When is a vacation not a vacation? When you’re stressing out two to three times every day trying to find a safe place for your family to eat. I am not sure why, but I always have a harder time when I travel in the U.S.A. than when I travel in Canada.
The good news is, I’m picking up tricks that can save you stress, time, and maybe a loved one’s life. So let me save you some grief and share:
Being Prepared for the Worst
I have heard too many sad stories about people who were supposed to carry life saving medicine and didn’t. If your doctor has ever prescribed an EpiPen (or equivalent). Carry it. Better, carry two doses. AT ALL TIMES. My son also has been prescribed an inhaler. We put his chamber, inhaler, and two EpiPens in a micro bookbag we call “The Bag.”
What you can’t see in this photo is my son is also wearing a Medic Alert bracelet that identifies his allergies and indicates his medicine can be found in The Bag.
My son is responsible for wearing his bracelet and carrying this bag when we leave the house and knowing where it is at all times. He’s very proud of being charged with the responsibility.
Why do I charge him with the responsibility? He is going into school now. I can’t protect him always, and so he needs to know his life could depend on knowing where his medicine is and being able to get help.
You Know What They Say About Ass-U-Me
The Bag is just large enough to pack some heavy snacks, or, if we know we’re going to be out, a sandwich or meal that fits in a sandwich container.
Unless you can read a label or it is whole food and you can wash it or peel it, assume nothing fast food is safe. It’s easier to pack some stuff you’ve vetted because you can’t depend on safe food to just be available whenever you need it.
If you have to eat out (as we had to on the road at highway stops) and serve your kid his own food, don’t sweat it. No fast food employee is paid enough to mess with you for protecting your kid, especially when you’re toting a medic alert bracelet and EpiPens. Nobody’s ever complained to us, which may indicate that this is becoming a sadly commonplace occurrence.
They also turned a blind eye when I may have swiped a few extra mustard and mayo packets for making sandwiches on the road for kidlet.
How Not To Eat Out When Away From Home
For starters, if you’re road tripping? A cooler is your best friend. Ours had a couple of drinks… fresh fruit, granola bars, home baked bread, soy milk and lunch meat. Yes, I made lots of sandwiches during four days of driving with those stolen mustard and mayo packets. I also had a box of cereal in the car.
Once you’re there… it’s simple: find a place to stay that has a kitchen. A real kitchen, not a microwave (why a hotel will consider this a kitchenette, I don’t even…). If you’re staying in a university town, you can shop around for a hotel with suites. These places are used to hosting longer-term guests who want to have their own kitchen. Like, with a stove.
I mentioned some time back that my friend Gillian, globetrotter and travel blogger extraordinaire, suggested that we get a vacation rental. I read her book full of much helpful information. This was an excellent piece of advice on our trip to Florida. We compared the cost of a vacation rental to staying at the Disney Contemporary Inn and Suites (which also have full kitchens), and our credit cards jumped out of our wallets and committed suicide when we checked availability for a 6 night stay there.
So we got a vacation rental, which was a home with tons of space and a full kitchen with which to prepare meals. Experience was pleasant and felt secure through AirBnB. Even though we did most of our grocery shopping at a ‘Super’ Target, we found good selections of organic food. Who knew? Will vacation rental again. Thanks Gillian! Buy her book.
How To Look For Safe Places To Eat
Let me preface this by saying nothing is risk-free. In the end you’re going to have to consider your situation and use your best judgement when you trust others to prepare food.
That said, there are places that you can trust to be less risky than others:
- Middle and high-end restaurants with an Executive Chef on staff. A restaurant that serves food out of buckets doesn’t qualify here. When food allergies are involved, at a decent place a trained chef or a manager will frequently come out and speak with you directly to ask what the allergies are and what kind of food might be prepared.
- Vegan restaurants. In cases of dairy allergies. Sesame and soy allergies will have to still exercise caution, but there is a better than average chance that a vegan restaurant also has a chef on staff who knows what he is doing.
- Restaurants that also do catering for conference hotels. Trust me, conference planners get food allergies all the time. Someone has to know how to take care of these people, because having someone go into anaphylactic shock would be bad for biz.
- The Olive Garden. Does this surprise you? It did me. The Olive Garden has a full-fledged allergy menu. It’s still prefaced by an “eat at your own risk” warning (lawyers, eh). But if you talk to the manager, as I have at three different Olive Gardens now, you find out that they do take special precautions for people with food allergies.
You should also always front with your waitress even if it’s an allergy that you think is mild or relatively easy to avoid by making certain food choices (nuts, peanuts). Better safe than sorry.
Questions you should ask everywhere:
- What precautions will the chef take for me? (washing hands, using a clean cutting board, etc.)
- Is the meat pre-marinated in anything, or can you get me an unseasoned piece?
- Can you cook it in a pan instead of directly on the grill?
- Can you use olive oil to cook instead of butter or something else? (Dairy allergies, obviously)
- Is your fryer used exclusively for French fries, or is it used to make other things too?
- Can I see the ingredient list of _____.
- What is in your garden salad? (Ass-U-Me. Believe it or not, I got served a house salad with nuts in it at an upscale restaurant. Hey guys, you might want to warn a body that your garden salad is…not just garden.)
- Can you please use a separate pot to cook my rice pasta? (Yes this happened at an Italian restaurant that carried rice pasta, someone with wheat allergies got their food cooked in the same water as all the regular pasta.)
No doubt I am forgetting some things… I’ve lived with my son’s food allergies to dairy, nuts and peanuts a very long time, and I am grateful that he’s not sensitive enough to any of these things that I have to enact full scale biodecontamination or put him in a bubble everywhere we go. And there are some questions and situations more specific to some allergies than others.
But the most important part is to be prepared, which involves carrying meds, safe foods, utensils and being knowledgeable about your situation. Good luck!