Intolerants on the Go: Travel-Friendly Food Tips

Intolerants on the Go: Travel-Friendly Food Tips

Last week I engaged in an interesting discussion with a fellow writer on how to manage eating while travelling, especially when faced with a surplus of food intolerances. This writer’s son is lactose intolerant and she voiced her frustration about the difficulty of providing for him, especially during lengthy commutes, long-haul flights or when exploring exotic destinations where very distinctive and unfamiliar kitchens are involved.

Our conversation got me thinking about how I’ve handled the issue of food and travel since being diagnosed as “Intolerant” and the ways in which I’ve mitigated a food crisis (henceforth referred to as hanger,1 a term brought to my attention by the delightful Jess, author of Jess in Belgium) when on the go. Even when I’m not in transit to some far-flung locale – perhaps I’m getting ready for a three hour train ride or an afternoon walk around my neighbourhood – I’m often prepared in the event that hunger looms and/or hanger strikes and I’m left with no intolerant-friendly options to tide me over until the next meal.

Sometimes meals are simple when options are limited. Doesn't make them any less enjoyable.

Sometimes meals are simple when options are limited. Doesn’t make them any less enjoyable.

Before I get into some of my Intolerant favourites let me outline the following:

1) I’m not a fan of airplane food. Full stop. I’m amused by this disclaimer as I type these words at 36,000 en-route to Calgary. The food cart squeaks past with airline hostesses offering a number of bites for passengers to buy at a nominal fee. I understand that serving food to millions of passengers on a daily basis is tricky business and airlines have to have to secure large quantities at affordable prices. But while many carriers offer special meals like gluten free, dairy free, low sodium, low calorie and the like, for the most part I find these meals to be bland and unappetising, and there’s no guarantee of avoiding cross-contamination.2 They also look like something out of a Stanley Kubrik movie: platters used to feed the astronauts who take part in moon landings. I mean, which would be fine…if I were an astronaut.

Note: this applies to the majority of airlines and in both economy and business classes. Though I’ve had some lovely experiences in both with regards to comfort, I can’t recall a memorable moment that involved food.


It it worth crossing the line when hanger hits? The food options an Intolerant is typically faced with.

It it worth crossing the line when hanger hits? The food options an Intolerant is typically faced with.

2)  Though there have been exceptions, I’m also not a fan of food served on trains, buses or at any kind of transportation terminal. This includes airports, train, bus and subway/metro stations, or kiosks located near these types of buildings. I say this because while there might be a few pieces of day old fruit and the occasional freshly boxed salad available – for the most part the items sold are high sugar, high fat and high calorie snacks that may contain traces allergens that can make one uncomfortably ill.

This is marketed as a "healthy" gluten and dairy free bar, but when the first ingredient (in anything) is sugar, or the sugar levels are through the roof...I'm skeptical.

This is marketed as a “healthy” gluten and dairy free bar, which it might be, but when one of the first ingredients (in anything) is sugar, or the sugar levels are through the roof…I’m skeptical.

3) That said, I have come across a fair number of chefs/restaurateurs who have been exceptionally compassionate, flexible and creative at rooting around in their kitchens during times of need to whip something up, particularly when the menu is dairy and gluten heavy. I am very thankful to these people – and I’m sure those travelling with me would agree – in helping me eschew an episode of hanger.

Now while it may have been difficult at the outset to get myself sorted when it came to dietary restrictions, it has become second nature. I do my best to avoid getting into situations where I go without food for long periods of time and have become quite adept at avoiding hanger entirely.

If you've got to eat when on the run. Crackers like these are worth considering.

If you’ve got to eat when on the run. Crackers like these are worth considering.

So here’s the deal, and it’s not rocket science: what I tend to do, regardless of the destination, is to pack as much food as I can comfortably carry wherever I go. Sometimes the items are awfully simplistic and other times they’re a bit more calculated and grandiose. The bottom line is that if I’m leaving the house and know I’ll be gone for more than three hours I pack something, stashing it away in my purse, carry-on bag or checked luggage. Yes, I get ridiculed for doing this sometimes, and yes, it’s an absolute pain in the royal behind to do so (particularly when it boils down to a choice between packing something to eat or a pair of shoes to wear). I have found, however, that it’s saved me a lot of stomach ache and hanger along the way, and because of that I figured why not start a series where I share some of the foods I like to make and the items I’ve been known to pack when I’m transiting from here to there and everywhere in between.

(*Note: any brands mentioned are products I’ve tried and am presenting of my own accord. In other words: no one has paid/compensated me to do so).

Apples are easy to pack and can last for days if you're going on a longer trip.

Apples are easy to pack and can last for days if you’re going on a longer trip.

