The 3 Biggest Struggles of Traveling with Food Allergies

A coworker is leaving for Europe tomorrow; I have a vacation coming up; my brother is in New York; and my dad the pilot is as busy as ever flying everyone to their destinations. Travel is trending. But people with food allergies have to consider a lot of things that the average healthy person would likely never dream of when they print their boarding passes.

Here are my top three struggles when it comes to traveling.

1. Packing your beach hat, wallet, book… and breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next week.

Tonight I’ll be packing for a mini camping trip this weekend, and during my lunch break at work I’m making my usual pre-trip list. On top of what clothes and shoes and toiletries and whatever other necessities I need to pack, I have to evaluate my eating situation.

Okay, we’re camping. No electricity, so no microwave or oven, so no hot food. Unless there’s a grill? Then I’d need to pack foil to cook my burger on; God knows what was cooked on the grill before. What’s easy and portable? Snacks like fruit, chips and pretzels. I could make a sandwich for lunch and keep it in a Ziploc baggie in my drawstring bag. We never know where or when we’ll be eating lunch. For dinner… another sandwich? Unless there’s a grill.

And that’s my thought process just for a weekend. For longer trips, it’s almost easier to pack a few snacks for the road or plane ride, then buy groceries at the destination.

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Overcoming the struggle: Do your research and plan ahead. Where you’re heading, are there nearby grocery stores? What can wait to be bought until you get there? What will you eat if your flight gets delayed or canceled and you’re stuck at the airport? Does your accommodation include a microwave, kitchenette or full kitchen? If you don’t know, call ahead and plan accordingly. If you have a refrigerator or mini fridge, you can buy perishable items like fruit, lunch meat and salads.

2. Staying calm when TSA confiscates your peanut butter.

Once when my family was traveling together, my mom packed my usual go-to traveling meal: a roll of bagels and a jar of peanut butter.

Who knew peanut butter was on the no-fly list?

When the TSA agent told me he had to confiscate my peanut butter, at first I couldn’t help but laugh. When I realized he was serious, I was not amused, and neither was my mother. My mom tried to explain that I have severe food allergies, and peanut butter is a healthy source of protein to fill me up when we travel. He couldn’t care less.

My know-it-all teenager ego came in when I said, “Look, my dad’s a pilot, why would I be a threat with peanut butter? It hasn’t even been opened yet!”

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He said we could have checked it, to which I replied, nearly simultaneously with my mom, “Well I [she] can’t exactly eat it if it’s in the belly of the plane now can I [she]?” Meanwhile, my dad and brother acted like they didn’t know us.

Overcoming the struggle: Again, plan ahead. Check the TSA list of prohibited items before you start packing. The below table is pulled from the TSA website. Guess which column peanut butter falls under:

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3. Missing out on the local cuisine.

Jim Gaffigan summed up the typical American vacation perfectly:

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Especially from the perspective of someone with food allergies, it feels like everyone is always eating on vacation. We just have to try this place that got great Yelp reviews. Such and such has the world’s best mac and cheese, I saw it on the food channel. All the locals recommend this steakhouse. Aw, what a cute village bakery! 

We even use the “Well, I’m on vacation” excuse to gorge ourselves. Hopefully, if you’re anything like my friends and family, you actually do things while on vacation – other than eating.

Overcoming the struggle: Focus on those non-food related activities. Remember that water slide that led you into a shark tank? Climbing those stairs was awful but the view of the waterfalls was so worth it. I was there when you first stepped foot into the ocean! I’ll let you in on a little secret: These are the type of memories worth having, anyway.

If you don’t have food allergies and are traveling with someone who does, just let them do their thing. Don’t ask them if they’re sure they don’t want to try a bite. Don’t ask them if they’ve eaten before you go out. Don’t ask them if they’re sure that the hotel utensils are clean. If you’re a parent of a young child, however, by all means, make sure your kid with food allergies is staying safe! Just take it from me, when your kids are on their own, surviving college or post-grad life, let them make their own decisions.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not at all trying to deter anyone with food allergies from traveling. None of the above struggles is a good enough reason to not travel. In the grand scheme of things, traveling and seeing new sights and spending time with loved ones seriously outweighs the struggles of packing, planning ahead, and slapping a smile on your face as you eat a turkey sandwich while everyone else dips their baked crab legs in butter – or however that works.

