Expert Tips: Traveling with Food Allergies

Whether jet-setting out of the country, taking a family road trip, or sending a child off to camp, Let's Eat Out Around the World Gluten Free and Allergy Free is a stress-free, easy-to-read guide for managing your child's allergies this summer. You can research hotel, resort, cruise and restaurant meal options in the book, on the GlutenFree Passport website and smartphone apps.

We asked Kim Koeller, creator of the award-winning Let's Eat Out! series of books and apps, for advice on vacation planning when a family member has a food allergy or sensitivity.

Expert Q & A: Vacations with Food-Sensitive Kids

Restaurant2.jpg Family Vacations: A family member with a food allergy or sensitivity can make vacation-planning more difficult, but your book and website make travel seem much more doable. So realistically, what kind of pre-trip research should families focus on?

Kim Koeller: Regardless of destination, it is important to be prepared throughout the vacation based upon the family member’s specific food concerns. This impacts airline meals, snacks, medications, ethnic restaurant meals and even food allergy travel translation cards if you are visiting a foreign language speaking country.

For airline meals on longer flights, be sure to order and reconfirm the airplane meals in advance based upon standard airline codes. These include GFML for gluten-free meals, NLML for non-lactose meals, PFML for peanut free meals and even DBML for diabetic meals.

Also, pack carry-on snacks keeping in mind airport security regulations. Bring enough food to get the family member to your destination and for your excursions throughout your trip. For example, if you’re flying eight hours to Hawaii, take two to three meals worth of food including protein and carbohydrates, in case of delays. 

In case of anaphylaxis and an emergency, carry the appropriate medications, including several epinephrine auto-injectors, such as EpiPen or Twinject, and any other related medicines.

The more you know, the easier it is to eat out and travel safely with the family member. Careful research, planning and a little extra effort puts the control back in your hands to safely vacation anywhere. 

Navigating Menus with Food-Sensitive Kids

Walt Disney Parks Family Vacations: Can you name a few family-friendly restaurant or hotel chains that are doing a great job at addressing food allergies and intolerances? What are they doing that other restaurants and hotels should be doing?

Kim Koeller: One of my favorite family-friendly destinations is Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They have been making the extra effort to cater to gluten-free and food allergy guests for over 10 years.  With significant attention to training, food products and restaurant protocols, Disney World offers families managing special diets free from peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, dairy, soy and more a wide range of meal options. That way every child can experience a safe trip to the Magic Kingdom.

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro has also been offering gluten-free and allergen-free alternatives across the US for years. Their staff training requires a high level of knowledge on ingredients in each prepared dish. They follow specific detailed allergen practices and use specially designated plates and ramekins for gluten free meals and sauces.

More and more restaurants also have printed statements on menus requesting, “If you have food allergies, please notify your server."  Additionally, there are now quite a few restaurant chains that provide gluten free menus or allergy charts by menu item. We list these chains on our website and they are also included in a number of restaurant directories such as Find Me Gluten Free and Allergy Eats.

Also, to help people with food allergies safely eat in quick service and fast food restaurant chains, we created the iCanEat Fast Food Gluten Free and Allergy Free iPhone app, which allows you to personalize meal options from over 35 U.S. chain allergy charts reflecting over 4,000 menu items.

People can quickly see what they can eat and hide items that they can’t eat. They can then avoid meals that contain their allergens such as gluten, wheat, milk, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish. This makes ordering the meal so much easier and safe to eat.

Questions to Ask Your Restaurant Server

Restaurant1.jpg Family Vacations: For dining out, your book offers ordering guidelines for people with specific allergies and intolerances. Can you share a few examples of guidelines that would help parents or kids with an intolerance navigate a restaurant menu?

Kim Koeller: Based on global market research that we conducted, almost 90 percent of food service and hospitality professionals indicate that communication of special dietary needs when ordering is the top priority for gluten and allergen free guests.

Depending up on the desired ethnic restaurant meals, you also need to understand what ingredients and food preparation techniques are safe, what questions to ask the staff, where allergens may be hidden and what modifications can be made to easily accommodate the food allergy or intolerance.

So, parents or older kids first need to inform the restaurant wait staff of their food allergy or intolerance. Say, for example, "I’m allergic to gluten and wheat so I can’t eat any bread or flour." Or "I’m allergic to dairy so I can’t have any milk and butter."

Then, instead of simply asking, “Is this dish gluten free, dairy free or X allergen free?”, ask questions specific to the menu item based on ingredients and food preparation in restaurant terms.

For example, if they are gluten free, sample questions could be:

  • Are your hamburgers and the flourless chocolate cake made with bread crumbs?
  • Is your chicken flour dusted?
  • Is the sauce made from a roux which includes wheat flour?

If they have a milk or dairy allergy, sample questions may include:

  • Does your marinara sauce have parmesan cheese?
  • Is your steak finished off with butter?
  • Do you add milk to your omelette?

It is critical to understand what can and cannot be eaten based on ingredients and food preparation when navigating restaurant menus. Some tools to help ensure safe meals include our Let’s Eat Out book, iEatOut app for iPhone or Allergy Free Menu Helper app for Android.

