If you’re anything like me, one of the highlights of travelling is eating! A key part of all holidays is food – I love experiencing different flavours, discovering new ingredients and trying new ways of cooking. From street food in Asia to little tavernas in Mediterranean fishing villages, I’ll try anything. Even once you’ve had kids, it’s usually possible to find places serving authentic local dishes for the adults with familiar favourites for the kids. But, that gets a bit more complicated when allergies are involved.
Having experienced 8 years of travelling with two kids who have different food allergies, I know it can be hard to balance their needs with their expectations of receiving endless yummy food. Hot on the heels of the #myholidaydish series, featuring some iconic holiday favourites, here’s my twist – how to feel confident travelling with food allergies and feed the family on holiday. Some of these tips can also apply to fussy eaters!
1. Get good medical insurance
Holiday insurance is one of those things that everyone begrudges paying – until you have a crisis abroad and realise how much cheaper it is to be covered than to pay medical bills. I recently had to use my son’s epi-pen in Spain after he had a reaction. We ended up in an expensive tourist health centre, and I was very pleased that I did my research and swallowed the cost of insurance.
There are many specialist insurers who will cover you if you have serious food allergies, anaphylaxis and any other existing medical issue for that matter. Remember to declare absolutely everything and take the time to really understand what’s covered and what isn’t.
If you are travelling within the EU, an EHIC is also a good idea, allowing UK residents access to state funded medical treatment abroad. Once again though, check what is and isn’t covered.
2. Take supplies with you
If you have allergic kids, chances are that, like me, you take food everywhere you go! With a dairy allergic child, one of the biggest disappointments can be lack of options for desserts – ice cream, cream, custard, yoghurt and milk are present in practically all all-inclusive dessert buffets and restaurant menus, with very very little without – jelly and fruit if you’re lucky. And although ‘unlimited ice-cream’ is fine during the day for other kids, juice lollies often aren’t included in the all-inclusive, so be prepared to pay more if ‘all-inclusive’ means ‘except for dairy-free people’!
When you self-cater, things get a little easier, with most European supermarkets carrying a range of soya based staples like yoghurts, milk and spreads as well as gluten free options. Smaller, local shops may not carry a huge range of dairy, wheat or gluten free alternatives though. If you’re not sure, or your kids have a favourite brand, I’d recommend using up some of your luggage allowance to take some long life, free from alternatives.
It goes without saying that you need to take plenty of medication with you – chemists abroad often don’t carry the same familiar types, and of course, leaflets are in another language!
3. Translate in advance
Communication of your exact dietary requirements to a waiter with no English can be a challenge! It’s easy to get hold of translations explaining specifically what requirements you have from websites such as Allergy UK, allergyaction.org and dietarycard.com. Translation apps/Google translate are ok to a point, but if your child has severe allergies, it’s worth getting it done properly.
4. Flying – getting medicines in hand luggage through security
Make sure you allow plenty of time, breathe deeply, smile a lot and have plenty of patience. I often take a letter from my doctors, which is not always needed, and make sure that any medicines have the chemist’s labelling on them, proving that they have been prescribed. Carrying an unfulfilled repeat prescription with you can also help.
When travelling with babies, you can sometimes order cartons of prescription or soya based formula or baby foods from the Boots counter after you’ve gone through security. But, you’ve got a problem if they fail to deliver. Always try and take your own, and bear in mind that you may need to taste it!
5. Flying – never, ever, trust that the airline will give you the right meal
In 8 years, flying on a number of different airlines, I have never got what I needed from the meal service. You may order a vegan meal online, phone them, email them, pester them on social media, but there is no guarantee it will be right.
On a recent flight to Canada, my son’s vegan meal wasn’t there on the outbound flight, an apologetic cabin crew lady had me fill in a form to ‘absolutely guarantee’ it would be there on the return – which it wasn’t. I always travel with food on planes and I have always needed it. If you are going long haul, take more than enough – the last thing you want is a crying, hungry child on a 12 hour flight.
6. Get familiar with the medical facilities
Ok, chances are you won’t have any issues, but it doesn’t hurt to find out where the nearest hospital is, what the best number is for an emergency doctor and where the nearest chemist is when you arrive.
7. Become best friends with the rep!
The rep is based locally and can be a great source of help. They may know where the best shops are for buying gluten free/dairy free/other specialist products, and direct you to restaurants that they know cater to specific needs well.
If you’re staying at a hotel where food is included, try and become friends with the restaurant manager! We’ve had some fantastic experiences where my kids were made to feel very special – when the manager specifically bought in dairy free ice cream and yoghurts, and cooked main meals fresh without the allergen filled sauces. Equally, we’ve had some awful experiences where they couldn’t care less, and made us feel like extremely awkward guests.
8. It’s probably not the time to experiment with new things
Whatever your specific needs – my eldest son is dairy, egg, sesame, nuts and shellfish allergic, and used to be allergic to wheat – it’s a balance between being paranoid and allowing them to enjoy new experiences. It’s a difficult balance, and what you let them try will depend on the severity of the allergy. You may also have to make some sacrifices. For example, don’t have dessert if there really is nothing to offer your child. I’ve had to feign indifference to mountains of delicious looking desserts on a few occasions! As they get older, some things become easier – my son can read ingredients himself, and won’t touch anything he doubts – and some become harder – he feels left out if he can’t join in the kids’ club chocolate party, or eat the same as everyone else.
Self-catering makes it easier to control, you can cook things you know your kids like and are fine with, but you also want your kids to experience a taste of your holiday destination. Cooking it yourself means you can omit or substitute allergens. At the same time, you don’t always want to slave in the kitchen. Eating out is something we all enjoy, particularly on holiday, and this is when the translations come into their own.
The best advice I can give is to try take the worry out of the equation by being prepared – get to the airport early, research your destination online, get those translations sorted and take your own stuff. Villas enable you to self-cater, and to choose different places to eat – if the first restaurant you try is bad at catering for your needs, you can go somewhere else the next day.
I try and make sure that we strike a good balance, trying new things but not going overboard with risky new ingredients. It’s also important for children to learn that they can’t always have everything, and that they are not alone in this – other kids have far worse things to contend with.
Attitudes to allergies vary tremendously when you go away! Some people think they are not real just kids being fussy, and others go overboard with caution – neither of which are helpful when trying to feed your family.
I’ll leave you with the allergy advice from Canadian coffee and muffins chain Tim Hortons, whose advice to people with allergies is simply this:
‘If you have a food allergy, we recommend that you refrain from eating our products.’
Needless to say, they didn’t get our custom!