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Am I Awkward Because of My Food Allergies?

I’ve always wondered if not being able to “normally” eat out has made me more of an awkward person. How can these two things possibly correlate? Hear me out.

We as a society don’t just eat to survive — it’s usually done socially. For someone without food allergies, these events don’t require a second thought. But for people with food allergies, there’s quite a bit of planning and strategy that goes into it. What am I going to eat? Where am I going to eat it? When am I going to eat? Most of the meals in my lifetime have been for the sole purpose of being full so I don’t get hungry once we’re at the restaurant or party or gala or whatever it is that involves food. Even if I wasn’t hungry before a grandparent’s dinner in the city, my parents coaxed me to eat something or else I’d be hungry later.

Eating is often something I cross off a checklist before the main event.

When it comes to eating out, I basically have three options: 1. Try something off the menu 2. Bring my own food or 3. Don’t eat out. And each of these scenarios comes with its own level of awkwardness.

Get ready because there’s a way too much thought that went into this.

Trying to Eat Off the Menu

I’ve tried this only a handful of times in my life. I’d carefully explain the severity of my food allergies to the server — who, looking back, was just some teenager herself trying to make some extra cash and couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been trusted with my life.

So not only have I now stressed out the server and put extra strain on the kitchen staff, but I’m also feeling anxious myself. I’m literally putting my life into strangers’ hands. If the kitchen’s utensils, stove tops, mixing bowls, or anything of that nature aren’t clean, I could get sick. If someone sprinkles my plain salad with croutons on accident and then picks them out, I will get sick.

I’ve pulled off eating out before without an itch, but I wasn’t always so lucky. (I almost died in Boston. But that’s a story for another blog post.) The way I figure, when I’m eating out, it’s usually during some special occasion, right? So why would I risk ruining it by having a reaction? It’s easier for me, for the restaurant and for my peers to just not have to worry about it.

The awkwardness at hand if I eat out: Coming off as high-maintenance; having to be stern (bitchy) when a server doesn’t take me seriously; potentially having a reaction and having to leave early or having to call an ambulance to the restaurant.

Bringing My Own Food

Sometimes I bring a sandwich or something simple (like something that doesn’t need to be microwaved or doesn’t need a plate; I want to draw as little as attention to myself as possible). I have two problems with this method, though.

  1. Have you ever tried eating a cold turkey sandwich while those around you dined on baked lobster?
  1. The staff doesn’t always allow outside food.

I once brought in a sandwich to a restaurant and the server said I couldn’t eat that in there. I told her I can’t eat anything they serve unless they can guarantee I won’t have a reaction. My friends backed me up. She apologized but said it’s their policy: No outside food. So I smiled through clenched teeth, tucked my sandwich back into my purse, and would finish it during the car ride home. So much for not drawing attention to myself.

I’ve also received comments from servers like, “Oh, is our food not good enough for you?” One of the servers at Dick’s Last Resort accused me of being anorexic when I was 14, but it was his job to be a dick, anyway, I suppose. My point is, again, it’s not always worth it.

The awkwardness at hand if I bring food: Having to act like my sandwich is the best damn sandwich I’ve ever had when I get the pitied “How’s your sandwich?” from my table mates; being scolded for bringing in outside food, then fighting about it with staff; having a loud grumbling tummy while everyone else is eating.

Not Eating Out

Simply not eating out is my preferred strategy. I don’t have to stress out the kitchen staff or stress myself out — it’s like a win-win.

But, here comes the awkward part: This means that I can make those around me feel bad or uncomfortable. I had one teammate who even refused to sit at the same table as me every team meal because she felt so bad about eating in front of someone who wasn’t. When I turned 21 it got easier; at least I could drink! Although I found out the hard way that with my petite build and empty stomach, I had to pace myself.

Also, I have to master a two-part strategy that I call “The Art of Unconventional Social Conventions.” Part 1: How should I act when everyone else is eating? It typically involves an inner dialogue that goes something like this:

Ok, Lauren, don’t talk too much when the food comes. Don’t ask questions when their mouths are full. Let them enjoy their meals. Crap, now there’s an awkward silence and I’m just sitting here, the only one without a mouth full of food. Take a sip of your drink. Still silence. Take another sip. But wait no you don’t want to get drunk these are your coworkers for Chrissake.

