Learning how to travel with kids who have food allergies is no small feat. Read on to see how we roughed it out in the woods and on a car ride spanning two days each way.
It would not be a lie, or even a stretch, for me to say that once our family was diagnosed with food allergies and autoimmunity, we never went anywhere. Ever. Getting used to managing food allergies is a whole thing, and with children, whose communication, reasoning, and decision-making skills are still developing, it can be downright scary. So the logical option was to avoid anything that would challenge our ability to manage this new normal.
And then I got cabin fever in the middle of summer. For the love of humanity, can we please go places? Do things? Talk with humans? I’ll pack a few mangos in my purse, if I must, but mama’s gotta get outside. I wasn’t alone in this cabin. K-Hubs was wacko, too. Even his introverted self had had enough “self” time. The girls were downright batty.
So, we started dining out. I’ll share more about that in a minute. We also started traveling as a family this summer. That dining out thing came in handy a few times.
As we were navigating all of these new scenarios, I began thinking, perhaps other parents with littles who are allergic to the world would find our discoveries helpful. Toodle started out with 14 food allergies, and I remember thinking she was probably allergic to air, too. Chicken and tree bark, that’s what we eat. I jest. Mostly.
So, if you feel the same, keep reading. We breathed real air, ate at restaurants, survived a camping adventure, didn’t run out of food or get eaten by bears, and managed to live to tell about it.
THE CAMPING ADVENTURE
We camped in an actual tent, the four of us sprawled on an air mattress. And when I say “sprawled,” I mean the girls slept on top of us. Or their knees were in our backs. We didn’t get eaten by bears or run out of food. So I consider the trip a win.
But, about the food. And those allergies.
Because the campsite was three and a half hours away and one state up, we knew we needed to pack everything we needed. We couldn’t just run home for a quick something.
We packed all sorts of food, and we thought we had this thing on lock. ON LOCK, I tell you.
We had bacon and hamburgers. Is there anything else really worth eating? No, no there isn’t.
But we should have consulted Dr. Google. Not the one for symptoms. No, the one with a Ph.D. who does research all day. Because that’s what we should have done. Research. We thought we had. But we were wrong.
In our infinite excitement about this camping trip, K-Hubs and I assumed (there’s the first mistake) that each campsite would have grills with wrought iron grates for people to grill their foods. This was not the case. And to think I was berating myself for having forgotten tin foil to cover the grates while we grilled our food. So research and phone calls. They are a good thing. We should have confirmed before we left that the way we intended to prepare our food was going to be an option.
Fortunately, we packed two precooked turkeys and turned them into deli slices. Dear Costco, we love you. The end. We also had smoothies, almond butter, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables. No one ate the vegetables. We also packed our own water, which turned out to be a wise decision because although the campsite had a general store, the water was extremely expensive. They did have ice, and I suggest always knowing where you can buy ice or refreeze your freezer packs to keep food fresh. We relied on crushed ice to keep our food and vitamins (many of which have to stay refrigerated) at the desired temperature.
If I had the camping trip to do all over I would have packed more shelf stable foods. We don’t eat much that gets stored in a pantry. But we do love Epic bars and beef jerky available at Whole Foods. I just didn’t think to pack them. Bacon and hamburgers kind of do that to me.
And I learned the hard way that time management, like research, is critical beforehand. We ran out of time to make chocolate almond butter cups. I know. I know. It made me sad, too. Just ask Toodle. I cried. It was supposed to be our version of s’mores. She had to console me. Children really are the parents sometimes. Aside from being s’more alikes, chocolate almond butter cups freeze well and taste delicious. Although a little softer, vegan key lime mini cheesecakes are also delicious frozen.
To make it all work, I would suggest preparing foods several days before you depart for whatever vacation you are going on (camping or otherwise). Start with foods that can be prepared and then frozen for an extended period of time, working your way through the week toward foods that once made have short shelf lives. Had I done that, we wouldn’t have missed out on chocolate almond butter cups. That in and of itself is enough reason to develop a strategy.
As a recap of foods that travel well to rustic places, the following came in handy:
- Precooked, ready-to-eat meat (we got ours from Costco)
- Fresh fruit and vegetables (also from Costco)
- Smoothies with food fillers, like avocado or coconut oil, to stay full while away from home (this recipe is similar to one we took on our trip)
- Almond butter (you guessed it, from Costco)
- Applesauce-to-go packs (yup, Costco)
- Black olives (do I even need to say from where?)
- Chocolate almond butter cups or vegan key lime mini cheesecakes
- Dips (we didn’t take any on this trip, but if we had, I would have made them just prior to embarking on our destination)
THAT EXCEPTIONALLY LONG ROAD TRIP
The next weekend, we vacationed in the Southeast, which from the Midwest is several hours in the car. For us it included an overnight stay at a hotel on the way down and the way back. We were concerned about food staying fresh during that time, even in a cooler. So while we did pack some food, including the ever-present smoothie, and a high-speed blender, we relied more on eating out. We never even used the blender.
We stayed with family, which made storing the food while we were there much easier. I made sure to include almond butter cups and key lime cheesecakes this time. No tears.
Whenever we stay with family, we always plan to bring our own food. In many cases, family members will ask what we can have and then have items at the ready for us. It is incredibly heartwarming. But it is also a lot to ask (at least in our case with so many food restrictions based on allergies and requirements for an autoimmune protocol). In this case, family had food ready from, mm hmm, Costco.
But dining out was a departure from our previous vacation under the stars. We relied on two places, one in particular. Both locations are able to accommodate our gluten, dairy, and soy allergies. That last one is hard to figure out at restaurants. Both have easy-to-read allergen menus that take the guesswork out of deciding what we can have. Red Robin is able to accommodate our food allergies without breaking a sweat, and a manager even came to our table to go over options and to be a point of contact during ordering. It was the first time we had eaten there, and I will say, I’d go back in a heartbeat.
The other place, Chipotle, is like a member of the family. And speaking of family, our family members all look online before we visit to see where the nearest location is. We ate at Chipotle on the way down, while we were visiting family, and on the way back. Toodle calls it Chiplet, and Twinkle constantly asks to eat at “Poh Way.”
While on our trip, we were out and about more. So we made sure to know where the nearest Chipotle was and timed our meals accordingly. It was a scream. But no one went hungry. We have eaten at Chipotle in four different states, and I will say they are always patient with Toodle as she practices ordering (although she is young, we have her order her own food so it becomes as natural to her as breathing). Chipotle team members wear new gloves and pull out new utensils (and even unopened containers of food) for us. They coordinate among themselves without so much as an exhale. They just do it. Not a single employee has ever given me guff about our unique food needs. And that makes me feel better about dining out.
The biggest change in being able to successfully vacation hours away from home for extended periods of time came down to two base concepts: PLAN AHEAD and SPEAK UP. I no longer feel embarrassed or self conscious about our food allergies. If someone seems less than supportive or challenges our lifestyle, I simply tell them (and remind myself) this is what works for us. I strive to have a back-up plan, such as a grocery store, in case Dr. Google Maps Ph.D. has incorrect address information for a restaurant.
That’s it. In a nutshell. What did I miss? What else would you like to know about how to travel with kids who have food allergies? Or maybe you have tips I didn’t cover here. Comment below with your best practices or questions. I would love to hear from you!