Travelling with kids is easy, said no parent ever. Add allergies to the mix, and well, you might just need a vacation from your vacation.
As much as the hubby and I had a blast during our recent trip to Portugal, it certainly wasn’t the relaxing, stress-free trip we used to enjoy pre-kiddo.
If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re an allergy parent, you know that the stress starts long before the trip begins. In our case, planning started months ahead of time. I started reaching out to restaurants near where we’d be staying to see if they could accommodate my son’s allergies (peanuts, egg, sesame and sunflower). I even created a spreadsheet to keep track of their responses.
(Yes, my husband thought I was cray-cray, but I highly recommend doing something similar. It makes things a lot easier when you get there. Who wants to spend valuable vacation time googling allergy-friendly restaurants?)
It’s a whole lot of work for sure. But I’m not complaining! I consider myself lucky to have had this opportunity with my little guy despite his multiple allergies.
So I’m here to share lessons learned for anyone planning a trip to a non-English speaking country with their food-allergic little one. Maybe, just maybe, your trip will be a little bit less stressful than ours.
(This will also be a great a reference for our future trips because I have a hard time remembering things these days. Thanks, #mombrain.)
Okay, here goes!
1. Lug easy-to-pack, non-perishable foods in your suitcase. No, I didn’t mean to say carry-on. We all know we need to pack safe snacks for the airplane, but what about when you’ve arrived at your destination and you still don’t know where anything is? While you’ll likely find some safe options eventually, you’ll need some foods your kid can eat until you locate a nearby grocery store, find time to translate the ingredients, triple check that there are no “may contain” warnings, and create a safe stash of local foods.
2. Learn basic phrases in the language of your destination country. If you’re hoping to eat at a restaurant, an allergy card is really not enough (in my opinion). I’m embarrassed to even include this point since the old me would have a bought a Portuguese-English dictionary, memorized important phrases, and practiced pronunciation ’til I had it right. But the new me was so focused on all the other aspects of travelling with allergies that I forget communicating in the language of your host country is a key part of safe allergy travels.
3. Learn how to properly pronounce the allergens you are avoiding. I learned this the hard way. Peanuts is amendoim in Portuguese and cacahuate in Spanish (yes, we took a day trip to Spain). I didn’t know how to pronounce either, and felt silly simply pointing to the word on our allergy card when speaking with restaurant staff. Not to mention, you could find yourself in a dangerous situation if a server doesn’t understand what you’re trying to communicate. (Luckily, eggs, sesame and sunflower are much easier to pronounce.)
4. Find out how to communicate the concept of cross contamination. This was a biggie during our time in Portugal. If you can’t speak the language, how can you communicate something that people who speak your language don’t always understand? And even when a server spoke English, I wasn’t confident I was getting my point across. I finally gave up trying (see point #6).
5. Don’t assume your “safe foods” from back home will be safe in your destination country. In Toronto (and now in Ireland), Italian restaurants — pizza, specifically — tend to be a safe option for our son’s allergies. While I would never make an assumption before ordering, my husband and I did assume Italian food would be safe, and were shocked when our server told us that neither the pasta nor the pizza were free of our little guy’s allergies.(We’re used to egg in pasta noodles… but in pizza dough too? Eek!)
6. Take the easy way out when you need to. If that means breaking a deal you made with yourself a long time ago — in my case, never go to an American chain restaurant while travelling anywhere outside of America — so be it. We were finding it emotionally exhausting (to try) to communicate our son’s allergies (see #2-4), so when my husband read that the Hard Rock Cafe in Lisbon was allergy-friendly, we didn’t hesitate to head there for lunch the next day. The food was overpriced and not very good, but my son was able to safely eat the entire meal pictured below. Plus, it came in a guitar-shaped plate. ‘Nuff said.
