Avoiding Gluten on Vacation
October 29, 2010 7:30 AM   Subscribe

How does someone who must eat gluten-free deal with their special needs when they travel?

My father was recently diagnosed with celiac disease and has had to cut gluten completely out of his diet. He and my mother are retired and travel quite a bit, which means they eat in restaurants frequently. Many of the big chain restaurants have gluten-free menus, which is helpful... but my parents typically travel places that simply don't have big chain restaurants. A lot of family-run, local places don't even know what gluten is and even if they have items on the menu that are naturally gluten-free, cross-contamination is a huge problem. (apparently, even crumbs and residue of bread, flour, condiments, etc with gluten will have a negative impact on someone with celiac disease.)

So what does he do? He can't just stop traveling and live his life holed up eating in the safety of his own kitchen. And I doubt he's going to want to give up visiting cool, little mountain towns so he can vacation close to an Outback Steakhouse with a safe gluten-free menu. A lot of restaurants just don't take his needs seriously... last night he got eye-rolling and disdain from a server at a local restaurant my mom and he have frequented for years! He's looked for ideas on a lot of celiac websites, but he's not finding anything practical. Most say to pack food (how would you even do that on a 10 day trip with no place to cook/prepare food) or eat at national chains with GF menus. He's pretty sad and frustrated.

Anyone have ideas?
posted by MorningPerson to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My husband has gluten allegies bordering on celiac, and yes; he packs his own food. But he travels too.

If your dad likes traveling, as opposed to just eating in restaurants, he can still do that. But his traveling will need to involve packing food. As for 10-day trips, if he's going to be making any stops in major urban centers during his trip, he can plan to stop by Whole Foods markets or other stores known to have GF processed foods/breads/etc to stock up mid-trip.

Of course it doesn't have to mean taking a cooler everywhere; he can travel to places where he will have facilities to cook--many places have cabins with kitchens and access to markets where he can buy fresh meats, veggies, and fruits. Cooking gluten free is not that hard, if you stick to safe grains like rice and quinoa, meat and vegetables, and plain spices (rather than prepared sauces and packets) or only packets of seasonings he knows are GF.

Celiac disrupts your life and learning to eat GF is a major adjustment. But the misery you experience when you don't is a damn good incentive. My husband is a lot thinner and more careful about his food, and cooks a lot more, but he doesn't spend half the day in the bathroom in agony anymore. He thinks this is a fair trade.
posted by emjaybee at 8:18 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a niece that has celiac. Her mom's solution is to research the hell out of every place they eat. This can go so far as calling ahead, explaining your situation, and asking if they can accomodate you or not.
Once in the restaurant, make sure to notify your server that you have a severe allergy (I know, celiac is an autoimmune disorder, but it's just easier to explain allergy to most people). Ask them if they can prepare everything on fresh surfaces e.g. a completely new cutting board, a clean, fresh frying pan, etc. Sauces and salad dressings should probably be avoided, as they are made in big batches, and can very easily be cross-contaminated. If they can't do this for you, you'll have to either leave, or put yourself in danger.
Another option would be to simply stay in places with a kitchenette and eat food that you know is safe.
posted by Gilbert at 8:26 AM on October 29, 2010

Best answer: A friend of mine who was recently diagnosed with celiac is planning a year-long trip and wrote this post about traveling gluten free. She links to some gluten free travel sites that may help.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:27 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I feel his pain. I have actually planned vacations around whether or not the place will have options for my diet. It sucks.

Google can really be your friend here. I Google for Health Food stores in the area, then if their website is vague I'll give them a call and see if they have GF options. I'll also Google for GF bakeries.

I've also found that I get taken a little more seriously if I say that I'm allergic to gluten. It's sad, but people seem to understand allergic better than intolerant. There are cards out there that you can hand to your server to try to explain the situation. Unfortunately any time you are letting somebody else prepare your food there is a risk.

When I go out to a new restaurant there are a few things that I usually go for. I'll ask if their hamburgers are made with breadcrumbs, if they aren't then I'll ask for a hamburger either lettuce wrapped or just on the plate (then I'll eat it with a fork and knife like a steak.) I'll order a steak without seasoning and add steak sauce (after reading the label). I'll ask to see the ingredients on something if I'm concerned, like rib sauce or salad dressings. I always go for the vegetables or mashed potatoes instead of fries. I've also found that those buffet style restaurants are easy because I can prepare my own salad and just eat roast meats and mashed potatoes without worrying about added gravy.