For short journeys and stopovers and even when I go for a long walk in my own city or set out to discover a new one, I place something small in my handbag that I can reach for if I get a bit peckish or if full on hunger is knocking at the door. It’s often a manageable food item like an apple, smoothie or a couple pieces of dark chocolate that doesn’t take up to much room, but will offset any hunger pangs until I can get my hands on something more substantial. When it comes to chocolate especially, there are many fantastic options that are dairy, gluten and/or nut free (or all three) and are also void of soy lecithin (if you can’t handle soy), don’t contain copious amounts of sugar and are made with organic or non-GMO components. I am a fan of dark chocolate (75% and higher, with 100% being my favourite) myself and find it’s a perfect foodstuff that provides an energy kick and can also be richly satisfying. You know, I think my love of chocolate warrants a whole Intolerants on the Go post of its own.

on the go

Now here’s where it gets interesting: for excursions where I know I’ll be on the move for four hours or more, or I’m heading to a destination where I’m a wary of what kind of food I’ll have access to in the first few days, I get strategic. I’ll often pack a couple of items and sometimes go to lengths to put together full meals stored in reusable containers that I stash away in hand or checked luggage.

If I need something to eat on a long haul journey, nuts are always a go-to option. Yes, they’re high in fat, but it’s often of the good variety. If you buy in bulk you can make your own mix with a variety of nuts that aren’t coated with sugar, salt, malodextrin, whey or MSG and successfully stave off hunger like nobody’s business.

For the love of nuts.

For the love of nuts.

My favourites are walnuts, raw almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews due to their flavour and density. Sometimes I’ll toss pecans and macadamias into the mix, but I find the aforementioned four brilliant at being filling and keeping one satiated until a proper meal can be accessed. I’ll often add sunflower/pumpkin seeds and pine nuts into the mix, and on the days where my sweet tooth takes over, goji berries, unsweetened raisins and dried figs are a great addition. The nice thing about nuts is I can pack enough for a few hours or for a few days. They’re not highly perishable and can be mixed into restaurant/store-bought cereals, porridges and salads on a whim.

A fig bar with almonds. Dried figs are sweet, yes, but they're a great source of fiber and can keep one full for long stretches of time.

A fig bar with almonds. Dried figs are sweet, yes, but they’re a great source of fiber and can keep one full for long stretches of time.

Another favourite are fruits, but apples in particular. Though they can bruise, they’re quite robust and stay good for days on end. If fresh berries available, I’ll source them out as well: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and any other kind of berry I can get my hands on. I’ll sometimes include dried fruits (figs, mango and apples), though they’re hit or miss for me and aside from figs, I don’t find dried fruit to be so filling.

Depending on the destination and the mode of transport, I have been known to – wait for it – pop popcorn. Ok, go ahead and laugh it out of your system: I have packed and travelled with stove-popped popcorn. It’s indeed a bit bizarre, but let me tell you, it has saved me on many an occasion. Times when the options were either: eat something dairy-ridden because I was so hungry and there was nothing else around, or munch on some lightly salted popcorn.

It’s a no-brainer really.

on the go

Every now and then, I’ll also toss in one or two of the countless bars, bags and bottles of gluten, dairy, nut and allergen-free products on the market that can be easily packed/accessed when the only other options are candy bars, milk chocolate, potato chips, over-processed nuts and other snack foods. Though these items are a bit pricier than conventional options (read: airport candy), they’re worth the extra dollars and cents if it means sparing your system from an intolerant meltdown. Some of the enjoyable items I’ve come across lately include Lydia’s Organics, 18 Rabbits and GoMacro.

Mind you the possibilities are endless with variations that cater to every type of individual. Given the ever-expanding market that targets the growing number of Intolerants…I imagine that the number of available items will only multiply and evolve with each passing year.

What about you? If you’re an intolerant or a choosy eater, how do you manage – and/or what do you pack – when travelling?


1 Hanger [h·anger] | noun

Refers to the type of hunger that results when one waits far too long to eat and, as a result, begins to exhibit physical and emotional discomfort. Symptoms of hanger may include an overwhelming physical sensation of hunger where the stomach feels like it is about to begin digesting its own lining and is often accompanied by one or several of the following: irritability, cantankerous grumbling, extreme sensory withdrawal, waves of annoyance and/or irrational outbursts of anger.

Use: “Hey, it’s not my fault we can’t find something meat, raw, live, and dairy/gluten/sugar/soy-free to eat. Kindly avoid taking your hanger out on me!”

For a fantastic tale of travel and hanger intrigue, check out Jay’s post over at From There to Here.

2 I was once on a long-haul flight where I requested “dairy free meals” only to be served two rolls with a pat of butter, some crackers with enough sugar in them to make a diabetic cringe, a piece of fruit and a cup of yoghurt for breakfast. For lunch I received another two rolls, some crunchy vegetables with dry rice, a sauce I couldn’t identify and a brownie for dessert. Needless to say, I ate very little those ten hours and my hanger reached epic proportions.