Traveling on a Special Diet


Now that summer has arrived, I’d like to share some tips for traveling on a special diet. Traveling with children can be challenging enough.  If you or your child is on a special diet, the idea of taking a trip can make any mother think twice and consider just staying home. You cannot simply rely on stopping into any convenience store or airport deli to pick up food to eat. While some places may carry gluten-free and casein-free options, I’ve been to places that do not have a single choice in the store. You don’t want to be caught without any choices, as it puts you in danger of breaking your special diet.  But also, don’t let a special diet stop you from having fun! Whether you’re taking a daytrip or overnight vacation, learning a few simple strategies can help families eat well, while sticking to a special diet. I often travel while speaking at autism and nutrition conferences (sometimes even bringing my family along), and have gathered some personal tips and tricks over the years for gluten-free and special diet living. The most important thing is to plan ahead.  Research online the restaurants, hotels, and markets near your destination.  Locate gluten-free and allergy-friendly restaurants that understand your special dietary needs.  Book a hotel that has a kitchenette or refrigerator, depending on whether you prefer to cook your own meals or not.  See if there are any natural food stores near where you are staying.  Addressing these queries in advance will help greatly. For example, if I’m flying and will not have a car, I determine whether there is a market close to my hotel or on the cab ride from the airport.  If so, I typically go and get the bulk of my food needs when I arrive.  However, if there are none, I’ll have to bring more food with me. For families considering a destination vacation like a theme park or cruise, some companies really go the extra mile to serve people with food allergies.  Disney Land, Disney World, and Disney Cruises all have delicious gluten-free and allergen-free food (see previous post). Fortunately, most cruises offer plenty of allergy-free choices – so you can always eat well on a cruise, even when you have food allergies.  Check your destination for their food policy as some parks and zoos do not allow you to bring food in from the outside (silly, I know).  You’ll want to learn their exemption process so you can be prepared. Pack a Cooler Whether you are going by plane, train, or car you’ll want to pack a cooler.  You’ll want to bring at least enough food to get you to your destination, plus one extra emergency “layover” day in case you get stuck while in transit.  If you are going by car, you can take food for the trip.  If you are traveling by plane, you can check an extra cooler of food, ship food to your destination, and handle food once you’ve arrived.  Use dry ice if you want it to stay fully frozen for a couple days. Consider which food you’re bringing.  Apple are great because they are hard and don’t bruise easily. If you bring bananas, make sure they’re not too ripe or they will smash all over your bag (not fun at all).  My three staple foods for all traveling are: hardboiled eggs, apples, and almond butter (single serve squeeze packets).  Here are more. Gluten-free and dairy-free foods to pack in your cooler:
  • Hardboiled eggs
  • Cooked bacon
  • Non-dairy yogurt, either homemade or store bought
  • Roasted chicken drumstick
  • Nut butter (Put on celery, apple, or crackers)
  • Hummus (Dip celery or GF bread)
  • Celery
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kale Salad
  • GF Bread
  • Home baked gluten-free healthy banana bread
Foods that do not require cold storage:
  • Sardines (with oil and bones for added calcium)
  • Canned salmon or tuna and avocado for easy tuna salad
  • Beef or salmon jerky
  • Apples
  • Kale or carrot chips
  • GF crackers like Glutino
  • Snack bars like Lara Bars or Macro Bars
Hot Thermos (for cold weather days)
  • Chicken broth
  • Soup
  • Tea
  • Stew
  • Hot lunch
Meal ideas With your cooler packed with these staples there are many wonderful meals you can throw together quickly and easily while on the road. Most of these foods are “ready to eat,” requiring no preparation while out and about: Hardboiled eggs, bacon, yogurt, drumsticks, beef jerky, apples, carrot chips and snack bars.  Others are simple parings: nut butter on apple or crackers, hummus with celery, tuna salad made simply with avocado, and sardines with crackers.   Bringing foods that are mix-and-match provides lots of options for the family so each member can find something they like, without mom having to plan and prepare snack and meals for four people. Sauerkraut makes a wonderful “salad”—while not a true salad, I often eat it in place of the common side dish because it requires no preparation on the night before and provides easy vegetables for the trip.  Kale salad is also great because it’s hearty and holds up to travel well—all you need to do is substitute lettuce with kale leaves (de-stem and rip into pieces). Salmon-Avocado Salad This is a great recipe on the road because neither the canned fish nor avocado need refrigeration.  You can carry the food without a cooler, and prepare it onsite for perfectly fresh salmon salad.  It is also a wonderful egg-free alternative. If you are traveling, you do need to remember to bring a knife for the avocado, something to mix it with like a fork, and a bowl.
  • 1 can of salmon or “lower-mercury” tuna (such as Vital Choice)
  • 1 avocado
  • Smash tuna and avocado together and serve!  It’s that easy!