I am also a really good tipper. Sometimes that helps.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:28 AM on October 29, 2010

Have a backup plan. Larabars. Lots of Larabars. Tons of Larabars...
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:49 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

The reality is your father won't be able to travel in the exact same manner to which he was accustomed. Yes, it is frustrating and difficult, particularly at first, but the improved health benefits of making sure he is gluten-free will more than make up for it, as it will make the trip more enjoyable because he isn't spending half of it in the bathroom.

Or at least, that's how it would be for me.

I don't have celiac, but I'm definitely gluten-intolerant, and I've learned the hard way (a few times...) that I would rather limit my restaurant eating and make sure I find a place to stay that has a kitchenette than worry about ruining my trip by ingesting some gluten. This does mean I'm more careful about travel -- I do make sure I find places that aren't simply hotel rooms (which have, at most, a mini-fridge), but actually a place with a kitchen. This can be an extended-stay chain or a cute little apartment I found off of a place like airbnb.com.

While I plan my trips factoring in a visit to a local grocery store, I do also pack my own food. There's not always a guarantee that the gluten-free bread and treats I enjoy are readily available where I go, so I will stick some in my suitcase so I know I can at least have sandwiches when I'm out and about.

As for eating out -- I do my research and see what restaurants will be in the town I'm at (I generally travel to cities more than small towns, so it isn't as tricky as I imagine a small town would be, but it still can be difficult), and if they're able to accomodate a gluten-free diet. If nothing else, I make it clear to the server (even if you have to call in the manager in case you feel the server isn't listening to you) that I have severe dietary restrictions. Just about any restaurant is able to make a plain baked potato and simple boiled chicken (in a separate packet of foil, to ward off cross contamination), and as long as they don't pre-mix the salad with croutons, a salad with olive oil and lemon. Yes, it isn't fancy. But you're on holiday with a loved one -- the joy is in the traveling, not the eating. (Or so I've had to learn.)

Contacting restaurants in advance can be helpful too, especially if they're smaller family-run ones. They'll be upfront how easily they can accomodate (and nearly every restaurant will give the standard "we try, but cross-contamination is still possible" disclaimer), but generally they don't want their patrons to get sick from something they ate. It isn't good business.

Sometimes -- primarily in the case of meeting up with people at the last minute and deciding to grab dinner -- I get to a place without advance warning, realize it'll be pretty impossible to cater to my dietary needs, so I'll just order a drink and if I'm super hungry, munch on a snack bar that I always carry with me. Then afterwards, I'll go back to my room-with-a-kitchen and make dinner.

Lastly, I just want to say that your father's feelings in being sad and frustrated are completely valid. It's so hard to realize you have to eat before hand or bring your own food to a friend's party because you can't eat the snacks you used to. It's taken me a couple of years to reach the point where, while I like food and I'm always delighted to find restaurants that make a serious effort to have gluten-free (and cross-contamination free!) food, I've had to change my attitude towards food completely, especially when travelling. For which, I'm sure, my GI tract is thankful.
posted by paisley sheep at 8:50 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to add... my dad never had *any* classic symptoms of celiac disease. They discovered the disease sort of by chance when he suddenly developed a rash that he thought was poison ivy. A biopsy of his small intestine confirmed that it was indeed celiac.

So... following to diet to feel better is not really an incentive for him. He never spent days in the bathroom or felt bloated/sick. He was just a little bit itchy. Going gluten free is not going to vastly improve the quality of his life, rather it will stop the internal damage that he can't even feel happening.
posted by MorningPerson at 9:08 AM on October 29, 2010

Gluten, lactose, and fructose-intolerant here. I'm guessing from the Outback Steakhouse reference that you're talking about U.S. travel - which is tricky since our food supply is so full of processed junk that it's a minefield out there.

When I travel and end up in places that don't understand food intolerances, I try to stick with three things: eggs, plain salad greens, and plain grilled chicken breast. Cross-contamination is still sometimes a problem.