Part 2: What do I do when the bill comes? If I only had a drink, obviously I’ll pay for that. But a lot of times people like to split it up evenly. In my experience, someone was brave and kind enough to say “Well Lauren only spent like $7.” But in some cases I had to actually debate with someone as to why I shouldn’t have to spend $30 on a bill where I only spent $5.

The awkwardness at hand if I don’t eat: Talking too much; talking too little; getting too drunk; acting like a cheapskate.

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So, am I more awkward because of my food allergies? Probs. But at the end of the day, I can’t control what people at the table will think of me or if they’ll feel sorry for me, and that’s okay.

My advice to anyone with food allergies: Just be there. Don’t let your food allergies hold you back from eating out because you’re afraid of the social implications.

My advice to anyone without food allergies: Just let it be. Let us make our own decision and don’t push us to try something we’re not comfortable trying. Don’t give us a reason to make a situation awkward by saying things like, “So is it hard for you not eating when everyone else is?” If you were dining with someone in a wheelchair, would you ask them if it’s hard not being able to eat at the high tables? Hell no. So just let it be what it is.

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3 Tips for Dating Someone with Food Allergies

Imagine you’re finishing up a date with someone who has food allergies, and you two are just about to say goodnight after a perfect summer evening together. You lean in for your first kiss — but wait. If you’re not thinking about what you recently ate, you should be. The last thing you want is to end the night in the hospital or later find out that you left your date with puffy, itchy lips (or tongue, too, if you really got after it).

Maybe you’re reading this because you’re prepping for a date with someone with food allergies. Or maybe you’re just curious. There are 15 million Americans with food allergies, and the number is growing every year. Odds are you’ll date someone with food allergies at least once in your lifetime. So take it from someone with severe food allergies and years of dating experience: Here are the 3 main things you need to know.

1. Never Surprise Them with Dinner Plans

Don’t make reservations at a restaurant or invite your date to your place for dinner without asking them first. Even if they already told you about their food allergies, you don’t always know the severity. They might have even downplayed it at an attempt to not scare you off right away (I know I’m definitely guilty of that).

Food doesn’t even need to be involved right off the bat. Dazzle your date with some out-of-the-box date ideas. Take an art class, go the zoo or a museum, get tickets for a local concert. Or, ask what they’d like to do. You can say something like, “I know you have food allergies; is there anywhere you’d prefer to go for dinner? Or would you rather do something else that doesn’t involve food?”

After a few dates, a great option is to invite your date over to your place to make dinner together. This lets your date show you how they make their meals, plus gives you a hands-on chance to understand what it takes to keep them safe. What ingredients can you not use? Do you have to clean all utensils and pans, first? What’s a substitute for milk? Turn on some music, break out the wine and let your date be your guide.

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2. Listen to Learn, Not to Respond

Of course, on any date you should be off your phone and attentively listening. But when it comes to someone with food allergies, they’ll need your full focus. It could mean their life.

To get the ball rolling, ask an open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me about your food allergies and what I should know?” They’ll tell you what you need to know, without feeling like you’ve invaded their privacy or asked the wrong questions.

Also ask what to do in an emergency. This not only shows your date that you care and are interested in them, but also helps you prepare for the worst. How do you use their EpiPen and where do they keep it? What do you do in case they have a reaction when they’re with you? When you’re on a date, even if it doesn’t involve any food, you never know if some kid will come along and throw his ice cream everywhere, or if a woman on the train will spill her bag of mixed nuts on your date.

And, for the love of God, do not, I repeat, do NOT bring up your own, or anyone else’s, dietary preferences. Unless you also have food allergies, nothing about your diet can compare to what your date has to deal with on a daily basis. So fight the urge to add your two cents. While they may be polite about it, your date will most likely be turned off when you bring up a classmate you once knew who had food allergies. Or how one time you thought you were allergic to milk, but it just went bad and you got sick after drinking it. I mean what are we supposed to say to that? Are you trying to tell us that you can relate? Because you can’t. So don’t listen to respond. Listen to learn.

