One of the biggest fears for anyone who has food intolerances or allergies is eating out. I eat out a great deal because I have three children involved in activities here and there. In my hometown, I’ve memorized all the restaurants where I can eat safely.
Traveling halfway across the country is another matter. On our two week vacation, I was completely out of my element, but I found ways to cope with the uncertainty because I don’t want to stay home for the rest of my life.
I will share a few of my strategies, but I want to make it clear that this is what I do. I am not suggesting it will work for everyone, especially if they have full blown Celiac disease.
Like the Boy Scouts, be prepared and take food with you. Assume you will be on the road and unable to find a suitable restaurant. On a car trip like ours, it was much simpler to bring food along than if we’d traveled by plane. If I’m going via airplane, and my destination is a larger city, I locate the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s in the area. Upon landing, it is often my first stop.
Some of my favorite travel foods are:
- Nuts. I especially like Natural Nut Harvest almonds and cashews, because they don’t have a lot of added ingredients.
- Larabars. I just discovered these while we were at Trader Joe’s in St. Louis thanks to my SIL, Maria. The cherry pie is wonderful, and apple pie isn’t bad either. I still need to try the other flavors.
- Jack Link’s Steak Nuggets. With these, carefully check the package. A lot of beef jerky products use soy sauce as a flavor enhancer. Regular soy sauce is a no-no for gluten free eating because it is processed with wheat.
- Pamela’s Spicy Ginger Cookies. I like these for breakfast spread with peanut butter. I also love the Pamela’s chocolate chip walnut cookies for a treat. I try to buy these while on the road because the chips tend to melt.
- Instant Grits. Take individual packets. Most hotels have hot water for tea and oatmeal. Add a piece of fruit from the hotel, and you’ve got breakfast. Note: you’ll probably want to wash the fruit yourself due to cross-contamination issues.
- Vienna Sausages. I can see you out there grimacing in disgust, but vienna sausages are great when you’re in a little town in the middle of nowhere for lunch, and McDonald’s is the only choice. This actually happened to me at the Dulles Airport Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I didn’t have my VS, and I ended up eating the Asian salad with raspberry vinagrette dressing, and without chicken. (The grilled chicken was coated in a soy marinade.) When we left the museum three hours later, I was starving.
- Fruit. Apples travel well and can be eaten out of hand. I also like bananas, but they can turn squishy, so I buy one or two in grocery stores along the way. Any fruit in season is also good.
Remember your safe chain restaurants. Have a list with you. If you have internet capabilities, get addresses in the cities you’ll be visiting the night before in your hotel. Then, if you have an internet ready phone, or a navigational system in your car, plug in the addresses. If you aren’t traveling high tech, chart your course on a map, or call the restaurant for directions as you approach the town. Here’s a small list of restaurants I like, but even with these, it’s good to remain vigilant about your food needs. Also, don’t expect most restaurants to have a gluten free menu in hand even if it is listed on the restaurant’s website.
- P.F. Chang’s and Pei Wei. I’m grateful to this Asian inspired restaurant chain because I can eat safely while enjoying a regular meal with my family. P.F. Chang’s even has gluten free soy sauce.
- Outback Steakhouse is one of the easiest places to eat, but honestly, most good steak restaurants will work with you to create a great dining experience.
- Chick-fil-A. This fast food restaurant has a gluten free menu and is very accommodating. I like to eat here because I can eat the waffle fries. I don’t eat fries in most other restaurants because they are often either fried with wheat items or coated in wheat flour. Chick-fil-A, God bless ’em, keeps their chicken and fries separate. I order a Number Two combo without the bun, and I explain the reason. I’ve never gotten sick.
- Carl’s Junior. I’ve found eating the low carb Six Dollar burger to be pretty safe. I order it without cheese and with bread and butter pickles. I also ask them if they can change their gloves between making regular burgers and mine. It has worked for me so far.
- Panera Bread. I know this seems like an oxymoron, but the folks at Panera are very accommodating, and I really appreciate it. I order a salad and ask for those things I need removed. I stress that I eat gluten and dairy free, and I get the apple with mine instead of the bread or chips.
If you know you’re going to be in a specific locale at a particular time, you might also check with the Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program which provides the ability to find restaurants by zip code.
Make friends with your wait staff. Treat them like you would your very best confidant, like you are in this together. Smile. Know their names. Explain your food intolerances very clearly. If the wait staff looks confused, seems in too much of a hurry to listen, or even appears scared, go ahead and request to speak to the manager.
When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to be a problem, and I didn’t want to be unusual. Now, two years later, I realize I don’t want to be sick even more. Most restaurants want me as a customer, and wait staff are becoming more aware about intolerances and food allergies. If they do a good job, compliment them and be sure leave a big tip. You’ve now paved the way for all food intolerance sufferers coming behind you.
All of this preparation and work takes a lot of thought and expends emotional energy. However, if I follow my own guidelines, I won’t get sick very often, and I get to engage in one of the most important rituals in life. I think it’s worth it.