How to eat gluten-free on vacation | Tips for traveling on special diets

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I just returned from Food Blogger Camp at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, an all-inclusive resort near Cancun, Mexico. Here are my tips for enjoying your vacation while still eating to support your health.
1. Plan before you go
What are your priorities? I need to eat gluten-free, it helps immensely if I avoid sugar, and I prefer to eat vegan. That’s a lot of restrictions, especially when traveling in a foreign country. So I thought ahead. What would the resort likely offer? What types of food would fit my eating plan? Which would provide the most challenges? Where am I able or willing to compromise? Check their website and ratings on travel websites for information.

Since I am sensitive but not allergic to anything, and don’t have celiac disease, I don’t have to be as vigilant as others might.

2. Carry a card with key translations
If you are traveling abroad and have food allergies, be prepared. Food ingredients are not always in guidebooks or easy to communicate. Write out what’s appropriate for you, have it translated properly (you can use Google translate, a smartphone app, or a friend) and take it with you. For example:
I am allergic to wheat, barley, and oats. I will get very, very sick in your restaurant if I eat anything with these ingredients, including bread crumbs, flour, or batter. Can you please ask the chef which dishes I can eat?

3. Think about what foods will be the easiest for you to eat, and focus on enjoying those
In Mexico, I assumed I could get rice and beans, corn tortillas, grilled veggies, potatoes, and fruit. At this resort, the beans were hiding in the kitchen and I didn’t actually see much rice. There was fantastic fresh fruit and vegetable juice every day, and they had soy milk, which I drank for my protein at breakfast.

Soy milk on the left. Photo by David Lebovitz. Used with permission.

4. What can you compromise on, and why?
As I’m not an ethical vegan, I did taste the foie gras (for the experience), and had a little bit of lobster and shrimp for protein. I wanted to enjoy being there and feel like I was fully present in the experience.

5. Let them know in advance, and then remind them
I talked to the restaurants when I arrived or made my reservations. This doesn’t always work, but you can try. At the very least, it helps raise the consciousness of the industry about special diet requests. I was happy to see this article about Fairmont Hotels’ new line of healthier, and gluten-free, dishes. Be very nice to the waitstaff. Try to have the conversations privately, so other diners aren’t constantly hearing about your food issues.

6. If you have the time, and money, see if the chef will make something for you
This is what I did at Cocina de Autor, the molecular gastronomy restaurant. It was a lot easier than having to ask the waiter about every single dish. However, it turned out that one of my desserts had a “little bit of Oreos” in it (a secret ingredient not on the menu). That would have been a huge problem if I had celiac disease.

7. Focus on the fresher, rather than the prepared foods
If there is a salad bar with raw ingredients, load up on those first. (In some countries, you can’t eat raw items that have been washed.) Other items will not only have hidden ingredients, they will also be higher in calories too.

Amazing salads every day.Copyright All rights reserved by Acorns & Apples

8. Go with the flow as much as you can
You are on vacation. Enjoy it! My goal is for no one I’m with to be annoyed that I’m eating a special diet.

9. Pack food items to make your life easier
When I travel, I bring my own home-made granola in ziploc bags. I can almost always get soy milk or rice milk on the road, and brekkie seems to be the most difficult meal for me when traveling. I carry packets of trail mix, Lara Bars, and some kind of raw chocolatey treat, so when my willpower disappears I can have a reward and still feel well afterwards.

You can generally take packaged (unopened) food items into and out of most countries, but check before you go, especially as to appropriate carry-on items. It was a sad day when they confiscated an entire package of organic applesauce at a security checkpoint, because it fell into the “liquids and gels” category.

10. If you are watching your weight, don’t go to an all-inclusive resort
Even with the best intentions, I gained half a pound a day. That means I ate one thousand, seven hundred and fifty extra calories each day. Sheesh! It’s almost impossible not to, because you can get food and drinks any time of the day or night, and someone around you is always ordering something. As you aren’t paying for each individual meal, it’s easy to order way more than you normally would. Stay at a place where you are buying each meal. A few tips that did help:

  • Drink a lot of water instead of any other drink.
  • Think about how much you normally eat at home for breakfast (or lunch or dinner) and try to match that.
  • Walk around the entire buffet before filling your plate, and then choose exactly what will bring you joy. Leave the rest for someone else.
  • Try to eat only three meals a day, rather than six. :)
  • If other people are drinking, order a club soda with lime juice so you fit in. Sit or stand away from the orders of fries, chips, and guacamole. Get involved in a wonderful conversation.
  • Or, if cocktails are your thing, skip dessert.
  • Be aware of the highest calorie items, and go easy on those. After savoring a few bites of guacamole, I switched to salsa, which was also delicious.
  • Do go for long walks, do outdoor activities, or hit the treadmill instead of lying prone all day.
What are you favorite tips for traveling?