Bonus tip: Don’t make jokes. I’ll explain with a personal story.

I once went on a date with a guy to go out for drinks. When we got there, he ended up ordering food. He apologized and said he was starving, and I told him to go ahead. I didn’t want him to not eat just because I wasn’t eating, but I still couldn’t help but be turned off by it. Like he really couldn’t have eaten before? Anyway, he was looking at the menu, and, I shit you not, here’s what he said:

“So, do you have to be careful about not pissing off boyfriends or roommates? Like, it’d be so easy to poison and kill you, haha.”

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My point is, even if you think you’re being funny and harmless and breaking the ice, jokes about dying from food allergies are just poor taste. Your date has barely gotten to know you and right off the bat you’re downplaying the reality that their food allergies could in fact kill them? Think it through.

3. Have “The Talk”

For people with food allergies, “the talk” needs to be tweaked a bit. You both know about the birds and the bees, but what you may not know is how long to wait until you can kiss your date after eating something their allergic to. Research shows that, for peanut allergies, you should wait 4.5 hours to kiss. Every person’s allergies are different, so just ask.

You’re probably thinking, Lauren, there’s no way I’m doing that; it’s too awkward. I feel you, but it’s a hell of a lot less awkward to ask first instead of later trying to explain to his or her parents at the hospital why they’re being treated because you blindfolded their son or daughter and used whip cream in the bedroom and, well, yeah.

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It’s important to understand that someone with food allergies isn’t trying to make your life difficult. We put a lot of trust in you when you ask us out. And if we think you’re worth the effort of explaining our food allergies to you, that’s a huge step in the right direction.

People with food allergies have learned to be extremely independent, so as long as you let your date handle their allergies their way and offer your support, you crazy kids just might have a shot.

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3 Comebacks to Food Allergy Bullies

First of all, if you haven’t seen this part of the Freaks & Geeks episode where Allan the bully sneaks peanuts onto Bill’s (who’s severely allergic to peanuts) sandwich during lunch, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch.

Now, I use the word “bullies” because “people who think they’re being funny or are just too curious or clueless” was too long for a title. I experienced this often in school, and even still today, for my allergies to milk and tree nuts.

I don’t believe they ever had malicious intent, like Allan. I think they were just under-educated on food allergies and over-curious. And who’s to blame them?

My younger cousin once asked, so what does your food allergy mean? I told him that if milk were to touch me, I’d get red itchy bumps all over, and if I drank it, I’d die. He seemed to ponder this for a moment, then next thing I knew he poured his glass of milk on top of my head. 

A few years later when I entered high school, I tried explaining my food allergies to a group of girls at lunch. One girl simply did not believe me. She looked at her bag of Cheetos then asked, “So if I were to touch you with a Cheeto, you’d just break out in hives?” Having a flashback to when I tried to logically explain my allergy to my cousin, I decided to go with humor this time. I replied, “Yes. I mean, you could find out for yourself, but then you’d have to explain to my biology teacher why I missed her class.” She rubbed the Cheeto on my leg. 

But in both cases, I ended up getting an apology with a side of a bouquet of flowers the very next day. My cousin said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that you’d get red itchy bumps.” My classmate said, “I’m sorry, I seriously thought you were joking!”

It comes down to making your allergies a very real risk to the “bullies.” And the bullying doesn’t always come in the form of physical torment. In fact, most of the time, people just absent-mindedly say things without thinking about how it would make you feel.

So here are three of the top things people say that’s condescending to people with food allergies, and confident responses.

The skeptic: Come on, just try it. How bad could your reaction be, really?

You say: I could die. My throat could close up, I could lose consciousness, and then you’d have to inject my EpiPen with a giant needle into my thigh, call 911, and explain to the paramedics and my family how you pressured me to “just try it.”

The downer: Oh my GOD! How can you live without milk? I’d kill myself if I couldn’t drink milk. Your life must suck.

You say (with a smile): I love my life. And because I eat so healthy I’ll probably even out-live you!

The vapid: I totally understand your food allergy. I’m vegetarian.

You say: Oh, congratulations on your decision. Also, if you eat meat, will your throat close so that you can’t breathe? Could you die from eating a hamburger?

