Gluten-Free Traveling: Compromises, Ziploc Bags, & Patience

“Ma’am, is this your bag?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I will need to run it through the scanner again.”

“Okay, thank you.”

This is the moment when, as an experienced traveler, I self-righteously wonder (to myself – I don’t talk back to TSA agents, please note me thanking her for holding me up) what in the world could she need to see again. My bag is fine. There are no contraband weapons, liquids, or matches in there.

Oh, wait, it is the food. Food, you say?

Yes, food. I bet they think it strange that my carry-on backpack contains gallon-sized Ziploc bags of KIND bars, bananas, apples, Glutino pretzels, tea-bags, cured meat, boiled eggs, and random vegetables.

That is right, due to my gluten house arrest, need to eat every three hours or so, and general distrust of most restaurants, I travel with food. Sometimes large amounts of it. This is not a problem when traveling by car. Obviously, road trips are manageable for traveling with your own kitchen. I can load up the passenger seat, take a cooler, and stop at grocery stores when I need to reload or refresh my stash.

Gluten-free snacks riding shotgun.

Gluten-free snacks riding shotgun.

Flying is a totally different story.

I try to take enough food so that I limit the amount of times I eat at restaurants, this decreases my risk of being exposed to gluten. However, traveling for more than 4 days is a challenge. Food is heavy and I hate to check bags (and I need to be able to take clothes with me), fruit doesn’t keep all that well in a suitcase or backpack, and I can only eat so many nut bars a day.

Make-shift hotel room kitchen.

Make-shift hotel room kitchen.

However, the biggest reason that gluten-free travel hard is that having fun and fabulous (according to me) food-related experiences is a big part of traveling for me.

Some of my most memorable travel experiences have been associated with food. I’ll never forget the tasting menu at Spoon in Kowloon while looking out at the Hong Kong skyline, lunching on tuna and foie gras with my best friend at Le Bernardin in New York City, eating squab at Le Louis XV at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo (while my handbag sat on its own fancy little stool), drinks at the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel with my Mommy and Sister, or eating giant portions of everything at the Hash House A-Go-Go with my family in Las Vegas. I love food. Food is not just about sustenance. I enjoy sharing food with people who I love about as much as I enjoy anything.

So, as a foodie, I am trying to figure out a way to live and travel the way I want to and still be healthy. In the short time I have been dealing with this it has become clear to me that the life of a foodie with celiac disease is emotionally, socially, and practically frustrating. It is also adventurous and full of compromises.

I don’t want to eat every meal in my hotel room, but I need to be safe. So, I take enough food to cover breakfast and all snacks. If it is a short trip I take breakfast and lunch. My standard buffet includes some sort of nut bar, apples, bananas (on a short jaunt), crackers or chips of some sort, vegetables that keep (green peppers, carrots, etc), and pepperoni (Boar’s Head). On the travel day I take my standard breakfast with me – two boiled eggs and a bag-o-fruit. Ziploc bags are my friend. This compromise allows me to focus on making the restaurant experiences I do get fantastic.

Before the trip I research restaurants at my destination that have gluten-free menus or focus on farm to fork cuisine. These types of restaurants seem to be the easiest to manage because most of the staff understand what I need or are willing to listen and help. You are not going to get that at a chain place. I do not eat at chain restaurants any more. They make me sick, literally. While traveling in Richmond, Virginia recently I had the great fortune to stay near the Urban Farmhouse, a great spot for gluten-free support. I also safely enjoyed dinner at The Blue Goat. Both places feature locally sourced food. They get food.

Next, I find the closest grocery store to my hotel. This is a great way to make sure you have fresh and varied things to eat while on the go. Also, if you are in a super cool place like New York City you can hit a Dean & Deluca and really treat yourself to something you probably can’t find at home. This is also key if the room does not have a refrigerator or the mini-bar fridge is not usable (you know, the kind that has sensors and if I shove something in there and move a bottle I end up getting charged $8.00 for a Coke I won’t drink).

I love hot tea and I like to try all different kinds. Sadly, though, it sometimes is not safe and you can’t always trust what the coffee shop or restaurant is going to sell you. So, I bring my own. I am the person who drives through or walks up to Starbucks and asks for a grande cup of hot water . . . I am not ashamed. Sometimes they charge me a quarter and sometimes they don’t, either way I get my tea. Speaking of water, I could not live without my trusty green Nalgene bottle. I bought this bottle in preparation for Coachella 2012 and it is one of the best things I have ever done. I drink a gallon or more of water a day and the 32 ounce bottle allows me to keep up with that while not being tempted to drink other things. Drinks can contain gluten too (watch out for smoothies, juices, etc). In fact, you will find that airport bars, Starbucks, and other places will fill up the bottle for you if you ask. Yes, it does help the environment but I’d be lying if I said that was part of my plan. It’s a nice incidental benefit, though.

So far, these little compromises with my immune system are working out well. I get to enjoy my trips and have more confidence that I will feel well (even though I know nothing’s 100% safe unless I make it). Also, dealing with fewer restaurants decreases my stress level and allows me to better enjoy my dinner company (rather than fretting about whether the server understands or nervously googling the ingredient, restaurant, or dish on my iPhone). I still have missteps, problems, and get sick but I am learning.

I am growing to appreciate the quote “It is not about perfection, it is about progress” more and more these days.

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7 thoughts on “Gluten-Free Traveling: Compromises, Ziploc Bags, & Patience

  1. I love this post. I feel like I could have written it myself! I have been a lifelong Celiac so all of my travels are gluten-free. I travel frequently for both work and leisure and my carry-on bag is usually a laptop, a book, and 90% gluten-free food. One of my favorite things to do in a foreign country is to check out local markets to find new gluten-free treats to take home as souvenirs.

  2. Would you allow me to reprint your post in our electronic newsletter? I publish this newsletter for members of our celiac disease support group and I think our folks would love seeing and relating to your story. I wouldn’t change anything and give you full credit with a link to the post as well. Betty Barfield, Branch Mgr., Gluten Intolerance Group of North Texas http://www.northtexasgig.com.

  3. Pingback: Celiac Disease: My Struggle to Eliminate Gluten | It is pretty.

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