No matter how scary taking a vacation may seem with an allergic kid in tow, it’s not only possible, it’s required, so you don’t lose your damn mind. Vacations are where family memories are made, yes, even the bad ones. They are an important rite of passage, even if it’s just a long weekend a short drive away. Once you’ve gotten used to your lifestyle change with a food-allergic kid in your house (more on this in my new book: Bake Sales are my B*tch: Win the Food Allergy Wars with 60+ Recipes to Keep Kids Safe and Parents Sane) it’s time to explore beyond those four walls. Don’t worry, I’m going to walk/drive/fly you through it.
Depending on your child’s allergy, and depending on your own wildest vacation desires, you may want to start small or jump right into the vacation of your dreams. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a family trip to Iceland with your fish-allergic kid, you may be able to pack enough allergy-free snacks and book an apartment with a kitchenette and make it work. It won’t be the first time a kid lives on grilled cheese sandwiches while on vacation, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. It’s all about your own comfort zone, and always keeping an eye on your child’s health.
Much like every damn thing in life, the secret to having a great time and doing it right is to prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. If you do your prep work early on and thoroughly, you can relax a bit while you’re on vacation with your family of five. Hahahahaha! I just said “relax” and “family of five” in the same sentence. Still, relaxish.
Here’s what to do.
Yes, that is a very lazy way for me to give you a piece of advice, but it’s the best advice ever. And something I do before I ever leave home for my next great gluten-free adventure. Before you head anywhere on planet Earth, go to your favorite search engine and type in “gluten/dairy/peanut/tree nut/soy/egg/shellfish/fish-free Bogotá” or wherever your adventures may take you. You will find a blogger who has been there, and lived to tell the tale.
Some of my favorite gluten-free restaurants in foreign countries came about because of the old Google trick, and I know I’ve guided travelers to some great restaurants around the world as well. Just run a search and take some notes.
This may just be me, but I do get nostalgic about packing up ham sandwiches and sodas in an ice-filled cooler and hitting the road. Sure, I get just as nostalgic about hitting the Taco Bell drive-thru, but Taco Bell and I can no longer be friends. Make some memories with your family by packing up your lunches and snacks and taking a road trip: invest in a cooler that'll keep a couple of day's worth of snacks and drinks cool on the road. (A soft cooler is lighter and takes up less space than a hard one—we like the AO Canvas series 24-pack cooler.)
Heck, even if you’re flying, it pays to pack a lunch and buy your beverages at the terminal after going through the humiliation that is modern airport security. If you know you have food to feed everyone, especially those with the food allergies, you’re well on your way to relaxing into your vacation. (Find more tips for staying healthy on flights in our holistic flight survival guide.)
I must remind you that even when you’re visiting the most allergy-friendly locations (Disney World, I’m looking at you), your allergic kid is still at risk for cross-contact with allergens. What this means for the severely allergic is to not forget those EpiPens, and proceed with caution. Pack plenty of snacks in case things seem to be going sideways when you’re ordering food, and be sure to treat your allergic kid to whatever she wants if she gets turned away from a meal more than once. It’s about making it magical for everyone, you guys, and sometimes, that means getting spoiled with a nonallergic dessert. Over and over. And over, again. (Even allergic adults need to wallow in their limited options, says the woman who gave up and had gelato every morning for breakfast while visiting Paris.)
B. K. (before kids), flying was a fun adventure that unplugged you from the rest of the world, at least while you were in the air. Now, it’s your basic nightmare filled with begging, complaining, and trips to the bathroom. And that’s just the annoying guy in the middle seat.
There are no allergy-free airlines, just as there is no allergy-free world. Most airlines don’t serve peanuts due to the raised awareness of the severity of peanut allergies, but no airlines guarantee that products with peanuts will not find their way onto your flight. Like anywhere you travel outside of your own home, you have to be ready to communicate your needs clearly, and to anyone who will come into contact with food or drinks the allergic will be consuming. There are precautions some airlines do take, however, and some go further than others:
Southwest Airlines. In addition to letting the airline know when you book your flight that you have a severe allergy, Southwest suggests that you get to the airport early on the day of your flight to make sure that the crew that day is also aware. Southwest also suggests taking a morning flight, when the airplane has been recently cleaned, versus an evening one, when it’s been through a day of travel.
United also wants an early heads-up and a heads-up again on the day of travel. For a severe allergy, they will ask people in your immediate area to refrain from eating the offending allergen, but there is no rule against your neighbor being uncooperative (my word, not theirs).
JetBlue has a similar policy of creating a “buffer” of the row in front and row behind the allergy sufferer for a severe allergy. They have the added insurance of refunding your ticket if they cannot provide a safe space.
Alaska Airlines also cannot guarantee an allergy-free flight and advises you to speak with your doctor before flying. Additionally, Alaska Airlines adds, “Please advise the gate agent if you would like to preboard to cleanse your immediate seating area.”
