There’s nothing like a road trip to kick-start your adventurous spirit. Good company, tunes and the open road are a great combination—until you’re faced with your first rest-stop meal. It’s hard to eat healthy on the road, and it’s even harder when you have to follow a special diet, such as eating gluten-free. But don’t let that stop you—gluten-free traveling can be a cinch when you do a little preplanning. Use this guide to map out your next adventure, then feel free to get carried away by the open road. Bon voyage!
We’ve all experienced rest-stop regret: you get back on the highway after lunch just to pass your favorite restaurant at the very next rest area. That can be frustrating, but if you’re avoiding gluten, it might make the difference between eating lunch or not.
Instead, plot out an estimated route and lunch-stop plan the night before or get on-the-go info with a mobile app, such as Find Me Gluten Free or iCanEat. The iCanEat app allows you to set specific allergen parameters—such as dairy, nuts or shellfish—and sort fast-food restaurants accordingly. FindMeGlutenFree uses your geographic location to pull up restaurants with gluten-free menus in a 20-mile radius.
Kim Koeller, president and CEO of GlutenFreePassport.com, a website that helps gluten-free and allergy-free travelers eat safely on the road, does plenty of preplanning before she leaves on a trip. Koeller, an international business consultant who logs thousands of miles per year, knows how to navigate most on-the-go challenges—but still says that her best plan is always to pack a snack.
Even if you know a fast-food restaurant has gluten-free items, I feel better knowing that I’m prepared for anything," she says. "Plus, if my traveling companions decide to go somewhere that doesn’t have gluten-free foods, I know I can still join them."
Fast-food franchises generally follow the same safety and food-prep standards across the entire chain, so you can expect to see the same gluten-free menu (and staff training) across all franchises. That’s not always the case at quick-serve restaurants, such as Olive Garden, Applebee’s or Chili’s though—so be sure to ask about food-prep policies. And even if a restaurant has a gluten-free menu—such as Chili’s or Ruby Tuesday—it’s always a smart idea to remind servers to change their gloves and aprons before preparing a gluten-free meal.
Most airlines now present options to select special meals when booking tickets. Ticking that box doesn’t guarantee that your request will be fulfilled, though—most airlines require confirmation between 24 and 96 hours prior to departure to ensure that your needs will be met. Your meal may be marked with a sticker that reads "GFML"—airline shorthand for a gluten-intolerant meal—but be sure that gluten-containing ingredients like dinner rolls or croutons haven’t been added at the last minute. For those occasions, it’s smart to have a backup plan, Koeller notes.
I often freeze a few slices of lunchmeat and bring it with me along with two slices of gluten-free bread," she says. "By the time I’ve gotten through security and have boarded the plane, it’s thawed and ready to eat. You can also ask for ice from vendors past the security lines to keep cold foods chilled on longer trips."
Fruit is a great go-to snack, as it often has its own convenient (and natural) packaging. Or try making your own granola bars with gluten-free oats or packing a handful of nuts and dried fruit.
I always try to pack a meal that includes some protein, some carbs and something sweet," Koeller says. "Protein powder, instant soup or instant oatmeal are all great meals in a pinch—all you need is water!" (Just remember to check the label on prepackaged foods for hidden sources of gluten.)
Remember that detours, flight delays and other unexpected events can derail your travel schedule, so always pack an extra snack to tide you over until you reach your destination. If you end up being delayed longer than expected, look for naturally gluten-free snacks. Nuts are a filling, portable option (skip dry-roasted varieties, which may include gluten-containing ingredients), as are whole fruits, gluten-free yogurts and certified gluten-free deli meats and cheeses, which can be rolled up and eaten without bread.