FeaturesJune/July 2008 Issue

Outward Bound - Traveling With Food Allergies

Traveling Safely with Food Allergies

The thought of family travel can be daunting, especially if you plan to go overseas to remote and distant places. Add a child with severe food allergies to the mix and the idea gets downright overwhelming.

It needn’t be. My husband and I have traveled frequently to the developing world. Recently, our family spent two weeks in Western Guatemala and had a safe, rewarding trip—despite my son’s severe allergies to peanuts and sesame. You can do the same. All it takes is careful advance planning, flexibility and a spirit of adventure.

Certainly, every family’s medical situation and risk tolerance differs. When it comes to avoiding certain foods, however, many of the challenges are the same, regardless of whether your destination is Los Angeles or Laos. Follow these steps to help ensure a safe, allergy-friendly adventure almost anywhere in the world.

Shift Your Focus Although the guidebooks devote many pages to dining out, if you must avoid certain foods, it makes sense to focus on the sights and activities of your destination, not the restaurants. A trip abroad need not be a culinary adventure. It can be viewed more like a camping trip, where one eats basic food for sustenance while enjoying the surroundings. The money and time you save by not frequenting expensive restaurants can go toward hiring a guide for the afternoon and visiting local points of interest.

Pack It Up Consider bringing food staples from home. If there’s a nut butter that works for you, pack a jar or two in case you need a snack or miss a meal. Sunflower seed butter is relatively high calorie, a source of protein and doesn’t require refrigeration—all good characteristics when you’re traveling. Dense snack bars can be invaluable. Rice noodles and freeze-dried foods don’t weigh much and can come in handy if you have access to cooking facilities.  

Depending on your travel agenda and lead time, mail ahead a box of gluten-free mixes or other staples. Ener-G Foods will mail products to other countries and has several distributors abroad, including in Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico. (See sidebar, page 24.) The bonus of carrying a suitcase of transportable food is you can fill it with souvenirs on the way home.

If you plan to visit several places during your trip, leave room in your bag for food. Packing light always makes traveling simpler but it’s particularly important if you need to bring food along as you go. The corn chips, bottle of juice and bunch of bananas that you plan to eat during a long bus ride are easier to transport if you tuck them into the top of your suitcase or backpack rather than carrying them around in a flimsy grocery bag. For eating on the road, buy a bowl, spoon and knife (sharp enough to peel fruit) when you arrive and carry them with your food.

Traveling Safely with Food Allergies

Carry a Card Invest in laminated restaurant cards that explain your food restrictions. Even if you plan to avoid restaurants, a card in the local language will come in handy. I used ours to explain to the airport security guard why we had EpiPens and also to double-check product labels with a grocery store clerk. Pack extra cards in case you hand one to a server and it isn’t returned.

For convenience, size your card to fit in your pocket. If possible, add a symbol (e.g., a peanut with a slash through it), because you might be conversing with people who can’t read. In Guatemala, a 

significant percentage of the population cannot read Spanish and, in some areas, many older people don’t speak it fluently, preferring to use a regional language.
You can buy customized chef cards in dozens of languages and with helpful symbols on the Internet. (See sidebar.) Or you can make them yourself, as I did with help from my Spanish-speaking brother-in-law.  

Traveling Safely with Food Allergies

Play It Safe Talk to your doctor about the medications you might need while traveling. Make sure they have prescription labels affixed. A guard at the Guatemala City airport checked that the name on our son’s prescription matched his passport.

If any medical or food supplies in your carry-on bag could be considered liquid, have a doctor’s note on hand to show security personnel. Consider having all allergy-related medical information translated.

The Internet can be very useful in figuring out in advance the hospitals and physicians located near your destination. (See sidebar.) Some developing-world cities have top-class hospitals with English-speaking doctors. A couple hospitals where we traveled in the Guatemalan highlands had physicians from the United States on long-term volunteer stints.

Once at your destination, consider purchasing a cell phone for an extra level of comfort. We met a traveler who bought a cell phone with 100 minutes for $20 at a mall in Guatemala City. In the hilly, rural highlands where land lines are rare, he said he always had good reception. Even in some remote areas of the world, cell phones and quick Internet access are increasingly becoming the norm.

Buy It Locally Markets and grocery stores are full of staples and visiting them can be an adventure in local color and culture. It might even be worth it to hire a guide from a local language school or guide service to accompany you.

In many towns, there are weekly or bi-weekly markets. In Guatemalan markets, I marveled at the heaps of chili peppers and bought freshly made tortillas and fruit that we could peel. My children were enthralled by the live turkeys for sale and stood entranced at a stand that sold every manner of knife and machete.

Major cities usually have large grocery stores that sell familiar products with labels in English. At a grocery store in Antigua, Guatemala, we stocked up on staples like milk, juice and cheese.

Keep It Simple Basic restaurants with a few simple selections are easier to navigate than fancy eateries with extensive menus. Steer clear of sauces and baked goods that may contain unexpected ingredients. In Peru, a traditional potato dish has a sauce that includes ground peanuts. In Guatemala, I saw banana bread sprinkled with sesame seeds. In Thailand, a rice dish served at breakfast included fish sauce. Rather than trying to navigate multiple ingredients in a foreign language, make a note of the exotic dishes that appeal to you and try them when you return home.

Many eateries we visited in Guatemala had just a few tables with a stove in the back. Except for the ubiquitous Fanta, the foods they offered were simply made with just a few ingredients. The basic dinner there was fried (not breaded) chicken, homemade tortillas and beer or soda. That's it. The stove was right there so you could talk to the chef and watch your meal being prepared.

My boys will tell you they’ve never eaten better than in the highlands of Guatemala. They drank orange Fanta from glass bottles and ate hot, salty tortillas made just for them on outdoor grills by women with long braids wearing hupils, traditional colorful hand-embroidered blouses common in the region. The food was simple but the experience was rich.

Sometimes you need a place to take a break, a cold bottle of water and a table where you can spread your map. When the water supply isn’t reliably safe for drinking, you can be sure the restaurants will stock bottled water, soda and beer. If you want to pull up a chair and pull out a snack from your bag, a polite request, along with an explanation of your situation and a generous tip for the beverages, can make doing so perfectly acceptable.

Traveling Safely with Food Allergies

Writer Sallie Sanford with her husband and sons on their recent trip to Guatemala.

Stay Put If you plan to remain in one area for a time, consider renting an apartment with kitchen facilities. It can be surprisingly reasonable. It can also be helpful (and not that expensive) to hire a cook.

We lived in Lima, Peru, for two months when my older son was a toddler. My husband convinced me that we should hire a maid although I wondered what on earth she would do. For $40 a week (much more than the going rate), Anna-Maria and her mother, Clara, were at our apartment four hours each weekday, shopping and cleaning, but most of all cooking. Clara made everything from scratch, teaching me a few recipes along the way. She easily accommodated our food preferences and we had delicious Peruvian meals at home nearly every day. Throughout our stay, we ate extremely well, never got sick and saved ourselves the stress of taking a toddler out to restaurants.

One of my most memorable events while traveling occurred while in Thailand near the Burma border. My husband and I had climbed up hundreds of steps to visit a gorgeous Buddhist temple on top of a hill. On the way down, three saffron-robed monks invited us to tea in a spare but elegant room on the edge of their monastery. We settled onto cushions and observed the care and ceremony they put into preparing the tea for which that region is known. One of the monks spoke English and we conversed about their lives and ours while he translated. There was no food offered, not even sugar—just the tea. And the tea was remarkable.

The most rich and rewarding travel experiences do not have to center on food. If you have food allergies, as my family  does, that’s a very good thing to keep in mind. LW

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