10 tips from a mom of two kids with multiple food allergies
For families managing food allergies, just having dinner at a neighbor’s house or local restaurant can be overwhelmingly difficult. So going on vacation must be impossible, right? Wrong! You’ll need to do a lot of extra planning and accept that your vacation will look a little different than everyone else's, but showing your kids that they can safely explore the country (and the world) while still getting enough to eat is possible.
1/Start off right
You’ll be doing a lot of research and planning, so keep all that information organized in one easy-to-access place. I like using Google Sheets and Docs to create itineraries, meal plans, and keep track of my notes. I can work on them from just about anywhere via phone, tablet or computer, and it’s easy to share them with family members or people whom we’ll be visiting.
Kidtripster Tip: Before leaving home, print hard copies of everything to keep in a folder with your other travel documents, because you can’t always count on having a full battery or internet access.
Photo courtesy: rawpixel.com
2/Let the research begin
Time to put your label-reading, product-vetting research skills to work. First, make sure your destination is not so remote you couldn't get prompt emergency medical care, if your child had an anaphylactic reaction. Then, as you decide on lodging, map locations of nearby pharmacies, grocery stores, and trusted restaurant chains, if you have any go-to places.
Next, figure out which restaurants, if any, you’ll be able to patronize. Allergy Eats, a U.S. restaurant guide specifically for the food allergy community, is a great place to start. (Pay it forward by leaving reviews of places where you’ve dined.) After reading a menu, if it looks like there may be some safe options for your family, call the restaurant during non-peak times and ask to speak to the manager and/or head chef. Ask about ingredients in specific dishes and whether the kitchen staff has been trained on safely serving allergic diners. You’ll soon have a list of places that you can try or you’ll decide to do all your own cooking.
Kidtripster Tip: If you do plan to eat out, chef cards are a great idea. About the same size as business cards, they list your allergens, so chefs know exactly what you must avoid, and there’s no chance for any miscommunication between the person who takes your order and the one who prepares it. You can print free customizable cards from Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) in several different languages.
Finally, before you buy theme park, sports or tour tickets, find out the policies for bringing in outside food. Some places, like Universal Studios, prohibit outside food but will make an exception if you have allergies. Find out if you need special permission and get it in writing. Get ahold of restaurant menus at these places and find out as much as you can about ingredients ahead of time. The extra work now will pay off in the end. Trust me. Waiting to speak to the chef at restaurant after restaurant when your family is hot, tired, and hungry, just to find out that there’s nothing on the menu your child can eat is no way to spend your vacation. This happened to us on a trip to Disney World. I felt so frustrated after four restaurants and over an hour of searching that when we finally found a meal my son could eat, I burst into tears.
Photo courtesy: Food Allergy Research & Education
3/Whenever possible, stay in a place with a kitchen
It's easier than ever to prepare some or all of your own meals while traveling. Most short-term rentals come with full kitchens, and many hotels offer studios, family rooms or suites with kitchenettes. On our last visit to New York City, we stayed at the Homewood Suites by Marriott in Midtown Manhattan. Our comfortable, modern, and tastefully decorated studio included a full-size refrigerator, microwave, two-burner cooktop, toaster, and dishwasher, while the much more expensive Marriott Marquis half a mile uptown didn’t even come with a microwave. If you can’t get a place with a kitchen, at least get one with a mini fridge and microwave; then plan meals accordingly.
Kidtripster Tip: The words “fully-equipped kitchen” mean different things to different people, so call ahead to find out exactly what’s included. (Most hotel kitchenettes don’t include ovens, so do any baking before you leave home.)
4/Develop a meal plan
You don't have to stick to it, but having a meal plan means your kids will always have something safe to eat. I plan simple menus, full of easy-to-prepare family favorites; I then go through my recipes and list every ingredient in every dish, right down to salt and pepper. Next, I make a list of ingredients that I can bring with us and add the remaining items to a grocery list for after we arrive at our destination.
It's a good idea to call markets near your accommodations to see if they have any potentially hard-to-find, must-have items on your list. If they don’t carry a particular item, ask if they'd be willing to special order it and hold it until you arrive. If you won’t be able to get to a market, consider having your groceries delivered after you check in. Another option is to weigh the cost of shipping groceries from home versus paying to check an extra bag.
Kidtripster Tip: Plan to serve the easiest meal to prepare on the day that you arrive, so you don’t have as much to do after a long day of traveling.
Photo courtesy: Ann Treble
5/Focus on doing, not eating
When planning your itinerary, focus on the places, people, and activities, not the food. My boys’ favorite memories of our trip to San Francisco are watching the Giants, touring Alcatraz, standing on the side of a cable car, and watching the street performers at Fisherman’s Wharf. They didn’t miss having clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl or eating out in Chinatown; instead they had a blast eating a home-cooked dinner in our hotel room while watching cartoons on TV.
