Thanks to fellow world traveller, Jen Brown, who runs Gluten Free Kids Travel for this fantastic guest post. Jen is originally from Salt Lake City but has also lived in Seattle, Cambridge, UK and Zhuhai, China. She currently resides in Hong Kong with her husband, daughter and son. Her young daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2008 but this hasn’t stopped their family from exploring the world. If you have a celiac child and can’t imagine ever travelling again, let Jen’s tips and experience show that it’s more than still possible, it can be embraced if you go into it prepared.
From the simple-minded clerk in Hong Kong who refused to serve ice cream in a cup rather than a cone, to the joyful restaurant owner in Spain who fussed over my little celiac, we have been exposed to a broad range of annoyances and happy surprises in our years of travel since my daughter’s diagnosis. In those years, we have lived in three international locations and traveled countless times. If your child is gluten free, rest assured that you too can safely travel or live abroad.
Throughout all of our adventures, I strive to pass on a positive outlook to my daughter. I don’t want her to limit her movements because of her dietary restrictions. I am teaching her to plan ahead, bring back-up food, and to be confident asking lots of questions and asserting herself. And if you’re traveling with a gluten free child, these are the key things you should do too.
Plan ahead: We no longer depart on a lark. We stay in self-catering accommodation if possible, so that we don’t have to hunt down a safe restaurant for every meal. Plus, small children are often not up to eating in a restaurant three meals a day anyway.
The next best option is to stay in a hotel with gluten free dining or at least breakfast offerings. Big, international, upscale chains can be lifesavers when attempting travel through gluten free hostile places like China (where gluten is ever-present in soy sauce). International hotels are more likely to have kitchen staff trained in assisting guests with dietary restrictions and, with notice, can often stock gluten free pasta and breads.
And finally, the least easy, but still doable option is to stay in a hotel with a mini-fridge for keeping your own gluten free provisions in. In such cases, we have even packed along a small electromagnetic hot plate to use for preparing gluten free pasta or boiling eggs.
We research restaurants via other gluten free bloggers and international celiac associations online before travelling. Sometimes we’ve found delightful restaurants run by celiacs where we’ve had a happy welcome and an assortment of gluten free insider tips. We also research what supermarkets stock gluten free staples.
We study the local cuisine to suss out what might be both safe and palatable to a young child. In Spain my daughter ate loads of local ham, cheese and fruits. In Hong Kong, she usually eats sushi (with her own bottle of gluten free soy sauce).
Bring supplies: While many gluten free adults can tolerate a never ending cycle of steak and salad or baked potatoes when traveling, fussy, little gluten free kids are more likely to revolt against unknown or “boring” foods. So I always pack lots and lots of gluten free snacks and provisions to get us through rough spots.
This can be especially important on long-haul flights. While many airlines do offer gluten free meals, they often amount to very bland airplane food (and for some reason they never include a proper dessert). Not appealing to starving small children and also not fair for them to watch everyone else on the plane tuck into ice cream sandwiches while they stare at a fruit salad. So I usually have a backpack full of: gluten free crackers, gluten free sandwiches, cheese (I freeze it before hand to help it stay cold), raisins, nuts, and an assortment of treats like chocolate, gummy bears or gluten free cookies.
Ask questions, be (politely) demanding when necessary, and carefully study the food that’s offered: In countries where people tend to have a clue about the gluten free diet (Spain, the UK, Sweden) you can often easily ask about gluten free options and feel confident about the answers. In other places (France, some places in the US) you’ll have to be more savvy in sussing out what is safe to eat and what is not. In some extremely hard places, where servers may be tempted to lie about the safety of a dish to appease you (China), you’d better opt for upscale dining (back to the international chain hotels) or basic food that you can see being prepared before your eyes (sushi, some street foods like baked sweet potatoes or boiled corn) or very plain foods (white rice, steamed vegetables).
When your gluten free child’s food is delivered, verbally confirm that it is wheat-free, gluten-free (whatever terminology seems to work in the place you’re at) and then inspect it. Does the meat look like it was dredged in light coating of flour (Western countries)? Is the dish a brownish color indicating the possible presence of soy sauce (Asian countries)?
When in doubt, simply order your gluten free child a fancy, juicy drink and pull out his or her back-up supplies. I’ve found that most places let kids get away with eating food brought in from outside, even if they can’t comprehend the dietary restrictions.
Have fun: Keep a positive attitude. Did that clerk really flat-out refuse to serve ice cream in a cup? Show your child how to stand up for herself by demanding to speak to a manager (who, not being a simple-minded fool, will serve the ice cream in a cup) and then laugh it off.
Do your best to find a safe local food or treat that your child can enjoy as part of your travels. It might be ice cream, young coconut milk drunk straight from the coconut, local jamon or exotic fruits like mangoes, dragon fruit, or lychees.
Cherish the special moments that you enjoy because you’re traveling gluten free: the very kind British hotelier who makes your child special gluten free breakfast sausage because his own daughter is celiac, or the McDonald’s hamburger served on a gluten free bun because your are in Sweden.
And remember, travel is not all about the food. Enjoy being someplace new!