And yes, I'll admit to being one of those people who sometimes tells the "little white lie" that I'm allergic, rather than intolerant. Most people have heard of allergies, even if they haven't heard of food intolerances, and I've found there to be much less eye-rolling when I put it in those terms.

Incidentally, I've had the most difficulty ordering in higher-end restaurants, where the chefs do not want to compromise the integrity of their creations. That, and Denny's, which I'm pretty sure must put sugar or flour in everything.
posted by chez shoes at 9:14 AM on October 29, 2010

I order a lot of plain salads and bring backup foods. My usual backup pack for a 7 day trip:

14 Lara or Kind bars
A bag of granola
A loaf of my favorite bread
A bottle of my favorite salad dressing
A tub of yogurt (if I'll have regular access to a fridge)

It doesn't take up much space and will get you through a week.
posted by geekchic at 9:16 AM on October 29, 2010

Best answer: My husband has celiac, plus a bagillion other allergies. I'm glad you guys already know about how Outback corp. has GF menus--that's often my first tip.

The way we do it is to know foods that are almost always safe. So, vegetables, steaks, grilled chicken, hamburgers sans buns, potatoes (NOT French fries), clear soups, salads without croutons. We avoid places and cuisines that are going to be clearly problematic--Italian, many Asian cuisines (thanks to the presence of gluten in soy sauce). When dining with friends, we're apologetic and unfront about his restrictions--but fairly firm. With waitstaff, my husband is friendly and gregarious and easy going about it. He's learned not to feel horrible about asking wait staff to ask the kitchen about ingredients in sauces (which any decent restaurant should do without a problem). He tips generously. He usually orders alcohol, which signals to a waiter that they're going to get a decent tip. He jokes around with them about his diet restrictions--like, when we go to a pancake house, and he orders sausage, bacon, corned beef hash, and potatoes, he jokes about how he REALLY loves meat and potatoes.

He does get glutened once in a blue moon, but that's almost always due to him not being quite as careful about certain foods he loves (French fries) as he should. But generally, if you stick to foods that you know will be safe and make it clear to the waitstaff that you're not a pain in the ass, you should be good.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:20 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

(apparently, even crumbs and residue of bread, flour, condiments, etc with gluten will have a negative impact on someone with celiac disease.)

Oh, as for this, it's true--but it's also probably true for your dad's kitchen at home, and the reaction one will get from such cross contamination varies with individuals. For example, my husband and I order millet and flax bread from a bakery that says in big letters on the wrapper that cross-contamination is possible because the bread is baked in facilities where they bake normal bread. He's never had a reaction. He's much more likely to have a reaction from fried food fried in oil that's also been used to fry breaded items--hence the need to avoid French fries. The truth is, there's always going to be some risk with eating out now, no matter how much you chat up your waiter or even the manager, and if it's that important to be able to eat anywhere, your father is going to have to be patient and do his best to understand that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:27 AM on October 29, 2010

TooFewShoes has suggested great strategies. When I travel, I locate the nearest Whole Foods and natural food stores, since there are often excellent natural food stores in communities that could never support a Whole Foods. If Googling natural food stores doesn't work for you, one of my strategies is to look up places on Happy Cow. Your dad may not be a vegetarian, but often stores (and restaurants) serving vegetarians understand other by-choice-or-necessity food restrictions and can steer one in the right direction.

I do pack lots of plane-friendly and non-refrigerated snacks for when the local grocery stores fail me in that department.

I also call restaurants in advance and explain my situation, and ask for suggestions as to what I might be able to eat from their menu. I'll call during non-peak hours so they have time to answer my questions accurately.

Chowhound can also be a great resource. Search the archives for an area, come up with an educated question, and you should get great responses. For example, "Where can I eat gluten-free in Chicago?" might be too general - think, "Celiac friendly near the Loop?" and include perhaps a price range. I frequently explain my situation, give a price range, and ask for suggestions for food-allergy-friendly venues. (I love exotic ethnic foods, so I usually specify that I'm looking for something unusual. This also helps me find places where a language barrier will be less of an issue when I make specific food requests.)