Photo courtesy: San Francisco Giants/MLB
6/Talk with your children about what to expect & plan alternative treats
Kids with food allergies are used to being left out whenever food is around, but being used to it doesn't make it any easier, especially on trips when emotions tend to run high. My kids understand there will be lots of foods that they can’t have on vacation, but they also know that once we get home, I’ll do my best to replicate anything that was off-limits, especially desserts. It helps turn momentary disappointment into anticipation. For example, my son can’t have the Mickey Mouse beignets at Disneyland, but we all love the allergy-friendly version that we’ve learned to make at home.
I also like to anticipate what special desserts we might come across and bring along safe-for-us copycat treats. I bring homemade hot cocoa mix in winter, brownies and chocolate bars for when cruise ships have their chocolate buffets, and Rice Krispies treats cut into Mickey Mouse shapes for Disneyland. They know it's all from home, but my kids love that they're getting something special that looks like what everyone else can have.
Photo courtesy: Disney Parks
7/Tips for traveling in foreign countries
When planning international travel, stick to countries where you (or someone traveling with you) are fluent in the local language or where you know most people in the tourism industry speak English. Learn how to say things in the local language, like “I am allergic to ___” and “we need an ambulance,” as well as how to correctly pronounce your allergens and recognize them in writing. My youngest child is allergic to dairy, so we would want to know the words for milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, whey, and more. To avoid confusion, bring a list of specific words to look for on food labels and chef cards to give waiters/chefs in their own language.
If you have the good fortune to have friends or family who live abroad, visit them! Even if you stay in a hotel, having access to their kitchen and grocery/restaurant experience is like having home court advantage. That’s how we were able to visit South Korea. We were hosted by my brother and sister-in-law, both fluent in Korean. They poured over every ingredient label and translated all my questions for employees of every restaurant, smoothie shop, and amusement park snow cone stand that we tried.
Photo courtesy: Lan Pham
8/Don't pack medication in your luggage
Keep all rescue medications on your person or with you in your purse or backpack. Your inhaler or epinephrine can’t help you if they're in checked luggage or the overhead bin. The same goes for when you are out and about at your destination. My son once had an allergic reaction at Disneyland while his meds were safely stored in a locker that got jammed. Waiting for guest services to arrive and open our locker felt like forever. Thankfully, my child’s reaction was minor that day, but it could have been much worse. Since then, our meds bag goes with us everywhere, even on water rides, because with anaphylaxis, every second counts.
Never travel anywhere without at least two epinephrine auto injectors, even if you have never used one before. If you normally treat minor reactions with Benadryl, bring it; but understand that minor reactions can become life-threatening without warning and only epinephrine can reverse the effects of anaphylaxis. If your child has asthma, make sure his/her inhaler is full and not about to expire. And never leave your medication in a car where extreme temperatures can render it ineffective.
Kidtrpster Tip: Bring along your prescription information in case you need to refill.
9/What to bring
In addition to your basic packing list, food allergy families should also bring the following:
Wet wipes to wipe down seating areas and wash hands; hand sanitizer does not remove food proteins
Health insurance cards
Allergy action plan that outlines what to do during a reaction
Your notes about pharmacies, grocery stores, vetted restaurants, and menu choices that may be safe
Documentation of special arrangements (i.e. permission to bring food into a sports stadium)
Kitchen tools (if staying in a place without a stocked kitchen)
Meals for the plane (if traveling by air)
Non-perishable snacks and special treats
Also consider bringing your own shampoo, conditioner, soap, and body lotion, especially if you are contact allergic. Hotels and rentals usually provide these items, but they aren't guaranteed to be free from your allergens. We checked into a rental once to find that the shampoo contained macadamia nut oil. Needless to say, we went out and bought different shampoo.
10/Tips for road trips & air travel
Road trips are great for food-allergic travelers, because you can bring just about everything but the kitchen sink. (Travel by RV, and you can bring the sink, too!) Click here for road trip tips, menu suggestions, and more information about cooking in your hotel room.
Because driving isn't always practical or sometimes even possible, click here to read tips for making your flight more allergy-friendly. You’ll also learn how I get through TSA security screenings with bags full of groceries and pre-made meals that stay cold all day without ice packs.
Either way you travel, go properly prepared and remain vigilant about reading labels and eating out. Trust your instincts and do what's right for your family.
Thinking of cruising with food allergies? Read this first.
Elizabeth Ely Moreno is the mother of two children with anaphylactic food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Her youngest is also allergic to dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, and more. Even though they manage food allergies, her family still loves to travel. So far, her kids have visited the Bahamas, Korea, Mexico, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, Washington D.C., and up and down the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. Next stop, Alaska!