7. Don’t feel like a failure if you “chicken out” (a.k.a. bring your own food to restaurants). This quickly became our go-to method for the majority of our trip. We were in Portugal for 11 days, but I can count on one hand how many times my son actually ate restaurant food. I swear, if it weren’t for how easy it was to get creative with fajita sambos, the poor kid would have been eating the same food every day. (Note: This obviously only works if your child is okay with not eating restaurant food. Lucky for us, our son is still young enough that he didn’t feel a deep desire to order off the menu or eat what we were eating — we didn’t order dessert, of course!)
8. Familiarize yourself with your nearest grocery store and buy safe snacks in bulk soon after you arrive. This will allow you to follow through with #7 as often as we did (read: 90% of the time!) and make eating out just a little bit less stressful. Buying groceries in Europe is actually quite easy because they have to list if an item contains any of the top 14 allergens — which are usually clearly marked in bold or all caps. The best part? Being Canadian, I was kinda-sorta able to read the ingredients, thanks to my knowledge of French. Of course, I also had my trusty allergy translations to fall back on… and you very quickly learn to memorize the words for the allergens you’re avoiding (even if you can’t pronounce them!).
9. Opt for an airbnb — with a kitchen! — and be sure to pack (or buy) whatever makes you feel comfortable enough to cook out of it. While I wouldn’t recommend what I did during last summer’s stay in my hometown — that time we bought a toaster — I was sure to bring toaster sleeves, a new dish sponge, my kid’s dishes, and lots and lots of wipes to sanitize all prep and eating areas.
10. Don’t leave your home away from home without: (a) multiple EpiPens, and (b) WIPES! For the record, I have never ever forgotten my son’s EpiPens. Until I did. We were at a beautiful Portuguese beach when it hit me, and my poor husband had to head back to grab the backpack we never leave home without. It took him 40 minutes to get there and back in the very hot midday sun. We never forgot again. Wipes, on the other hand, we ended up buying on more than one occasion. For me, wipes are a must-have whether travelling or not. I’m not sure if it’s because my son’s first (mystery) reaction occurred after playing at a playground (where no food was involved), or because we tend to eat out more often than most allergy families, but I tend to panic if I don’t have a pack of baby wipes on me.
11. Find out what the emergency number is in your destination country. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but it actually didn’t occur to me to learn the equivalent of 9-1-1 in Portugal. It wasn’t until I noticed the numbers 1-1-2 on an ambulance that it occurred to me we really needed to know those three little numbers. I was horrified to think we had gone through most of our trip not knowing our host country’s emergency number. I shudder to think about what would have happened if our son had experienced an anaphylactic reaction during that time.
12. When it all gets a bit too stressful, take a break from being a tourist. Make your kiddo an easy dinner in, put them to bed early, and then grab some take-out (and a bottle of wine!) to enjoy a 100% stress-free dinner with your partner in parenting crime. One of our top 5 meals was enjoyed in this exact manner. 🙂
13. Expect the unexpected. When you aren’t in your own country, don’t expect the locals to play by your rules. In our case, we were shocked to see open bowls of peanuts on the sailboat we were relaxing on (up until that point) with our son. We weren’t upset — just a little bit scared and a whole lot stressed. Especially when our son started breaking out in hives on his face, neck, and arms. Luckily, we knew that he hadn’t ingested the peanuts (we had turned it into a teachable moment), but we were pretty sure he was having contact reactions to the life jacket he was wearing. Not fun!
14. Prepare for the unexpected. Get travel insurance that covers food allergies as a pre-existing condition — preferably with a company that offers a short stability period in case your little one has any sort of medical event in the days leading up to your trip. Did you know that some travel insurance companies consider an appointment with a specialist (i.e., your kid’s allergist) enough to nullify coverage? I explain more in this blog post.
I’m sure this trip taught me more than the 14 points above, but like I said… #mombrain. Travelling with allergies in a country where you don’t speak the language is certainly a lot more challenging than heading to NYC or Ireland. But now that we’ve learned how we can do things better next time, I’m already itching to choose our next travel destination.
This post was written by AllergyBites founder, Kathleen O’Hagan. Kathleen is a writer, a foodie, and the mom of a toddler with multiple food allergies. Want to help make a difference? Contact Kathleen about volunteering for the Top 10 Challenge fundraiser.
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