The Lowdown on Allergen Cross-Contamination

Restaurant3.jpg Family Vacations: Many restaurants and hotels say they address food allergies and intolerances, yet you rarely get to peak inside a kitchen to see if standards are actually being implemented. What kinds of questions should you ask before your meal to ensure there will be no cross contamination or other common mistakes?

Kim Koeller: Cross-contamination occurs in two primary instances. First, when the menu item is prepared in the same frying oil or boiling water as other foods containing common allergens. And second, when microbes or food particles are transferred from one food to another by using the same knife, cutting board, pots, pans or other utensils without washing the surfaces or tools in between uses.

Ensuring a dedicated fryer is extremely important for those with gluten, wheat, dairy, fish and shellfish allergies so no cross contact from fried foods such as cheese sticks, breaded calamari and battered fish occurs. 

Sample questions would be: “Are your French fries fried in the same oil as your breaded items such as chicken fingers? Are your corn chips fried in the same oil as your chimichangas?”

From a boiling water perspective, a sample question is: “Can you make sure the gluten free pasta is cooked in clean boiling water in a designated pot?”

To avoid possible transference of food particles, a sample question is: “Do you use designated cutting boards, knives, pans and utensils when preparing my allergy-free dish?”

In the case of open flamed grills, the extreme temperature turns most food particles into carbon. Use of a clean wire brush designed for grill racks typically removes residual contaminants.  To avoid cross-contamination, the restaurant should use a dedicated fryer for allergy-free foods, identify oils used for frying, and monitor allergen foods prepared in a shared fryer. The staff must also wash all materials that may come in contact with food in hot, soapy water prior to preparing items for those following an allergen-free diet. 

Best Airport Eateries for Food-Sensitive Kids

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Dulles Airport Family Vacations: Let's say you're in an airport and want to buy a quick snack for the flight. What are your favorite go-to airport eateries for offering allergy-free options?

Kim Koeller: Thankfully, airports around the world are now beginning to offer healthy, gluten free and allergy friendly snacks to travelers at food stands, quick service carry-outs and markets. One of my favorites is Cibo Express Gourmet Markets which can be found at major airports across the US and Canada.

At Cibo, you can typically find an assortment of naturally gluten-free and allergy free foods including certified kosher foods. This quick service carry-out establishment is filled with healthy foods such as fresh fruit, freshly cut vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and salads. They are also now carrying gluten free and allergy free treats such as brownies, cookies and candy as well. While there are many allergy-friendly options available at Cibo Express and similar markets around the country, you still need to be sure to read all the product labels of items you are interested in before making your purchase.

Another favorite go-to eatery is Chipotle Mexican Grill for a number of reasons from an allergen perspective:

  • It is easy to navigate for a gluten free option. My favorite is the burrito bowl.
  • The only ingredients that contain dairy are the cheese and sour cream.
  • They do not use eggs, mustard, sesame, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts or any other kind of nuts in their food.
  • Servers are willing to change their gloves when requested to avoid possible cross contact.

If I can't find a Cibo Express or Chipotle in the airport, then I use the iCanEat Fast Food app to help me find allergy-free menu options from one of the other 35 U.S. chains that are commonly located in airports. 

Packing When You Have Food Allergies

Trisha/Flickr Creative Commons Family Vacations: Has having a food intolerance changed the way you pack? If so, how?

Kim Koeller: Having multiple food allergies, intolerances and celiac disease has definitely changed the way that I pack for trips.

First, I always make sure that I have packed what I call my “home comfort kit” which includes my medications, supplements, herbs and other health remedies that I take in case of an adverse food reaction.

Since I do not have anaphylaxis, I do not need epinephrine auto-injectors. However, in my personal kit based on my food allergy symptoms, I always carry antihistamines, antacids and aloe vera for stomach upset, digestive aids such as ginger, turmeric, and charcoal as well as bath salts in the case of an adverse food reaction. Luckily, I haven’t had an allergic reaction in years but I still have to be prepared.

Second, I pack enough snacks in my carry-on bag to get me to my desired destination as well as a variety of snacks in my suitcase for excursions throughout the trip. These food snacks may range from no preparation items such as protein bars, cookies, protein mixes and fruit, to hot-water preparation items such as dried soups to foods requiring a small cooler as suggested in Let’s Eat Out.  Packing my home comfort kit and my snacks definitely helps me feel safer when traveling.

Third, I make sure that any prior research that I have conducted about specific restaurants, stores and food brands at my destination are with me for easy reference. If I am traveling internationally to a foreign language speaking country, I always ensure that I pack multiple paper copies of the travel translation cards.

These free downloadable restaurant cards with ingredient and food preparation phrases are available in numerous languages and as free mobile apps for iPhone and Android. I present my chef dining cards to the wait staff and/or chef at my restaurants to help to communicate my food concerns.  I print extra copies for my travels because there have been lots of times that restaurant staff have asked me to keep the cards for other gluten free and allergy-free guests. 

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