recipes and nutrition when her own son was diagnosed with severe egg and nut allergies. She has written for Atlanta Parent, Washington Family Magazine, Washington Post Food Blog, and Baltimore Jewish Times along with personal essays in Moment magazine, Washington Post, Jewish Week and NPR. She currently writes for the website GreenDivaMom.com and recently started her own blog, lifeisgoodlickthebowl.blogspot.com
If you are traveling with kids with food allergies, then your trip planning requires entail more preparation than the norm. The task may seem daunting at first, especially if you are new to the world of food allergies, but it’s very do-able once you get the hang of it. Below is a list of things you can do to make your family trip a safe and pleasant one. Again, you may not need to do all of these things, depending on the severity and type of allergy.
1. Choose an appropriate destination
If you are not quite familiar or comfortable with a new diagnosis of food allergies, it is probably better to limit your vacation to a domestic location. If you haven’t learned the ins and outs of ingredient checking, trying it out for the first time in a foreign country is only going to be frustrating and quite possibly dangerous.
However, if your abroad plans are already set, and canceling is not a viable option, you can take some additional precautions along with the rest of the list below:
• Keep fresh fruits and vegetables on hand.
• When ordering in a restaurant, make sure your child’s food isn’t doused or cooked in any kind of questionable sauce. Keep vegetables steamed.
• Unless you are sure, don’t rely on any baked/packaged products as they may contain hidden allergens.
• Try packing a separate suitcase with some packaged food that you know your child can eat, or even ship some food if you can to your destination so that it will be there for you.
Get a room with a refrigerator
A refrigerator can be very helpful. When we travel as a family, we aim to stay in some type of efficiency hotel such as a Residence Inn because it has a fridge, microwave and stove. Upon our arrival, we do our food shopping and store it in our hotel room. Moreover, we make most our meals there as well. It does require some additional work, but it’s piece of mind knowing our child is safe. Another bonus is that it’s very cost-effective.
2. Research area restaurants
Start with a website like allergyeats.com, which rates food allergy friendliness and awareness at various restaurants across the country. There is nothing worse than getting to a restaurant with your hungry brood and finding out you can’t eat there. Find at least one restaurant that you feel is safe.
3. Pack snacks on car, train and plane travel
When traveling by car, bring a cooler filled with allergy appropriate snack and/or lunch items. It is definitely safer, faster, easier, healthier, and cost effective to eat a packed lunch at a rest stop rather than buying it. This proves more challenging when traveling in an airport, but there are dry snacks you can bring in your purse/backpack. Granola, dried fruit, nuts (if not allergic), cereal bars, and portable fruit such as apples, or bananas stores well in any purse or backpack. Oatmeal packets are a great option because they are flat, light, filling, and they get through security. Once past security you can always get some hot water at a coffee shop, or even on the plane along with a cup and mix.
4. Don’t forget your Epi-Pen!
This may seem obvious, but more often than not, people (especially those who are new to the food allergies world) sometimes forget to bring it because they don’t really think or understand the consequences. Moreover, learn how to use it before you leave. If you do forget it, alert your doctor and ask if they can call in a prescription to a local pharmacy. Make sure you bring BOTH Epi-Pens provided in the box just in case the release on one of them doesn’t work.
5. Find a local grocery store
After you have reached your destination, the first stop you need to make is the grocery store in order to stock up on foods for your child.
6. Be wary of the buffet
Assess the calculated risks. If it’s unwrapped, don’t eat it. It is easy to contaminate food at a breakfast buffet and/or a salad bar. People are sometimes careless and it doesn’t take much for an errant pecan from one station to find its way over to the next. Stick to the packaged goods. Again, depending on the type and severity of the allergy, you may want to reconsider ordering food from an outdoor stand (like the ones on the beach) as well. Sometimes, these food items are fried in unrefined peanut oil, or with other allergen type foods.
7. Don’t expect the general public to understand
Most people don’t understand food allergies until they, or someone close to them are affected by it. While hotel and restaurant staff should act like helpful professionals, we need to keep in mind when approaching them that they are probably not well versed in food allergies. Grilling a general manager during a chaotic breakfast rush is very counter productive and will not yield the help or understanding you desire. When you check in, find out who the manager on duty will be and try to speak with them calmly in advance.
8. Read ingredient lists backwards
Even if you are vacationing domestically, you still need to check the labels. The products you may think are safe can change their recipes. Here is a trick I always suggest to people when scanning ingredient lists. After you scanned the label once, go back and read it from the last ingredient to the first. Sometimes, the offending allergens appear in the middle or even toward the end of the list. I once found egg powder toward the end of an ingredient list. Look for allergy warnings on the box. Reading the ingredients backwards insures a more thorough check.
9. Enjoy your vacation
Food allergies don’t have to rule your vacation, but you do need to pay attention. With a little preparation, you and your family can enjoy your family time together in a fun and safe environment.
Further reading: How to travel well with dietary restrictions.