Gluten Free Travel Tips: Gluten Free Airline Meal Reviews, Gluten-Free Airport Meals (Chicago and London)
As you may know, this month the Book of Yum is On the Road, in a big way. This last Thursday we got on a plane to Bangalore, India, and will be spending two and a half weeks here in India, and then continuing on to Europe for two weeks. DH and I love to travel, but I always wonder what the gluten-free meal situation will be like en route. This time it worked out fairly well.
On this leg of our journey we flew on American Airlines and then British Air. Although we requested special meals, I also brought tons of food, keeping in mind the no-liquids or gels issues. (The London Heathrow airport is especially strict, and so I kept in mind the fact that we would be changing planes there). The night before our trip I made a batch of Bette Hagman’s biscotti from “More from the Gluten Free Gourmet” and two batches of Rebecca Reilly’s graham crackers. I thought not only would it be good to have these things on the plane, but they would also undoubtedly serve me well once we reached our destination for quick snacks or even work as a meal when paired with a breakfast cappucino or piece of fruit. Of course I could just buy snacks (and in fact, did buy some), but generally homemade baked goods taste better and are substantially less expensive. I packed my biscotti in a big gallon ziploc bag and the homemade graham crackers in tupperware packed carefully with paper towels to keep them from moving around and breaking. [Update: None broke!] I also brought snack bars, fruit leather (ate them on the plane before arriving in case even dried fruit was a problem), Ever-g Foods GF pretzels, garden of eating cheese curls (not exactly healthy, but at least no trans-fats and they satisfy cravings for a savory snack), chocolate, Nana’s no gluten lemon cookies, and Ian’s GF individually wrapped 140 calorie snack packs of Chocolate Chip Cookie Buttons. Speaking of Ian’s Natural Foods, I don’t know if you are familiar with their products, but lately they’ve really expanded their gluten-free product lineup to include frozen Gluten Free French Toast Sticks, Popcorn Turkey Corn Dogs, Battered GF fish, and even GF and DF Soy Cheesy French Bread Pizza. Some of these products are still hard to find- I only found the cookie packs recently at my local Whole Foods and haven’t seen many of the others. I keep hoping to find the French Toast sticks, but so far no luck. So just in case the airlines completely failed me, I would have been reasonably well off, although a little, er, nutritionally deficient. Also, in security at the San Francisco airport, Heathrow airport, and finally Bangalore airport, there were absolutely no comments or notice paid to my food. I put it all in my carry on to avoid mishandling by baggage handlers and to keep it accessible during the flight, as well as to answer any questions in person if necessary. I think if you just avoid fresh produce, meat, and any liquid/gel foods like yogurt you can manage to bring GF food on a flight without too much hassle. While it is probably recommended to bring a doctor’s note about Celiac to help explain the surplus of food stashed in your bag, I personally have never done this and I haven’t had any food confiscated. It helps to try to find out as much as possible about food regulations in the countries you will be stopping in and try to avoid anything that might be questioned.
Unusually, I was also able to find food at both the airport in Chicago, pre-made packaged sushi: available both in sashimi varieties and vegetarian, and at the London Heathrow airport. The latter was just pure luck, as I stumbled on this family style English/American restaurant called Garfunkels, saw the menu and saw several possibilities that inspired me to try it. Not only did they have several very tasty looking salads including a goat cheese, avocado, and grilled eggplant dish or a fresh basil mozzarella salad, but they also had a delicious and simple meal of a perfectly baked potato with a cheese omelet and simple salad. I ordered the latter, as after 15 hours or so in the air, I was really craving a wholesome baked potato. The meal was very, very safe and very satisfying, if not especially gourmet. I loved that I could order a basic potato with the meal. 3D Virtual tour of one of their restaurants here
Not only was I able to eat at the airports, but the gluten free meals on both flights were quite palatable. We generally request a vegetarian meal and a gluten free meal for both flights, figuring that between the two of them there will be enough food for me to get by. It’s unfortunate that you can’t combine dietary requests in a special meal order, but I guess things would be complicated for the airline if you could. DH is willing to eat the vegetarian meal if it doesn’t work for me, and he can usually request a leftover ordinary meal for seconds if it isn’t substantial enough. For long international flights I err on the side of caution and if anything looks suspect about the vegetarian meal, just avoid it. Happily for me as a sometimes-pescatarian, both flights served salmon for their gluten-free meal, and although I had to pass on the vegetarian meals, the gf meal worked out. One note- the lengthy flight from San Francisco to Chicago skipped serving a meal entirely, although they offered us the option to buy a sandwich a few other gluten options, and potato chips (possibly GF) for a VERY hefty sum. The American meal on the flight to London was great because it had grilled salmon on rice, super yum, with steamed baby bok choy and some tasty nutty sauce on the rice(just a dab). It also came with a German Chocolate Sun Flour cookie- nicely labeled gluten free with ingredients. Although I’ve had some negative experiences with the Sun Flour cookies (based on pinto bean flour), the coconutty chocolate cookie was downright tasty. On the flight from London to Bangalore the British air meal was not quite as tasty, but they served plain salmon with pretty good mashed potatoes and some very, uh, well cooked veggies in a buttery sauce. While the GF meal just had some rather nasty prepared pears for dessert, the vegetarian meal came with kick-patootie rice pudding from Ireland, labeled, that I gobbled half of- DH ate the other half.. It was awesome and confirmed my faith in the advantage of ordering the vegetarian meal in addition to the gluten-free meal. Breakfasts were less satisfactory. American Airlines served me a suspicious looking bagel in the American airlines meal carelessly wrapped in saran wrap with no label. While it might POSSIBLY have been GF and it was different than the regular meal’s croissant, DH (my official guinea pig/ taste tester) thought it tasted wheaty so I avoided it. Personally, I never eat bread products that aren’t labeled because I have had careless stewards throw on a roll from the regular meal onto the special meal. (Flight to Paris, 2001- scary but they did serve very tasty cheese and luckily I didn’t eat the roll.) I so never want to embark on a marathon gluten-inspired barfing session on a plane. The British air breakfast was
decent, but light (left me still hungry) with some more potato mash and i think eggs. Unfortunately it had a big fat slice of ham on the bottom of the dish which I threw away- not ideal, but what can you do.
