April 23, 2013

Traveling with food allergies: always an adventure!

Hanging out with Mater in Cars Land
I used to enjoy traveling.

Don't get me wrong.  I still love poring over friends' photo albums.  I reminisce with my husband about taking a Thai cooking class and finding the cheapest massage ever while exploring the streets of Chiang Mai.  And I still aspire to see more of Asia, more of Europe, and the other three continents I have yet to explore.

Once my eldest son, Ryken, was born I knew it would be a lot harder to travel with the adventurous attitude of my kidless years.  Kids need routines, not to mention good sleep and flexibility, and the confines of planes, hotels, and restaurants can throw off kids.

Little did I know that having kids with food allergies would not only make travel MUCH harder but it would make travel almost completely unattractive to me.  Now, the beautiful images of pristine blue waters and white sands are marred by anxieties over a lack of safe restaurant choices.  Ziplining through lush rainforests and sleeping among trees have been ruled out because you certainly won't find a fully equipped hotel suite with kitchen up a tree in a jungle and who knows where the nearest hospital will be.  Visiting the grandparents in China has been put off indefinitely because we do not trust that we will get clear answers on what is in our food and cross-contamination is way too risky in a country that doesn't have or deal regularly with food allergies like our own.

Despite my legitimate concerns over travel, it is sometimes necessary for us to travel.  And we do want our kids to experience fun places and activities that their peers do, too.  My husband is great about overriding my anxieties and insisting that we take advantage of spring break and take a family trip.  Since we had such a fun time last year in southern California, we decided to plan a very similar trip with days in Disneyland's California Adventure, Legoland, and the sunny, beachy areas of San Diego.

We stayed with family for the first couple of days and then took up residence at Homewood Suites (very close to Legoland) which offers accommodations with a small kitchen.  A kitchen is the #1 must-have for all of our trips.  Our #2 must-have seems to be a Trader Joe's within short driving distance.  Seriously, we ate more Trader Joe's ready-made food than we have ever eaten before.  I can say with full confidence that the kids are as sick of turkey club wraps as my husband is of eggplant wraps.  (I, on the other hand, could always go for a lentil wrap!)

Sharing a sofa bed and indulging in Cartoon Network
were other big pluses at Homewood Suites. 
Even though we had access to a kitchen, I did very little "real" cooking during on our vacation.  It's more like I use hotel kitchens for the refrigerator to store sandwiches and ice packs that we take into amusement parks for our safe lunches.   And a microwave is handy to throw together mostly already-prepared (and previously-vetted) into some semblance of a meal.  It's too hard for me to prepare any of our usual meals without a fully stocked kitchen.  And I often have no energy to spend a couple hours cooking after a full day of exploring, driving, or having fun in the sun.  Anyway, shouldn't I get to relax a little, too?  It's a family vacation, after all.
My husband's great.  He can even make grocery runs
(and there were many) good fun for the kids!

We feel very comfortable having most of our trip food come from Trader Joe's because it's familiar and safe.  However, we did try to break up the monotony.  We ate at five different restaurants during our week-long road trip, three of which we had safely eaten at before which.  Out of the five restaurants, we had problematic experiences at two of them.  And guess what?  One of them was a restaurant we have frequented many times before and the second was a restaurant chain highly recommended by many food-allergic eaters!

The first restaurant was actually our favorite local Thai spot.  We had ordered takeout the night before our drive to Southern California.  And as usual, I had spoken to one of the servers and explained the kids' food allergies which the server quickly recognized -- we must be the only "regulars" with milk/peanut/tree nut allergies.  We ordered our usual pad see ew noodle dishes with steamed tofu (never deep-fried in case frying oil is reused and contaminated with milk and nut particles).  This is a dish we've eaten over and over again without any problems.  And the kids again had no problem with the noodles.  A day later, while spooning out some leftovers for Ryken and me, imagine my panic when I discovered HALF OF A PEANUT in one of our untouched boxes of pad see ew.

My heart almost leapt out of my chest when I spotted it.

Sadly I think it might be a really long time before Ryken is comfortable eating Thai food from a restaurant again.

(Side note: Many people have questioned how I can feel comfortable ordering Thai food when a couple of their most popular dishes are made with peanuts.  The truth is we speak to the servers about how peanuts are used -- are they cooked in the pan, any peanut oil used, is peanut sauce placed on the side, are chopped peanuts only used for garnishing finished dishes?--  we carry our Allergy Translation cards, and we get a sense for how thorough the servers are in speaking with their chefs about our needs.  We have felt comfortable with this restaurant because the chef and servers know us by face.  But this accident has made me rethink restaurant-made Thai food.  The threat of an errant peanut making its way in to a cooking pan is too risky.  Plus, my wise Ryken has declared that he never wants to eat in a Thai restaurant again, the close-call clearly having an impact on him.)

Exterior - Chipotle Mexican Grill
Photo taken by Aranami from his/her Flickr photostream

The second restaurant that we had problems with was Chipotle Mexican Grill.  The Chipotle chain has been touted as a good option for people with various food allergies.  The company's lists major allergens in each menu item on their website and proclaims that their food is completely egg-free, nut-free, shellfish-free and fish-free.  Dairy products are limited to the cheese and sour cream so, in theory, someone with a milk allergy could get a safe meal so long as proper care has been taken to prevent cross contamination.

We tried Chipotle as I had read a lot of positive reviews from other food allergy parents.  Sadly, it wasn't a good experience for us.  Ryken developed a stomach ache a few minutes into eating.  He claims he felt a little stomach ache before dinner but it was clear to us that his stomach ache intensified after he began eating.  We monitored his symptoms and kept our EpiPen Jr. packs close by while we rushed back to the hotel.  His stomach started feeling better after about half an hour from when we ate.  I can't say for certain what Ryken reacted to -- cross contamination of milk or maybe he has an undiagnosed allergy to a less common ingredient (maybe a spice) used in the cooking process?  All I know is that we had big hopes for being able to add another safe restaurant to our very short list but it was not meant to be.

I don't regret the decision to try eating out with the kids but I am very grateful the reactions were under control.  And despite those two incidents, we still had a fantastic time.  But I can't tell you the enormous sense of relief I felt to come back home -- forget sleeping in my own bed, I was relieved to cook our meals again in the safety of our milk-free, nut-free kitchen!   Phew.  I sure could use a vacation after the vacation.

Until we meet again, gorgeous San Diego beaches!


  1. Glad everything worked out in the end. We ended up at the very same homewood suites--we should've compared notes! Thanks for sharing your chipotle experience. That's one we haven't tried, and maybe never will...

  2. Thanks for telling us about your vacation! I can completely relate to the difficulties of traveling with food allergies. We haven't traveled much in the past 3 years since my son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. Every time we've gone somewhere it's been a major challenge to eat and I'm always glad to get home.

  3. Sarah, I hope our spring breaks will coincide next year. I thought it was nice that Homewood Suites provides breakfast and dinner to guests but it's too bad the kids can't have it! :(

    Kathryn, I am glad I'm not the only person who's more than happy to get back home. Sometimes I feel guilty that I can't completely enjoy being on vacation because my mind is always thinking about food and safety. That's the life of a food allergy parent, I guess.

  4. It's really difficult to go on vacation with allergy kids. One of my kids has peanut allergy and we also always look for a hotel room with kitchen. Believe me, we really cook almost every thing as we do at home. BTW, it's a life and we have to go through it.