A condensed version of this article appeared in the June/July 2010 edition of the Food Allergy News, published by The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
We are a family of four: dad, mom, older daughter and younger son. Our son Robbie was diagnosed as peanut allergic as a toddler. Since then he has reacted to chick peas, lentils and peas. We also avoid tree nuts and lima beans. Fortunately, Robbie has never been allergic to eggs or dairy.
We have enjoyed fun trips to Disney World, Boston, Chicago, and various beach areas. We are fortunate that our son has not had a food reaction on any of these trips, thanks to good planning, helpful people and some luck. Here are our planning tips.
1. Is this a risky location? Hmm, so it’s an isolated beach thirty minutes from anywhere. Or a bay side resort accessible only by boat. For my own peace of mind, we don’t go there. I like a modern hospital and EMS service nearby. A remote location could work for a more adventurous mom, but it is just not for me.
2. Things always happen on vacation! In our family, someone is always getting pink eye, or a fever bug, or a finger stuck in a door. Next time, it could be an allergy emergency. So we bring our allergy stuff!
- two or more Epipens, that have not expired
- a doctor’s letter explaining why Robbie needs the Epipens
- antihistamine medicine such as Benadryl
- inhalers if needed
- lots of safe snacks
- chef cards listing the foods Robbie must avoid
3. I know you don’t want to cook on vacation, but… When we are traveling to beach areas, we try to rent a condo instead of staying in a hotel. Having a small kitchen lets us save money, feed the kids more quickly and better manage ingredients. We once found a spoon with caked-on peanut butter in the silverware drawer, so we definitely take a look around the condo’s kitchen before we start cooking!
4. Don’t be like us. Nothing is worse than wandering around a strange vacation area looking for a safe restaurant. Unless it is wandering around a strange vacation area with a hot tired hungry cranky family that includes a grandma with bad knees and the family dog. Don’t let this be you!
- Get some restaurant ideas from your laptop, a local map or hotel employee.
- Check the menus for two or three places.
- Call ahead to ask if they can make a safe meal for your allergic child.
- If you are tech savvy, pull out your iPhone and search while you walk! (More on food allergy apps coming in a future post.)
5. Are we there yet? We’d been driving on a turnpike for hours. We finally pulled off to a rest stop, waited in line for restrooms and then waited in line for food. When we got to the front of the line, the manager couldn’t find the ingredients sheet. Robbie ended up eating snack bags from the tourist shop.
Each state has different vendors for their turnpike fast food restaurants. Check before you start loading up the car to see which can provide a safe meal for your child. Many now have allergen information online, or provide an email address to find out more.
6. Go with the tried and true. It is OK to go with an old standby. Robbie has eaten at McDonalds and Burger King in the midst of wonderful food courts full of diverse ethnic treats. His sister ate there too, by her choice. I’m not proud of this, but it worked for us. My husband and I enjoyed trying different foods while the kids were having Skittles for dessert. We all ate something we liked. Experimenting with new foods is not part of Robbie’s vacation experience.
7. Trust your instincts. Just because a restaurant server is nodding their head doesn’t mean they understand you, your chef card or food allergies in general. If you talk to a server and then a manager and still don’t feel understood, this restaurant may not be the place for dinner. The server may just be in the US for the summer. Or the manager may not believe food allergies are real. On vacation, I don’t feel like it is worth my time to educate a new restaurant. Keep walking!
8. Don’t visit the place that serves peanut soup. Yes, here in Virginia there are restaurants with peanut soup as a specialty. No, we don’t ever eat there. Peanut soup, peanut sauce or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a menu raise a red flag. I don’t want the food service worker to jump from making a pb&j sandwich to Robbie’s ham and cheese. Unless this restaurant has a wonderful reputation with the local food allergy support group, then stay far away!
9. Let your child do the talking. Vacation is a fun time and it can also be a learning time. Some day your child will prefer eating out with their friends instead of the family. Start getting them ready now! Let your child begin the allergy conversation with the server. A shy child may find it easier to hand the server or manager the chef card that explains his allergies. You are right beside your child to support them and clarify any issues.
We hope you have a super vacation time this summer with your family!
Christina Black has been a member of FAAN since 2003. She has written two allergy books for children: “Mommy, Is This Safe to Eat?” and “Starting School with a Food Allergy.”