Flying with Food Allergies + What Foods to Pack
It’s no secret that I love to travel. I’m lucky enough to be able to travel quite a bit thanks to a husband who also loves to travel and friends that live all over the world. But flying with food allergies isn’t always enjoyable.
We fly a lot of United, not because it is the best by any means, but because it is the most convenient for the majority of our destinations and we’ve racked up points and status. Therefore, all of my experiences have been with United, so please keep that in mind while reading through this post.
Since most of my food allergies are not severe, my issue is that there are so many to avoid. A few years ago I noticed that United started to put ingredient lists on nearly all of their food service items, not just prepackaged goods like the salad dressing and butter. What wasn’t so excited to discover was just how much junk and allergens are lurking in even the most unsuspecting items.
I always thought that the reason airplane food made me feel so terrible was because it was loaded with salt and other nastiness to make it taste good since our sense of taste isn’t as sharp while several thousands of feet up in the air (see the reasons why in this article). While this certainly contributed to my discomfort, the real reason was because I was eating all sorts of allergens! Following this, I started preparing all of my own foods for flights so that I could land ready to explore instead of curling up in bed sick for the first day of a trip.
Here’s how I break things down:
- East Coast/Ohio/Montreal, 1-3 hours = no food, one small bottle of water; snack before departure at airport and meal once we land
- West Coast/Hawaii, 5-12 hours = one-two meals and one snack, one large bottle of water and one bottle Pellegrino
- Europe, 6-8 hours = one meal and one snack, one large bottle of water and one bottle Pellegrino
- Asia, too long = a lot of food, several waters
NY/NJ airports have made finding a suitable snack much easier recently thanks to newly constructed “gourmet” options. Instead of grab and go places with only chips and sandwiches, it’s now possible to find simple dried fruits, clean popcorns and other chip replacement options and packs of nuts. If you have the time to sit down for a meal, many of the terminal restaurants are now serving decent salads and simple grilled dishes as well (though I almost always go for a bowl of french fries…).
So, what should you pack for your meals and snacks? Aim for foods that can go several hours without refrigeration or don’t need refrigeration at all. Put it all together in a lunch tote inside your carryon extra item/purse (I use a beach bag sized tote that holds my purse and lunch bag) along with napkins. You can get plastic utensils and your waters from the terminal after security.
- apples, oranges, bananas – fruits with thicker skins that can be easily peeled or eaten without being crushed
- baggie of almonds, walnuts, cashews – whatever nut is your favorite to snack on
- prosciutto and other cured meats (some cured meats use dairy so be careful)
- pieces of parmesan or cheddar cheese (if not allergic)
- homemade or store-bought granola/breakfast bars
- grain salad with fresh and roasted veggies, dressed just before leaving the house
- pasta salad or pasta with simple red sauce
- chocolate bar (can’t skip dessert!)
- tea bags (because I’m super particular about tea)
Packing for the way back home is much more difficult since you normally won’t have a kitchen to cook/prep in. I try to go to a deli or grocery store for a few items, like a banana and nuts. I usually avoid prepared foods because they don’t sit well with me even if they are totally allergy friendly. I think there is either cross-contamination or they sit too long and start to grow bacteria, who knows.
Let’s say you only need to avoid one or two allergens. Many airlines now offer specialty meals such as gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan in addition to Kosher options. On flights to specific countries you can also find other religious-conscious meals such as Muslim, Jain and Hindu vegetarian. If these suit you and you’re happy eating airline food then go for it! It’s certainly much easier and less hassle.
If you’re traveling with a peanut or treenut allergy, be aware that not all airlines will be very kind to you. I’ve heard horror stories from friends of being kicked off planes (pilot did not want the responsibility of a potential allergic reaction mid-flight), being embarrassed by flight attendants who point them out and blame them for the lack of a snack during flight, and whose requests get ignored even though they’ve emailed the airline far in advance. Some airlines create “nut-free buffer zones” where those within the rows immediately before or after you have agreed not to consume nuts during the flight. United doesn’t serve peanuts but does serve treenuts and items that may contain trace amounts of peanuts due to being manufactured on the same equipment; they do not create buffer zones and they do not allow you to pre-board in order to wipe down your area.
In the past month I’ve had back to back trips: first to France then Hawaii. Both trips I packed food for which inspired me to write this post. Below is what I packed for each destination.
France – I only packed a snack of banana and almonds and a few chocolate bars to savor over the trip (have you ever heard of a vegan French pastry?!?!) since I took an overnight flight. I had some french fries at the airport before I boarded, took an Advil PM, passed out for 90% of the flight, woke up and had a my snack. The return flight was another story: I had a handful of almonds left and bought a piece of chocolate that I thought was more rice cake dipped in chocolate than straight dark chocolate. Forgetting that the airport in Paris is nothing like our airports, I only got a few waters and a bag of chips before going through security and into the land of no food (or at least allergy-friendly food). I had eaten the almonds and chips before takeoff because I had no breakfast and it was lunchtime and I was STARVING. I couldn’t eat a single item they served, and they had no fruit or small snacks on the plane *that they would admit to me* so I ate my piece of chocolate as slowly as possible and then gorged myself on the largest bowl of pasta ever when I got home. It was so good I almost cried. Hungry Kelley = absolute monster.
Hawaii – I knew going in that this flight was going to be a nightmare and was totally prepared. Since it is a domestic flight, the airlines can get away without serving any meals even though it is 10+ hours. We left at 8am EST and landed at 2:30pm in Hawaii – missing both breakfast and lunch. I pity the poor souls who weren’t prepared and starved on this flight. Here’s what I packed:
- Blueberry quinoa breakfast bars
- Farro lentil salad topped with fresh and roasted veggies and a lemon dressing
- prosciutto for me, prosciutto and sopressata for Scott
- banana for me, apple for scott
- Hu Kitchen chocolate bar with almond butter and puffed quinoa filling
- Panatea Instant Matcha packets
I wasn’t nearly as worried about the return since it was an overnight flight and I would sleep for a good portion of it. We left around 3:00pm and landed at 6:00am EST, missing just dinner. We stopped at a Dean and Deluca in Waikiki and got bean salad and a quinoa salad. I also had one remaining bag of almonds and a bag of waffle chips. We boarded, ordered some wine, ate, watched a movie, and then slept the rest of the flight.
I wasn’t thrilled with how the blueberry quinoa breakfast bars turned out so I’m not sharing the recipe. They looked good but were really crumbly and the flavor wasn’t quite right.
For the salad, just cook up some farro and lentils according to their packaging. Add in whatever veggies you want on top: radish, carrot, celery, cucumber, tomato, asparagus, peas, etc. I added radish, peas, tomato, chickpeas, walnuts and roasted asparagus this time. Top it off with a doss of lemon dressing: 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juiced whisked together with 8 Tbsp evoo until it is fully emulsified. I add little to no salt – I already get puffy enough from flying, I don’t need extra salt to help me out!
While food allergies definitely make planning and preparing for trips more difficult, you don’t need to suffer. I hope this helps those of you with allergies or traveling with someone with allergies. If you have any questions or want suggestions on what and how to pack, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!