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Traveling by Airplane When You Are Gluten-Free

From plump bagels to fragrant cinnamon rolls, juicy burgers on buns to pizza slices gooey with cheese, the standard American airport food court is full of tempting – but forbidden – foods for those of us on gluten-free diets. If you have been recently diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance and are still “learning the ropes” when it comes to gluten-free dining, an upcoming trip involving air travel can seem especially daunting. Fortunately, as awareness of the need for gluten-free foods has increased, there are actually many options for snacking and dining for domestic air travelers.

 

While some North American airlines offer gluten-free meals on international or transcontinental flights, others do not. As of summer 2017, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America do not offer gluten-free meals. Alaska Air has recently started offering GF “tapas boxes” containing pre-packaged snack foods. JetBlue reliably offers complimentary GF snacks as well as others available for purchase. Air Canada, Delta, United and Virgin Airlines all offer GF snack options for purchase. If a snack item is not specifically labeled as being GF, read the label carefully. Those complimentary little bags of peanuts might have been packaged in the same facility as wheat products and will be labeled as such.

The number one piece of advice you will find on eating gluten-free while traveling is to fill your carry-on bag with gluten-free snacks. Pack yourself a sandwich on gluten-free bread. Consider GF energy bars, granola bars, veggies, fruit, crackers, cookies and even GF cereals to munch on. Many varieties of KIND bars are gluten-free as are Larabars. Nature’s Bakery makes a line of GF fruit and fig bars that are both filling and delicious. For something a little more substantial, try Go Picnic boxes of prepackaged GF processed meats, cheese dips, crackers, fruit leather and more.

If you’re short on snacks from home and want to stock up on GF foods at the airport, fruit and yogurt are safe and healthy options. As with any foods you buy, always read labels! Those packages of nuts, dried fruit and trail mixes carried by most airport shops may seem like a healthy option but might not be safe. Cross-contamination with wheat-containing foods during packaging is common in many brands of trail mix.

There may be times where your only airport food options may be found in vending machines. Fortunately, there are many common candies and chips that are GF including Lays potato chips, Fritos, Doritos (Nacho Cheese flavor), M&M’s (plain and peanut), Snicker bars, 3 Musketeers bars, Skittles and Starburst. There are a plethora of blogs and websites dedicated to living gluten-free which list safe junk food options. Do a simple internet search on the subject before you leave home and be sure to avoid snacks with “hidden” gluten like classic Milky Way and Nestle Crunch bars which contain barley malt. Twizzlers and other licorice candies are made with wheat flour and are obviously off limits as well.

If you’re not running to your gate and have time for a hot meal, fast food is probably a safer option than eating at an airport bar or “sit-down” restaurant. The potential danger of eating gluten-free in restaurants and how to mitigate the risks is a subject for a whole other article. Ignorance of what gluten is and how to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen is unfortunately too common in the restaurant industry although franchises like Red Robin, PF Chang’s, Pei Wei and Five Guys have been recognized for their diligence in providing safe GF meals. If you must eat at a sit-down restaurant, salads (without croutons) and oil and vinegar dressing are generally safe options as is plain grilled meat and baked or plain mashed potatoes. French fries are often prepared in the same fryer as breaded chicken tenders and onion rings, thus making them off-limits.

It’s easy to go online and research the airports you will be visiting to learn about your dining options in advance. Once you know which restaurants are available, you can then search their websites for allergen information and gluten-free items. Here are a few gluten-free fast food options in a nutshell:

McDonald’s: My go-to GF fast food meal is a Quarter Pounder with cheese (no bun), side salad with ranch (Newman’s Own brand ranch dressing is GF) and a hot fudge sundae (nobody said you can’t treat yourself on a gluten-free diet!) Warning: there is conflicting information out there about the gluten status of McDonald’s fries. While they are made in a dedicated fryer, they are lightly coated in beef flavoring which contains wheat ingredients – and gives them their unique flavor. Some folks with celiac disease claim they can eat McDonald’s fries with no ill effects. I ate them for the first year after being diagnosed but then had a bad reaction. I don’t recommend taking a chance.

Burger King: Burgers or grilled chicken sandwiches without buns are good options as are some salads and soft serve. Again, research the menu online to make sure you’re ordering gluten-free options. The BK website notes that their fries are not GF.

Wendy’s: Chili and baked potatoes are tasty, GF and filling! Check out their salads including the taco salad made with GF tortilla chips. A Frosty is a safe treat as well.

Chick Fil-A: this franchise is a great option not only for people who have to avoid gluten but for those with other food allergies as well. Their grilled chicken offerings, salads and fruit cups are great alternatives to bun-less burgers. Best of all, the waffle fries are gluten-free (and delicious!)

Overbooked seats, disgruntled fellow travelers, hidden fees, delays and flight cancellations are all stressful issues that flyers have to contend with these days. If you do a little research and pack plenty of gluten-free snacks, being hungry won’t be one of them.

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Lead photo credit: Joy Fera