Happy travels to your dad!
posted by metarkest at 9:32 AM on October 29, 2010

What gluten-free people do when they travel is go into little cafes in seaside places (pop.87) with their packets of gluten-free bread-substitute and ask if they can get a sandwich made with their special bread. And if it is a nice cafe, the waitress says 'yes, certainly', and possibly even gives them a discount. Or they order the one thing on the menu that's made with sweet potato instead of being wheat-based, or they go to the one place in the town down the road (pop. 1500) that has a gluten-free menu, and eat there a lot. And they end up eating a lot of ice cream if they want dessert, or go to the one place that does a flourless chocolate cake.

If your dad isn't experiencing the common painful effects of being accidentally glutened ... he should probably discuss with a medical professional whether or not it's really going to do that much damage if he eats the wrong kind of soup or gravy or whatever a couple of times a month.
posted by Lebannen at 9:38 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to add... my dad never had *any* classic symptoms of celiac disease. They discovered the disease sort of by chance when he suddenly developed a rash that he thought was poison ivy. A biopsy of his small intestine confirmed that it was indeed celiac.

So... following to diet to feel better is not really an incentive for him. He never spent days in the bathroom or felt bloated/sick. He was just a little bit itchy. Going gluten free is not going to vastly improve the quality of his life, rather it will stop the internal damage that he can't even feel happening.

Ah, that does make it a little trickier. I have a workmate who has celiac, but she will eat gluten (and drink beer -- er, not at work, but when we go out for happy hour) because she doesn't have severe physical reactions, and I look at her like I think she's crazy (and because I'm jealous she can still drink beer). She knows it's a health risk, but because she doesn't get the standard symptoms, she doesn't care so long as she can still eat what she likes to eat.

Because your father doesn't get the standard reactions, it will likely be hard for him to want to stick to the diet because he won't have to deal with the predictable outcome of a nasty reaction. So, yes, the thought of "I'd rather be super cautious and work around meals so I don't get violently sick" probably won't be much of an incentive (the way it is with many of us). But I think all of the above responses are still good, valid, and useful if he's sincere in going on a gluten-free diet.

When I started out gluten-free, there were times when I'd say, "eh, I'll just have a couple of uncomfortable days of bloating -- yes, give me that beer!" Now my system has grown used to not having gluten, so on the occasions when I think, "Yummy craft beer is more important than bloating," I discover that my body really, really, really hates gluten and is happy when there aren't any traces in it. So now I've learned to not crave beer. Too much. And not give into those cravings. At all.

Your father will probably figure out what works best for him, too. Trial-and-error and lots of research (like this question!) and a few months figuring things out and then after a while he'll be the one giving advice to newly-diagnosed celiacs on all the great restaurants and places to go that welcome the need for gluten-free.
posted by paisley sheep at 9:46 AM on October 29, 2010

My son has celiac and gets very, very sick if he gets glutened so we've learned to look carefully. We've found that Thai and Indian restaurants are often good bets - Thai food is more often made with fish sauce than soy so that helps. Lots of Indian food is naturally wheat free if one avoids naan and other breads. For Japanese food we bring our own gluten free soy sauce and then sushi is a good option if you like it. Natural/health food restaurants are also often more clued about food issues.

We've also found a couple of useful online directories - if you have a smart phone they can be really helpful. Two we've used are Gluten Free Dining and Gluten Free on the go.
posted by leslies at 10:08 AM on October 29, 2010

Response by poster: If your dad isn't experiencing the common painful effects of being accidentally glutened ... he should probably discuss with a medical professional whether or not it's really going to do that much damage if he eats the wrong kind of soup or gravy or whatever a couple of times a month.

Yes... he did ask about that. Unfortunately, the biopsy that examined the villi in his small intestine showed he had Marsh III (can't remember if it was a, b or c level ) damage. So, even though he doesn't feel bad, the same damage is being done.
posted by MorningPerson at 10:20 AM on October 29, 2010

If your dad isn't experiencing the common painful effects of being accidentally glutened ... he should probably discuss with a medical professional whether or not it's really going to do that much damage if he eats the wrong kind of soup or gravy or whatever a couple of times a month.

It is a problem, GI symptoms or no. Repeated damage to the small intestine (which can be triggered by even tiny amounts of gluten) can result in cancer. This is serious.
posted by Ouisch at 10:24 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I guess I should clarify -- if he's had a biopsy confirming actual celiac disease and intestinal damage (and he has), rather than gluten sensitivity or intolerance that aren't causing intestinal damage, then yes, it's important that he avoid gluten even in small amounts, regardless of the presence of GI symptoms.