Delta Airlines also asks that you request a cleaning of your area before your flight, but specifically refers to peanut allergies. Be sure you have some documentation from a physician if it’s nonpeanut related, as the policy is specific to peanuts. Delta will also ask that no peanuts be served at all on the flight if you have a severe allergy. Again, they only refer to peanuts in this instance, but it’s worth making some phone calls and finding the right person to talk with if you have a severe allergy to a food that could likely be smeared on your seat from a previous flight.
American Airlines does offer special meals for dietary needs if you call at least 24 hours in advance, but if you aren’t on a flight that includes a meal, or if your dietary need is for something other than vegan, gluten-free, diabetes-friendly, kosher, or observant Muslim food, you’re out of luck. In the case of nut allergies, American does not allow you to wipe down your own area before a flight, nor do they provide a buffer zone, or any guarantee that products with peanut oil, or any tree nuts, will not be on a flight.
Because Air Canada is as conscientious as the good people of The North (what do they know that we don’t???), their policies are not dramatically different than these other airlines’, but they are more thorough in their care for people with severe peanut and tree-nut allergies. Children who have a severe food allergy are not allowed to travel as unaccompanied minors, and in addition to the buffer zone of no peanuts or tree nuts, they want to make sure that you know to have your EpiPen on board.
While taking a lot of precautions will keep your kid safe on an airplane, the bottom line is that you must be proactive and not expect an airline to step in and take care of your child’s safety. Always remember that your child takes a risk whenever he leaves the safety of your home. You can’t keep him in that bubble, no matter how much better it would be for your peace of mind. Prepare, put your oxygen mask on first, and fly away on a family vacation.
What About The Train?
Amtrak rides seem so romantic, don’t they? Maybe romantic isn’t the right word when you’re traveling with kids, but there still is something very special about seeing the country as you ride along in a train car. Kids will certainly get a kick out of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you don’t want anyone getting ill while you ride the rails.
Amtrak dining only accommodates a few special diets, unfortunately. Since the meals are made off-site, there is no room for substitutions or adjustments, and they cannot guarantee an allergen-free dining car. Still, if your child has a dairy or egg allergy, you’re in luck, as they serve vegan meals with 72 hours’ notice before your trip. Kosher meals are also available, if you contact Amtrak within 72 hours of your departure as well. But if your child has any other food allergy, you need to pack your own food to make sure she can safely enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And don’t forget those EpiPens and extra Benadryl in case things do go awry.
If You’re Shipping Them Off
If you have a kid who has been begging to go to sleep-away camp, you have probably spent many sleepless nights freaking out about what could go wrong. This is normal, even for those of us who have kids without food issues, but intensified when you’re talking about severe allergies. While so many camps are hip to keeping kids safe these days, you must do your research before sending that deposit off and packing up your child’s sunscreen.
The great thing about camps that are already focusing on the food-allergy issue is that it’s not new to them, and you should be able to trust them with your allergic child. While some on the list are specifically for kids with food allergies, others are dance, sport, and traditional summer camps that are simply known for their great accommodations.
You want to a camp that has an allergy-educated chef and kitchen staff, and that can both accommodate allergic campers and soothe parents’ fears. When you’re talking to the people running the summer camp you’re entrusting your child to for 2, 4, 6, or more weeks of his life, be sure to ask the following questions.
Is the kitchen staff educated on the eight main allergens (or yours, specifically), and how to prepare food safely?
Is there a separate area of the kitchen for allergen-free food preparation?
Is there a separate serving area, or a safe protocol, to keep the allergen-free food safe after it is prepared?
Are there safeguards in place to identify food with, or without, allergens? What do they look like?
Is there a nurse or other staff member on-site at all times to be able to provide medical help in the event of an emergency?
It’s not easy to let our young kids out of our sight, even if they’re not battling a severe food allergy, so this is a big step. If you, or your child, are not ready to take off to summer camp, don’t force it. Take it from the woman who had to pick up her child from summer camp even though the policy was that never, ever, ever, happened. It’s not a good experience for anyone if you’re not prepared and ready.
If You’re Sending Them Over the River and Through the Woods
Sending the kids to stay with the grandparents is also an incredibly appealing option. Especially during those weeks of summer break when your workload just got a lot heavier and the day camp options suddenly dried up. Only you know how much you can trust your parents, or your significant other’s parents, with the health of your kids, but may I suggest that you buy them a copy of this book to read?
Photograph courtesy of amazon
Or, if they’re more of the “cursing is the devil’s work” kind of memaw and pawpaw, maybe use a Sharpie on a few pages before you send it over. And pack a backpackful of safe snacks to give the family a big ol’ hint of what’s cool for your kid to eat.
The point being, just because your child is related to someone does not mean that someone fully understands the importance of safely prepared food. Relatives need reminders, even if it’s incredibly annoying to be told what to do by the kid you raised, whose butt you wiped countless times, whose middle school shenanigans made you certain she would never be responsible enough to own a cat, much less have a baby, back in the days when no one was allergic to anything.
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