Read more about the experience from the other attendees:
Food Blogger Camp 2011 Leaders
Adam Pearson
David Lebovitz
Matt Bites Matt Armendariz
Simply Recipes Elise Bauer
Steamy Kitchen Jaden Hair
White on Rice Couple Diane Cu and Todd Porter

Event Planner and Generally Lovely Organizer
Prose and Co Kate Moeller

Participants
A Communal Table Nancy Buchanan
Awake at the Whisk Amber K. Stott
Confections of a Foodie Bride Shawnda and Jason Horn
Cooking Lessons Sally Vargas
Couch Surfing Cook Wylie Goodman
Daily Nibbles Sarah Reid
Deliciously Organic Carrie Vitt
Dianasaur Dishes Diana Johnson
Eating Clean Recipes Jennifer Kalinowski
Family Fresh Cooking Marla Meridith
Fast Feasts Lillie Bavendam
Food for the Thoughtless Michael Procopio
Food Woolf Brooke Burton
Frantastic Food Fran Feldman
Garlic Escapes Robin Cherry
Indigo Days Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Kitchen Conundrum Renee and Ari Iseson
Kitchen Corners Damaris Santos-Palmer
Ladles and Jellyspoons Lucy Lean
Loaded Kitchen Maggie Cubbler
Meal and a Spiel Elana Horwich
Meandering Eats Marie Tran-McCaslin
Mommie Cooks Julie Mastbrook
One Scary Vegetable Adrienne Matt
Pinch My Salt Nicole Hamaker
Provence Calling Angela Billows
Recipe Renovator Stephanie Weaver
Sally Cameron: In the Kitchen | On the road | Through the Lens
SaVUry and Sweet Rosa Vu
Spoon and Chair Diane Miller
Swoon My Spoon Susan Loren-Taylor
The Apron Archives Aimee Seavey
The Urban Baker Susan Salzman
Together in Food Stephanie Morimoto
Undercover Caterer Sarah Singleton
What’s Gaby Cooking? Gaby Dalkin

Comments

  1. Joanie Risavy says

    Hi, I just found your site. We are thinking of traveling to RM Grand Velas and I am concerned about their understanding of food allergies. My teenage son has severe nut allergies and I have read some reviews on tripadvisor regarding this resort and it makes me a little nervous. The executive chef contacted me saying his son has nut allergies so he knows what I am talking about yet I continue to read reviews from people saying they had a problem. Since you were recently there and because you were with food bloggers, I am wondering if you had any thoughts on this.
    Thank you

    • says

      Hi Joanie,
      As you can see from the photos the resort was beautiful and the staff was very caring. As with any travel to any foreign country, ESPECIALLY if it involves a severe allergy, I would say the following:

      Have someone who speaks (Mexican) Spanish create translation cards for you describing the allergy, its severity (e.g. My son will die if he eats x, y, z), and ideally, what he can eat. I would have this friend communicate via email or telephone before making your travel plans, if possible. I would also make sure that you have cards made up before every meal, and that you communicate daily with the staff about the food your son can eat.

      The biggest challenge will be the buffet area, which is how they serve breakfast and lunch. The dinners are cooked to order for you. I would also make sure you know the specific words used for all the things he is allergic to (as there are regional differences in Spanish) and have them on the cards.

      They have five or six dinner restaurants at this resort. Ask in advance if there are ones you should stay away from in terms of nuts.

      Also, if you have an iPhone and can have it work there, Transfire is an awesome app that you can use to translate directly for you in the situation.

      If the executive chef has said that his child also has these allergies, you should be okay. But ask him now how he will work on preventing cross-contamination in the kitchen, and how you will know what foods are safe to eat at the buffet. That should tell you how comfortable you should be, and whether this resort is right for you.

      As always, bring whatever meds you need to deal with his allergy, should he be exposed to something.

      I hope you have a wonderful vacation!

  2. Stephanie Weaver says

    Aimee, my hubby and I started taking feet pix years ago. For some reason, I always love them too!

  3. Aimee says

    PS: I have maybe 10 photos of my feet from this trip. It's my "go-to" photo when I can't think of anything else. I love that you do it too!

  4. Aimee says

    I loved your tips, Stephanie. It was crushing to not be able to participate in the meat and seafood eating, but I was thrilled to have so many "special diet" allies! :)

  5. Stephanie Weaver says

    Nisrine,
    Thanks so much for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I'll be publishing more tips this year that should help.
    Stephanie

  6. Dinners and Dreams says

    Great tips. I'm not totally gluten-free but almost. I try to eat GF as much as possible but it's especially hard when traveling.

    Nisrine

  7. Jennifer says

    Great tips for eating well and staying healthy when traveling. It was great to have another vegetarian at camp. By the way, you were great in the dancing video!

  8. Stephanie Weaver says

    Amber, I haven't had a chance to look for those little carafes but I will let you know if I locate them. Yes, the juices were the highlight. I just wish I'd taken more photos! Thanks for being such a great roommate.

  9. Amber says

    The guanabana soy was sooo good! Did you ever find out where to find those little carafes? Great rooming with you!

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