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Gluten Free Meals on United Airlines...A Valiant Effort But a Few Lapses

We just returned from a week in Paris with our kids over Spring Break. I'll be posting a lot more over the next week or two regarding our challenges dining gluten-free IN Paris, but for now...let me first cover our first experience out of the (airport) gate. 

Shortly after taking off from Dulles International Airport on a red-eye bound for Paris, we were served dinner. I'd called to request a gluten-free meal for our son Ryan months before the trip -- and then called to confirm it in the week before we left. Sure enough, they delivered it right to our seats. Sigh of relief...not that we weren't prepared with bags and bags of snacks, just in case, but it was nice for him to have a "real" meal. 

And it looked pretty good, too -- a chicken breast with a light sauce and wild rice and broccoli. Pretty much all of Ryan's favorite things. He seemed to enjoy it enough, and if it was half as good as our "regular" chicken entrees, I'm impressed, because my own chicken entree (similar but not quite the same chicken...and served with pasta and green beans instead) was one of the better airline meals I've had. But that's probably because we haven't flown on any flights long enough to warrant any meal service whatsoever! Even cross-country flights now only offer snack boxes you must pay for if you're seated in Coach. So being served a hot airline meal was like going back in time! 

The one red flag was the dinner roll placed on our son's tray. It looked suspect to begin with, and there was no labeling on the "gluten-free" sticker or anything similar. So my husband and I were leaning toward NOT letting Ryan eat it. Then, when our own trays came minutes later, our suspicions were confirmed. The roll was the same as the roll on OUR trays -- yikes! Thank God we hadn't let him eat it. We asked about it, and the flight attendant couldn't really explain how it got on the tray. But it's easy to see how it might have ended up there, if the person assembling the trays, either on the flight or prior to boarding, didn't see that this was a "special request" meal. I recall that there was also a salad and applesauce served with the meal, both which were gluten-free. All in all a valiant effort, and given the challenges that we knew lay ahead dining gluten-free in Paris, we were appreciative of the fact Ryan could start the trip with a hot meal!

There was also a snack served later in the flight -- shortly before arriving in Paris, so I guess you can call it "breakfast," at least if your body was on Paris time! He was served a rice cake and more applesauce.

He didn't have any reactions afterward, so all seemed to be well. 

However, there is always that lingering doubt about whether any airplane meal is truly gluten-free, especially given our experience on the flight back a week later. Again, the hot meal (lunch) looked good: chicken with a tomato sauce, carrots, green beans, and zucchini, along with a salad. But a granola bar-type snack served to our son actually had gluten listed clearly (in French) on the label under the "Contains" disclaimer...Contient: Gluten, Soja, Noisette.  

The bar was called LU "GRANY" Chocolat, and it appears to be made by Kraft foods (It looks like the same Kraft Foods that's based in the U.S., judging from their website.)  So this was another close call, only averted by reading the label, which was in such tiny print and barely readable to begin with! Again, my husband said something to the flight attendant, who basically just said, "Contact United." Not that I expected that she'd be able to solve the problem, either then or in the future. So, we will do just United...thanking them first for offering gluten-free meals, a lifesaver on a long trans-Atlantic flight, but pointing out the few lapses that could have made our son -- or any other gluten-free traveler very sick. And the last thing a Celiac wants is to feel the effects of being "glutened" while on an airplane -- or at the beginning of a long-planned vacation. It could potentially set some sensitive Celiacs back days, causing them to be uncomfortable or bed-ridden for a good part of their vacation. 

I'd still STRONGLY recommend requesting a gluten-free meal any time you're on a flight that has meal service. Just be skeptical and trust your instincts if something seems suspect. Better safe than sorry.

Have you had any good -- or bad -- experiences with gluten-free meals on United or any other airlines? If so, please share your comments with us below. 

Stay tuned for the next installment of our gluten-free experience in Paris.