It’s much easier than you might think.
When I was first diagnosed with a gluten intolerance almost five years ago, I was worried about the prospect of giving up many of my staple foods—pasta, bread, and dumplings bought in bulk and kept in the freezer for emergencies. While the transition to a totally gluten-free diet was logistically easy for me—I live in New York City, where dietary restrictions are common and most grocery stores stock gluten-free staples—I realize that’s not the case for everyone, and emotionally, it took a while to get the hang of. And while I have my everyday routines down pat now, eating out while traveling, both domestically and abroad, is still something of a challenge. Awareness about allergies and food intolerance really varies, from city to city and even restaurant to restaurant, but I’ve learned it’s completely possible to travel and try new cuisines without getting sick. Here are some tips that really work for me.
Search for restaurants that other gluten-free travelers recommend (TripAdvisor and gluten-free travel blogs are particularly useful), and make reservations at a few places if you can. Also, keep a running list of accommodating cafes, markets, and grocery stores in the neighborhoods you plan to check out. I personally like to use a Google Maps list for this, but a text list or annotated paper map works just as well if you don’t have cell phone data access.
Before going somewhere, I do a deep dive into traditional foods for that area and identify any common wheat-based ingredients like soy sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce, flour tortillas, or stews made with a hearty roux. This gives me a good frame of reference for what to be cautious about. Sometimes these ingredients can be omitted from a dish or substituted, and knowing how chefs prepare these dishes can make it easier for you to communicate with them about your requests.
I always allocate suitcase space for gluten-free protein bars, rice cakes and a jar of almond butter, and instant miso soup packets. That means I’m all set for breakfasts, travel snacks, and a couple of small meals in a pinch. Other travel-friendly ideas include pouches of tuna or salmon, and gluten-free jerky or granola. If I’m running low on snacks I look for options that tend to be safe like whole nuts, popcorn, and chocolate to restock my shelf-stable stash.
If you have a way to store and heat perishables, you are way less likely to find yourself hungry and on the brink of eating something you feel iffy about. Preparing some meals for yourself is a nice way to sample local produce, like new types of vegetables and legumes, without worrying about gluten. Plus, exploring local supermarkets is one of life’s great joys—just remember to read those labels!
If you’re on a flight offering food service, many airlines allow you to request a gluten-free meal. Bring a carry-on bag of snacks too, to ensure you aren’t staggeringly hungry when you arrive at your final destination—airport food can be unreliable, and you don’t want to kick off any leg of your trip feeling hangry or cranky.
You can look for downloadable restaurant cards that explain your food restrictions in multiple languages, along with phonetic phrases you can use. These aren’t foolproof, but communicating about your allergy can go a long way. Restaurant cards are particularly useful if your allergy or intolerance extends to cross-contamination.
I’ve found that everyone has their own specific “gluten protocol” if the worst should happen, depending on their symptoms. I travel with a “worst case scenario” ziploc bag with over-the-counter stomach medications, electrolyte tablets, and peppermint tea.
Before going on a trip, I like to download any apps that might be useful. Gluten-free restaurant apps like Find Me Gluten-Free, and language translation apps like Google Translate and Allergic Traveler Food Allergy Translator, have served me well—and there are new apps for travelers debuting all the time.