The point of this post is not necessarily to tell you what you can expect from any gluten-free meal on American airlines or British airlines, as they differ by day and destination. But I did want to let you know the type of meal options you can expect and also a few tips I’ve picked up on these kinds of marathon international trips.
When traveling gluten-free internationally:
1) PACK GLUTEN-FREE SNACKS. These snacks should be hardy and unlikely to be damaged by humidity, dryness, or being shook around in your bag. I like to pack homemade biscotti (check Bette Hagman or Rebecca Reilly’s cookbooks for some great recipes), Bette Hagman’s parmesan toast points, and homemade GF crackers. Prepared snacks are great too- you can try packaged nuts, dried fruit (may not be appropriate for customs), prepared GF cookies or crackers found at Trader Joes or a health food store (Glutino’s round crackers are great), your favorite GF chips or GF cereal, or any packaged treats that will last well.
2) READ UP ON AIRLINE REGULATIONS. Lately liquids and gels are serious issues- you may be able to pack them in your checked bags but they will be an issue in carry on. You may be able to get small amounts of gel/liquid food in by packing them in a clear, quart sized bag, but anything over 3 oz. won’t be allowed. Also, it’s highly doubtful you will be able to take juices or water from home through security, so don’t count on it… you may be able to purchase water or juice once you’re past security, and may be able to take these on the plane, but it’s not a sure thing, and regulations can change.
3) REQUEST YOUR GF MEAL as early as possible. Most airlines require at least 24 hours notice, and it’s hard to make it through a long flight without a supplementary hot meal, IMO. Flying is tiring enough without being hungry too.
4) GRAB A MEAL WHEN YOU CAN. If you see something at the airport you can eat, get it and eat it or take it on the plane. You won’t be sorry (except maybe at paying exorbitant airport prices). You never know when you’ll be able to find a decent meal- and with airline penny pinching you may be surprised at how often they DON’T feed you. This is especially important on a layover before a long second leg of a flight. You’ve probably eaten any prepared meal that you brought with you already and you can’t necessarily count on a palatable GF meal on the plane. Good bets are: sushi places, fries (if you trust McDonalds), and some prepared salads- fruit salad is especially likely to be safe. You might be able to grab and eat a yogurt at this point, even if you can’t get it on the plane.
5) RESEARCH YOUR DESTINATION, especially in regards to their regional cuisine and any gluten typically found in that cuisine. Contact the Celiac Association for the country that you will be visiting and see if they can’t provide tips on restaurants, housing, and shopping. Many European destinations may surprise you at how many options they have for the gluten free tourist! Print out gluten free dietary cards in the language of the country you will be visiting. It can’t hurt to learn how to say “celiac” or “gluten free” in that country’s language. You may also find helpful tips from locals or experienced travelers/expats by posting on travel forums.
6) PACK SOME EMERGENCY MEAL STAPLES, especially if you can arrange hotels with microwaves. I like to bring Thai Kitchen noodle pouches (in onion or garlic) for a 3 minute microwave meal. If you know you’ll have a kitchen and your destination is not likely to have such things easily available, it may be worth it to bring gluten free pasta or powder pasta sauce mixes in your checked baggage. (Mayacamas will turn a boring hostel pasta into WOW satisfying pasta. They served me well when traveling around Japan solo. You can find them in some health food stores or on Amazon.
7) BE FLEXIBLE! It’s especially hard when we have needs or dietary requests that don’t fit neatly into one category. Being gluten-free while traveling can be difficult, but being gluten-free and vegetarian or dairy-free etc. can be even harder. Try to be creative- have your plane companion order a special meal that fits your other dietary profile and then combine the two for something edible. If restaurants and plane food aren’t working for you, try an airport convenience store- treat yourself to some chocolate bars or chips that you wouldn’t ordinarily indulge in. Hey, all those calories may just keep you going! Do be careful with airport trail mixes- the odd brands they often carry can contain oat flour on the chopped date component. Also, in the airport check out regional specialties for an impromptu snack. Sees candies is just one example of a regional food that is sold as a souvenir but just might make a fabulous treat for a forlorn and hungry GF veggie. If you have access to the internet, you can verify gluten free status on a site like the SillyYaks Yahoo group or GF forums. (Do a keyword search on google and see what comes up).
and most important,
8) HAVE FUN! I have to admit, travel is one of the few times being gluten-free can get me down. But, if you prepare well ahead and roll with the glutenous punches, you can travel safely and in good health. And while sometimes travel is all about the food, sometimes it really isn’t. Take a good long look at the Taj Mahal… Enjoy the tranquility of a Zen garden… Go on a jungle safari in Africa- and what you eat or don’t eat won’t seem so significant anymore. The world is an amazing place, and we can’t let any pesky diet get in the way of exploring it!
I’ll keep you posted on our trip one bite at a time- right now I’m at my husband’s company’s branch office in Bangalore, looking out the window at another building with a “Shabari Bakes N Sweets” sign for a restaurant selling snacks… We’re having a wonderful time and I’m so glad I came!
Please post any recent GF travel experiences in the Comments! Had any tasty Gluten-Free Airline meals? Any atrocious ones?