Here are some pdf's from the Gluten Intolerance Group that should be helpful:

Tips on Travel in the US

Restaurant Dining: 7 Tips for Staying Gluten-Free

Here you can buy the cards mentioned above that explain the situation to restaurants unfamiliar with the gluten-free diet.

Bob and Ruth's has some tips about dining out in establishments that may not be familiar with the GFD. Basically, it comes down to the need to 1) speak with someone in authority (not just a server), and 2) actually educate them about the specifics of what needs to be done to get you food you can eat; not just ask to exclude wheat/barley/rye/oats and assume they'll manage it.

It takes effort, but I think once he gets used to asking to speak with the cook or management right away, and then have a sort of standard checklist of things to request, it gets easier.
posted by Ouisch at 10:55 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, they also have workshops to learn about ordering in restaurants. I think, if he feels out to sea a bit (and most people do when trying to get used to this) it might be a good idea to take one.
posted by Ouisch at 10:57 AM on October 29, 2010

Sorry, I have this bad habit of serial commenting.

So, last but not least, this article for professionals about dining out for celiac patients has a really good list of resources and websites specifically about dining out. That's where I've found a lot of resources.

Good luck.
posted by Ouisch at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2010

Best answer: My assorted strategies: stay in a hotel with a kitchen, fridge, microwave; bring an electric skillet to the room; pack a cooler, an icepack and ziplock bags; always carry snacks with you (trail mix, jerky, fruit, lara bars); shop/eat at Whole foods (wow you folks in the US are so lucky you have these!); keep a stash of snacks/critical foods/substitutes in the car; eat at McDonald's or Wendy's; refer to what I need in terms of 'allergies'; ask nicely and tip well; eat at restaurants which serve meat and vegetables, or which use whole foods (tend to be higher end) as their primary mode (in my experience, vegetarian restaurants = unclear starch/grain risk); eat at a local small restaurant so you can talk with the staff; eat at a small Chinese restaurant and order plain stir fry meat, nuts and veggies; order fajitas and put the guacamole and salsa right on the meat and veg; skip the sauce; if in doubt order a salad and grilled meat and lemon wedges or salsa on the side for dressing (or in his case, sour cream).

FYI: I have 2 kids and myself who eat no grains, starches, dairy or legumes at all and we have travelled (separately and together) across and around North America extensively for years, camping, hiking, hotels, restaurants etc. and our dietary restrictions are far more extensive than your father's.
posted by kch at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do what vegans do:
  • Eat at Chinese restaurants a lot (and other asian cuisines, but Chinese is the most common;
  • Try to always get a room with a refrigerator or kitchenette;
  • Allocate time to research the heck out of restaurants before going anywhere.

posted by amtho at 11:42 AM on October 29, 2010

Eat at Chinese restaurants a lot (and other asian cuisines, but Chinese is the most common;

Chinese restaurants can be particularly difficult for those who can't eat wheat gluten because of the ubiquity of soy-sauce based dishes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:51 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

ooooh, I did not know that about soy sauce. Thank you!
posted by amtho at 12:02 PM on October 29, 2010

When eating out, ask HOW the food is prepared, not just what's in it. Eggs fried on the same grill as pancakes, hashbrowns that are floured, steak fried on a floured grill, a hamburger pulled off a bun, seasoning salt on fries cooked in a dedicated fry-only fryer, and so on can turn what seems gluten-free into a major problem. I've had Thai restaurants say their foods were gluten-free, only to find out the spring rolls go in with the breaded calamari or that there's soy sauce in the Pad Thai rice noodles.

Read ahead. If you're going to Northern Europe, you'll find that they are waaaay up on these things. Even Ikea has plenty of gf foods!
posted by acoutu at 1:02 PM on October 29, 2010

My local Chinese place is happy (or willing) to cook without soy sauce once we explained the problem. My wife brings her own soy sauce when we go out for sushi. (Whole Foods carries a gluten-free soy sauce). Whether there's cross-contamination is another matter, but my wife hasn't noticed a problem.

P.F. Changs has a gluten-free menu, which has been a lifesaver when traveling and eating out with friends and family.
posted by dws at 11:07 AM on October 30, 2010

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