Monday, December 3, 2007

Travel Tips #2: Food During the Trip

Our trip to Cancun has already receded to the domain of dreams. It’s amazing how quickly reality takes back over, isn’t it?

As promised, this week I’ll describe some more tips on how I handle my son’s food allergies when we travel.

When I start packing, I plan ahead and pack at least some food for the time we’ll be at our destination. I try to stay at hotels or condos that have a kitchenette, so that we can make at least some of our own food. If we’re doing a car trip, we take a cooler and keep it stocked with sandwich fixings, salad fixings, etc. If we’re flying, I often tuck in a collapsible cooler that we can use in the hotel if we need to (also comes in handy for taking picnics and beer to the beach!). I’ve also been known to hit the local Walmart to pick up a cheap Styrofoam cooler for the hotel, too, that is easily thrown away when we leave.

I carry a ton of snacks and food in my carry-on. In fact, my carry-on is usually almost completely filled with food, with just a little corner reserved for spare underwear and swimsuits in case we get stranded without our suitcases (it’s happened). That way, even if we’ve gotten stranded at a strange airport overnight, with our suitcases in Timbuktu, we’ve got a change of undies, the ability to play in the hotel pool, and enough food to make a highly unimaginative meal (or two) that may not win points from Good Housekeeping magazine, but it will keep us from starving. And even if we get to our destination in good time, by having breakfast food in the carry-on, that gives me until the next day to find a grocery store. (I hate landing somewhere after an all-day odyssey, then discovering that the grocery stores are all closed.)

There’s usually more food in my checked suitcase, too, because I’m not just packing food in case our flight gets delayed – I’m also packing food so that I’ve got safe options in case our destination proves allergy-unfriendly.

What food do I pack? He’s only allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, so what I carry is probably different from what someone else would carry. But I carry crackers, a box or two of breakfast cereal, NutriGrain bars or Rice Krispie treats that I made, fruit leather, ramen noodles or Easy Mac ‘n’ Cheese, coffee and filters, cookies, a package of dry salami that doesn’t need refrigerating until after it’s opened, a jar of Sunbutter – things that don’t need refrigeration and that can easily be prepared in a hotel room with hot water from the coffee maker, microwaved, or eaten dry. I figure that can get us through breakfasts for a week, and at least a few “I’m hungry!” moments.

Once there, I look for a grocery store and buy bread, lunch meat, drinks, fresh fruit, etc. And if options are limited, I get creative. Sandwiches don’t always have to be made with bread. They can be rolled in a tortilla, or stacked on crackers. Those are easy to pack, too, if I’m worried about buying bread in a foreign place.

At that point, I’ve got breakfast and lunch taken care of for the whole week. I can pack lunches and picnics in the cooler, using Ziplocs and ice from the hotel ice machines to keep things cool when we’re out sightseeing. That just leaves dinners to worry about. If I think the restaurant might not have safe food for him, I’ll pack him another sandwich and take it into the restaurant just in case. Sure, he may get tired of sandwiches after a week, but he’d be a lot more upset if he didn’t get to go on the vacation at all.

In Cancun, we stayed at a time-share condo with friends who’d generously invited us along to share their week. So we had the luxury of a full kitchenette with necessities like pans, plates, bowls, and silverwear. To save time, hassle, and costs (between us, we had 3 kids in tow, none of whom had the patience to sit for long times in restaurants), we made several dinners at the condo, and we ate at the resort restaurants just a few times.

Grocery shopping was interesting, of course. Reading ingredient labels in foreign languages is a bold new adventure, but we figured them out and successfully stocked our cupboards. I did find a clerk at the grocery store who spoke English, and I had her check the labels on a couple of items for me, just to make sure. She was happy to do it.

So between last week’s blog entry and today, now you know all my secrets to traveling: 1) I keep HandiWipes in my purse. 2) I pack my own in-flight food. 3) I pack breakfast food and snacks. 4) I pack a collapsible cooler. 5) I grocery shop for lunch food and keep it in the fridge or cooler in the room, so we can take picnics with us when we go sightseeing.

I have one more bit of advice – I carry a card with me that says “I am allergic to nuts” in the language of the country we’re visiting. I ordered a nifty one from Check out that site if you are planning any foreign-language travel. By knowing the words for allergenic foods, I can feel a little more confident about reading labels and ordering for him in restaurants when we do go out.

And here’s a bonus from all that pre-planning: The space the food took up on the way to my destination becomes empty space I can fill up with souvenirs on the way back!

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