I have pretty severe food allergies, and carry an Epipen with me wherever I go. My allergies were diagnosed when I was a toddler, so it’s something I’ve long grown accustomed to. I’m used to carefully reading ingredients lists, asking waiters about food items at restaurants, and politely declining homemade goods at social gatherings. I won’t lie – having to be so vigilant and missing out on so many gastronomic experiences can be bothersome at times, but it certainly beats the alternative…
Now, this isn’t a bookish topic, but I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on traveling with food allergies in the off chance that any of my readers might be facing similar challenges. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can simply eat anything that’s placed in front of you without having to give it a second thought, well, this post might not be for you. But if you have allergies or love someone who does, follow me!
Travel can be extremely stressful for someone with food allergies, especially when you don’t speak or read the local language. How can you read ingredients lists, or know what dishes are safe to eat? While travel, like most things in life, will always carry some risk, with a bit of research and a can-do attitude you can travel the world while still staying safe and healthy. Side note – all pictures are from my last trip to Japan, a true foodie destination.
Research the local cuisines in the place(s) you’ll be visiting. What are some popular dishes, and what kinds of ingredients are commonly used? Are there types of food that seem safer than others? If you have a peanut allergy, for example, Thailand might be a difficult country to eat your way through because of the extensive use of peanuts in many dishes, while Japan could be challenging for people with seafood allergies due to the extensive use of fish, including fish stock. Having a general idea of what ingredients typically go into which dishes can help make it a bit easier to choose dishes or restaurants. Forewarned is forearmed!
Learn the language
Or at least enough to explain your allergies. There are a number of websites that provide translations of allergy-related phrases into various languages that you can save to your phone or print out and show to waiters at restaurants, or even staff at grocery stores to help you read ingredients. I relied heavily on these during our recent trip, and got into the habit of showing them to restaurant hosts the moment I stepped through the door. There’s no sense sitting down at a fried food place only to find out that all the food is cooked in peanut oil! Learning the different words or characters for your allergies, like the symbols for eggs or wheat, can help make deciphering allergy lists and communicating with chefs and waiters much easier.
Be your own Champion
No one understands your allergies better than you do, and no one will suffer more from an incident than you will. Being the good Canadian I am, I’m notoriously reluctant to “cause trouble” or “make a scene”, and I’ve spent much of my life being deeply embarrassed by my allergies and worried about being perceived as “difficult” or “picky”. But if you don’t ask questions and let people know about your allergies, how can they help you? This isn’t about being picky or difficult, it’s about being safe, and in some cases staying alive. I found that by and large people were more than happy to help me, and that a smile and many “thank you”s went a long way to showing my appreciation.
If you anticipate having trouble finding safe food at your destination, consider packing small, nutritious snacks in your luggage, just in case. On my recent trip I packed protein bars in my backpack, and they came in very handy as emergency fuel in more remote areas where finding safe food was more challenging. Depending on your destination and any travel regulations, protein bars, dried meat or fruit, meal replacement drinks or powders, even dehydrated camping food can help tide you ever if you think finding safe food might be difficult.
Make it Yourself
If you’re staying in a place with a kitchen, consider preparing your own meals. We stayed in several apartments while in Japan, and took advantage of stoves and microwaves wherever we could. Not only can you control what goes into your food when you cook for yourself, it’s often nice to have a change from constantly having to eat out! Buying whole ingredients like fruit and vegetables and limiting the use of processed foods can help you avoid food ingredients you don’t want.
Stick to What You Know
I’ll admit it – while in Japan I did occasionally eat at McDonalds and Subways. There were times when trying to find safe food just got a bit too tiring, and I craved food I recognized, knew was safe, and didn’t have to worry about. Depending on your surroundings, don’t be afraid to seek out familiar restaurants, but do remember to check websites for ingredients, just in case – it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Flying with an allergy can be stressful, but depending on the severity of your allergies here are a few tips that might help:
Tell the airline – I notified Japan Airlines about my allergies, and they bent over backwards to help make my experience as safe and positive as possible. I ordered an allergen-friendly meal, and staff gave my seating area an extra-thorough clean to limit potential allergies. I was also originally seated separately from my partner, and they moved our seats so that I wouldn’t have to sit beside someone who could potentially bring a snack on board that had allergens in it.
Bring a meal and/or snacks – being miles and miles up in the air over the middle of the ocean might not the best time to take chances with what you eat!
Make sure to bring extra medication with you on the plane, just in case! I always make sure to have a clear prescription label printed on my Epipen, lest any security agents take umbrage at me bringing a needle on a plane…
Be informed, be prepared, be confident, and be safe, wherever your wanderlust takes you! The world is full of so many amazing things to do, see, experience and explore, so get out there and taste it!