Unfortunately, there will be just plain mean people out there – kids and adults alike – that simply won’t get it, no matter how you respond. They’ll be manipulative, pressuring, or condescending. They’ll chase you down the halls with a peanut butter cookie or try to get you to have a reaction.

When extreme measures need to be taken, there is no shame in getting help: your HR department, your teacher, your parent/guardian, the bully’s parent/guardian. Consider showing them a video (like the one above) to visually show them what could happen. Explain the consequences to them if they continue to bully. There should be a zero-tolerance for any kind of bullying, especially when your life is at risk.

Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) has great tips and a 30 second video for anti-bullying. Check out their page: Food Allergy Bullying: It’s Not a Joke.

Younger kids (or adults who really love Disney), build confidence with your food allergies. 

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4 Disney Quotes to Build Confidence in Kids with Food Allergies

Ah, the magic of Disney. Where dreams come true right before your eyes as you cuddle under a Lion King blanket with a bowl of popcorn (maybe non-buttered) in your lap. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s learned countless life lessons from these classics from an early age… and into adulthood. So to better help kids embrace their food allergies and build confidence, here are four Disney quotes to live by.

1. Born with the powers, or cursed?

“Born with the powers, or cursed?” asked the troll to Princess Elsa’s parents in Frozen.

As with most Disney quotes I find remarkably applicable to my life, this one takes the non-dairy cake when it comes to my food allergies. Yes, I was born with life-threatening food allergies to milk and tree nuts, but that’s not the point of this metaphor. My point comes down to perspective: Are food allergies a power, or a curse? Quite frankly, it’s a matter of choice.

Kids, I want to make this very clear: When you live with severe food allergies, one thing you can’t always choose is what you eat, or you risk your life. But you can choose to not let your allergies dictate your days. You can choose power over curse.

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2. Hakuna Matata

“Hakuna matata. It’s our motto!” Pumba said in The Lion King.

“What’s a motto?” Simba inquired.

“Nothin’! What’s a motto with you?” Timone howled.

We all know it means no worries. (Is the song stuck in your head yet?) But this could mean a little more for kids facing daily roadblocks constructed by food allergies. Keeping a positive attitude and beaming a big smile are the two ingredients to making a sour situation sweet.

Take this story, for instance. One day when I was a kid, I got really discouraged when a classmate brought birthday cupcakes to share that I couldn’t eat. But before I shed any tear or grew any green horns, I remembered, “Hakuna matata.” Was I going to sit and pout alone at my desk? Or shake it off, slap on a smile, and join in the birthday celebration? Just because my face wouldn’t be covered in frosting didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun.

Parent tip: When I went home and told my parents about that day, they asked the teacher for a copy of my class birthday schedule. Whenever someone had a birthday, my parents sent me to the bus with my own treat in my backpack!

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3. You must not let anyone define your limits.

Gusteau said this in Ratatouille, a movie all about overcoming obstacles to follow your dream, which in Gusteau’s case was becoming a chef. When you have food allergies, yes, you are physically limited in what you can and cannot eat. But you should not let others, or yourself, set limits to what you want to do in life because they or you think things will be “too hard” with your food allergy.

Got invited to a birthday party? RSVP yes. Have to sit away from your friends at the peanut-free table during lunch? No big deal, you’ll see them at recess. Want to play a sport? No problem, and those concessions sell really unhealthy food anyway. Traveling? Easier than you may think.

Follow your dreams and do what you please, but not based on your allergies.

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4. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

Doesn’t your heart just tingle from this one? Christopher Robin said this to Winnie the Pooh. You’re braver than you believe, even when you’re afraid of eating the wrong thing and having a reaction, or regularly having to go to the doctor to get tested and re-tested for allergies. You’re stronger than you seem, even when you do have a reaction, you will be strong enough to survive it. You’re smarter than you think, even when kids are pressuring you to just try a bite of their lunch, or you have to explain your allergies to someone (even a grown-up).

Parent tip: My mom hung a cut-out picture of this quote on our refrigerator. Every time I went to search for a snack and my eyes met a gallon of milk, I was reminded of this quote.

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Being a kid with food allergies is hard. Very hard. Take it from me, it takes a lot of practice to keep a positive attitude every day. But confidence is the key to showing the world that your food allergies are your power, not your curse.

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