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A Seasoned Traveler Shares Her Tips for Success (and Tales of Some Near-Disasters) Traveling with Her Gluten-Free Family

This week, we are sharing a post from the mom of two kids (and wife of hubby) with Celiac and gluten sensitivity. You'll get a chuckle out of her all-too-familiar trials and tribulations as she and her family fly across the world on a somewhat regular basis. She has some great tips that you may not have thought about...and others that are definitely great reminders as we all begin the summer travel season. An expat living in Singapore now, you can find Karen Horan's contributions to the Celiac community in southeast Asia on the websites listed at the bottom of this post. Enjoy...and send us your own stories of gluten free travel!

Karen H GF Travel SnacksMy official title is “Global Domestic Engineer, specialty ‘Human Development’. I have two full time clients who are currently 10 and 13 years old.   By my calculations I have roughly 10 years left of full time work, then I can become a consultant on an ad hoc basis.

My teenage client was diagnosed with Celiac Disease when she was just 3 years old and her younger brother and father are both gluten intolerant. After many years in my job, I was feeling pretty good at handling a medically prescribed gluten free diet.  To add some dynamism and excitement to our lives, we packed up our home in Pennsylvania to relocate Singapore five years ago. We left behind Trader Joe’s, Wegmans and Whole Foods to venture into the unknown world of hawker centers, wet markets and candy wheeling shopkeepers.

In Singapore (and other parts of Asia), Celiac Disease and the gluten free diet are only just on the precipice of awareness and understanding. Some countries (Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia) are more GF friendly than others (with China and Malaysia the most challenging). By now, I have learned pretty well what local dishes are safe and how to best communicate our needs. In general, it is easy to bring our own food, visit the market, or find a hotel restaurant that can make us a safe meal. I have gotten pretty adept at speaking with hotel chefs and negotiating food on the ground.

Like many people, my job covers a broad range of duties, including Education Coordinator, Logistics Planner, Nurse, and Electronic Entertainment Big Brother. I am on call 24/7 and actively engineering from 6:45 am to 9:30 pm most days of the week. Additionally, I serve as Head Nutritionist, Food & Beverage Supplier, and Chief Travel Agent.   These three roles come together when we travel, which we do frequently.

With air travel comes a whole new set of endearing challenges and unpredictable variables. Hungry children stuck on an airplane or in a foreign airport are a punishment for anyone within a 20-foot radius. Most of the time, delays and cancellations are unexpected. Anything from weather, mechanical issues, or airport traffic can add hours to one’s travel time.

We have had a few near disasters when traveling…

  • One time, as we passed through the security check we watched the DEPARTURE board change our flight from ‘On Time’ to the dreaded ‘Delayed’. Our 4 pm flight finally took off at midnight.   We had no choice but to hang out in the terminal hoping for the best. This was a return flight, and I had not saved much food from our vacation. We had eaten every last crumb of gluten free snacks and nut bars before we boarded.
  • After carefully selecting gluten intolerant meals for a long haul flight, our plane was changed and our special meal request vanished.
  • The pre-ordered Gluten Free meal arrives, both clients decide it is inedible and declare a hunger strike.

Over the years we have developed some systems to ensure these problems do not end in tears (neither my client’s or my own).

  • I pack enough food to keep them alive for at least 24 hours. It is really way more than we need, and I hope that we will not need to use it. But if we are significantly delayed, we will not starve.
  • One carry-on bag is dedicated to emergency supplies. About two thirds of the bag is food. Each client has a quart size bag labeled with their name filled with food bars, a pack of instant GF oatmeal and treats. Additionally I include larger items such as instant rice noodles, a box of cereal and extra bars. (Just in case you are curious, the other third of the bag is filled with an emergency change of clothes. Each person has a spare outfit, including underwear, packed into a gallon size Ziploc bag.   At age 5, my client spilled a cup of orange juice on her father’s lap prior to take off. He no longer gives me a hard time about packing extra pants.)
  • All food is dry and shelf stable. In general, this kind of food is fine to bring into most countries. Double-check with your destination country if there are any food restrictions (especially if you are traveling to Australia or New Zealand).
  • On major airlines, meals are requested and double checked at least 72 hours in advance. I am always sure to tick the box for “all legs” for my Celiac client.
  • Airline food has never had a great reputation. Gluten free airline meals are no different. Most of the time, the meal is both gluten and dairy free. Sometimes we get lucky and it tastes good, but that is usually the exception.
  • Many smaller budget airlines do not allow any food to be brought aboard. For those flights, I need to call the airline at least a week in advance and then email them a medical form stating we require a gluten free meal. A hard copy of these forms also travels in our carry-on with us.
  • I often do some online research to see if there are any specialty grocery stores not only in the immediate vicinity of our destination accommodation but in the airport terminals we may be transiting (most large airports have websites).
  • If we are visiting a city in which a specialty grocery store is not available, I pack a second bag of food in our luggage to eat on our return trip.
  • I include a few plastic cups and utensils. A packet of hot cereal is no good without a container and a spoon.   Don’t forget wet wipes, napkins and some plastic bags for trash.
  • I pack a few nut free options in the event there is a passenger with a nut-allergy aboard. We don’t need to jeopardize anyone’s life for a PB&J, even if it’s on GF bread.

We got to put all this to the test on a recent trip…

Karen H Cathay Pacific breakfastThis week we flew from Singapore to New York with a one-hour layover in Hong Kong. Our first flight was delayed by over two hours. We were advised to re-book our flight when we got to Hong Kong (which would mean no GF meal on the 15 hour leg). Fortunately our connecting flight was also delayed and we did not need to re-book. We made it to New York six hours later than expected, having snacked on many Luna bars along the way. We were served three meals. Lunch was chicken, vegetables and potatoes (rated “okay”), dinner was fish, cauliflower and rice (thumbs down), and breakfast was steak, potatoes and grilled tomatoes (thumbs up).

My carry-on bag for two people included:

8 Luna Bars, 4 fruit bars, 6 assorted nut bars, 1 Bakery on Main Strawberry Oatmeal, 2 Apple Cinnamon Instant GF hot cereal, 1 container of GF instant rice noodles, 1 small bag of jelly beans, 1 snack size bag of Glutino pretzels, 1 box of GF cookies, 1 box of GF cereal, 1 box of GF crackers, 2 plastic cups and spoons.

Air travel has gotten easier with practice, and my clients have become savvier with the process. Their definition of a “short flight” is less than two movies and only one meal.   A successful trip is measured both by the quantity of gluten free supplies left over when we return home and how prepared we were for unexpected meal failures. In spite of it all, our need for gluten free food has not diminished our love of travel or sense of adventure. The time spent on extra research and preparation is well worth the effort!

Our websites:

One Degree Gluten Free (GF life in Singapore and Southeast Asia)

OneDegreeGlutenFree Facebook page

Singapore Celiacs (medical information and GF resources tailored to Singapore)