Storing Food BentoBoxThe cooler you choose is vital.  We learned the hard way that a couple of our soft-sided coolers were not waterproof, so melting ice leaked to the outside of the cooler and soaked things near it—in one case the contents of the backpack it was in, and in the other the hotel floor where it was left overnight.  Test things ahead of time to avoid surprises and inconveniences.  Ice packs work much better than ice cubes. Remember to bring a plastic utensil set or two, plenty of napkins, extra Ziplock bags, and a bowl with a lid that can be used for mixing, serving, and storing food like the tuna salad. For a bowl, I like the Pyrex/Rubbermaid bowls with a lid, prepare and store the extra.  I’ve never had security stop me for traveling with glass. If you find it easier, pack an individual lunch for the kids, rather than “family-style” meals.  A few of my favorite containers are: PlanetBox, Laptop Lunches, Eco Lunchboxes, and LifeFactory glass water bottles. Hotel Rooms –Refrigerators and Kitchenettes Since you will have food with you, you’ll want to plan ahead for a refrigerator in your own.  Even in standard hotels that do not have kitchenettes, most hotels can accommodate a mini refrigerator in room.  Even a freezer is possible—if the room refrigerator does not have a freezer, you are often able to use the hotel kitchen freezer by checking your frozen items in with them through the front desk. Always call ahead to reserve a refrigerator.  Some hotels will reserve refrigerators, while others will not.  If the hotel has a first-come first-serve policy on refrigerators, bring your food in a cooler.  If you keep your food fully covered in ice, it will stay good for at least 5 days, or until the food would normally perish. Some hotels charge for a refrigerator, typically $10-25 per day, while others offer it for no charge.  I love when hotels don’t charge, but even when they do, it’s still worth it because of the flexibility it gives.  And even with the added expense you save much more money than you spend in bringing your own food versus eating out. You can tell your story to the manager and see if you may be bumped to the top of the list because your child needs a special diet.  You can also ask for a “medical refrigerator.”  Sometimes they are even free in this case.  Now this choice depends on your conscience—if you have medications or supplements that need refrigeration, this request is honest, and many of us feel food is a “medical” necessity. Motels/Residence Inns with a kitchen Depending on the duration of your stay and locale, you can find motels, condos, and privately owned properties with kitchens and kitchenettes.  Here are some popular chains with kitchenettes (you can Google others):
  • Residence Inn
  • Motel 6 Extended Stay
  • Extended Stay Studio Suites
  • Homestead Studio Suites
  • Hyatt Summerfield Suites now Hyatt House
  • Homewood Suites by Hilton
  • Staybridge Suites
Restaurants Eating out can be a tricky thing, but with a few pointers and practice you’ll navigate it smoothly. For breakfast, skip the buffet—cross-contamination is almost guaranteed with buffet food.  Tell your waiter you’ll need your entire meal cooked fresh for you.  Especially with eggs, do not let them give you the buffet trough scrambled eggs (they might contain dairy!).  Make sure the chef is using a clean pan, olive oil (no sprays or margarine or butter), and fresh utensils.  Remind them of the importance of a clean work area free of flour, crumbs, and other sources of cross-contamination. Hand them a card, like my GFCF Travel Card that they can take to the back to check with the chef or manager.  If they seem confused or uncertain, ask to speak with the manager. When you ask about whether their fries are gluten-free, remember to ask them if they cook flour-breaded items in the same fryer Nationwide Restaurants with Gluten-Free Menus Sonic Drive-In, Five Guys, and In-N-Out Burger (west coast only) are great burger joints that offer gluten-free hamburger patties wrapped in lettuce and gluten-free fries The following restaurant chains have gluten-free menus (Google more):
  • Applebee’s
  • Bonefish Grill
  • Chili’s
  • Old Sausage Factory
  • Olive Garden
  • Outback Steakhouse
  • PF Chang’s
  • Red Robin
  • UNO’s Chicago Grill
  • California Pizza Kitchen
  • Il Fornaio Restaurant – a high-end Italian restaurant with 20 locations on the West Coast
When you eat out at restaurants make sure your server understands what gluten is and what foods might contain gluten or dairy.  Consider handing them a card that they can take to the manager or chef to ensure your meal does not contain any problematic ingredients. (see the one I created at our website). GFCF Travel Card product image_medCLICK HERE or the CARD to the right and Download our GFCF Travel card that you can use at restaurants to help communicate your GFCF needs to your server. Trip Ups when You’re on a Trip Most families have a safe routine when they eat at home; they know all the products and their ingredients. When traveling and eating out, you don’t have control over the kitchen, the ingredients, or cross-contamination.  Here are some common slip ups when eating out:
  • Sauces and gravies thickened with flour
  • Demi-glaze on roasted chicken can contains flour
  • Salad dressings can be thickened with flour
  • Soy sauce and teriyaki sauce contain gluten
  • Worcestershire sauce has gluten
  • Malt vinegar and malt sweetener are made with barley
  • Some ketchups, BBQ sauces, and mustards have a gluten grain-based vinegar or gluten-based flavoring
  • Frozen and pre-packaged French fries at restaurants are often dusted with flour before packaging to keep potatoes from sticking.
  • Even gluten-free potatoes may be fried in fryer that also cooks battered (floured) foods
  • Many bolognas and hot dogs contain gluten
“Flavorings,” “spices,” and spice blends may contain gluten.  It’s best if the restaurant prepares all of the dishes with fresh ingredients Consider Digestive Enzymes To help support accidental infractions when traveling, digestive enzymes containing DPPIV (Dipeptidyl peptidase-4) help breakdown gluten, casein and soy.  While they are not for those with celiac disease, many families find them helpful for gluten and casein sensitivity, and supporting infractions or cross-contamination that occur when they are away from home. Accidental food infractions for people with food allergies can ruin a vacation.  However, with some trip planning and preparation, you can and your family can eat well when you’re out. No more stress of finding a restaurant while the kids are have a “starving” meltdown, what to eat, or concerns over food allergens. With a little forethought, you can have a wonderful time, enjoy the sights, relax, and rejuvenate. Happy travels! Julie

Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant who received her master’s degree in medical nutrition with distinction from Arizona State University. She is also a published nutrition researcher and has specialized in complex neurological conditions, particularly autism spectrum disorders and ADHD for over 20 years. Julie is the award winning author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, co-author of a study proving the efficacy of nutrition and dietary intervention for autism published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, and also the founder of Download her free guide, 12 Nutrition Steps to Better Health, Learning, and Behavior.


  1. Thank you for your tips Ms. Julie.
    My family and I are on the SCDiet (Specific Carbohydrate Diet), a stricter diet, because of food allergies and other health inflammatory issues. Therefore, I understand all to well the challenges of eating out and how important it is to plan ahead.
    My family and I have discovered the benefits of renting a vacation home for our travels. It is a possibility that home owners may prefer a stay of a week or longer in order to be able to offer better rates.
    I wish everyone the best in their endeavors for better health.

    • Brilliant idea Dee-Dee! I’m doing a webinar for our Nourishing Hope Support Club this month on this subject and I will add your idea. Thanks for the contribution.

  2. Great tips. It’s hard to travel and eat gluten free. The best advice is to be on the “offensive” and plan ahead. Much easier than being on the “defensive” and trying to correct the results of bad eating on the road. Fermented probiotics always travel with us. Not only helps with unexpected bad bacteria on the road, keeps the good bacteria in your replenished.

  3. Thanks Julie. This is a thorough and resourceful article. I will use it as a reference this summer and on future travels. We have also found that many restaurants have a gluten-free menu if you just ask the wait staff. The Westin chain of restaurants also offers gluten-free options and some organic options as part of their Superfoods menu.

  4. Great post. Hope you all have safe travels, and enjoy the rest of your summer!

  5. Coopers Hawk restaurants offer a designated GF menu (including desserts and appetizers )and place an “allergy ticket” with their kitchen to alert the chefs line.

    • Thanks Andi for the great tip. I think I went there once. Delicious food and great ambiance. Aren’t they in the midwest?

  6. Julie,

    thanks for your post, which is really useful and detailed! We are a family on a strict paleo/GAPS diet based in Southern France. Being aware of the difficulties travelling on a special dietary regime, and in order to share knowledge and experiences, we decided to open a small retreat/holiday/health centre: we cater for any grain-free diet:

    Keep up the good work!

    • That’s wonderful you offer the option of grain-free to families! Great work!

  7. Great tips. If only there were a way of making travelling with acute amine sensitivity easy!

  8. Nice and full of information. I have just started a GFCF diet for my son and with the tips in the article, we can all still enjoy a good family holiday. Thanks a bunch

  9. Thank you for such a comprehensive post! The hotel lists are especially appreciated:) just great to have it all in one place.

  10. This is a great set of tips. We’ve been camping as well as traveling and staying in hotels on our special diet, and it does require planning ahead! We even pre-cook and freeze much of our meals for easier reheating later. We have NOT braved the world of eating out at restaurants, though, and your list of establishments and Travel Card might just be what we need to feel comfortable giving that a try sometime soon. Thanks again for the Travel Card and for the work you do which helps so many – my family included!!!

  11. Hi5! Will do. Will share. Thanks for the Nutrition Travel Card!


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