The Food Suitcase: A European Adventure With Food Allergies

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Before last month, we hadn’t left the country in 17 years. My oldest child is 17 years old, which is no coincidence. She is allergic to tree nuts and a host of other foods. When my second child arrived a few years later, we added more food allergies to our family, and more recently, a celiac disease diagnosis. 

With the arrival of my children came a hibernation period during which we avoided most restaurants and hotels, and only vacationed in homes with full kitchens or visited relatives who understood the dangers of our food allergies. Traveling outside of the US—where we couldn’t know whether a non-English-speaking waiter or chef truly understood the severity of our children’s food allergies—seemed daunting, and frankly, impossible. 

As the kids have grown older and become better advocates for their own safety, we’ve tried to loosen up a bit as parents, understanding that the best way to protect them is to help them practice being in challenging situations. When some family friends invited us to join them in Europe this summer, we agreed it would be an excellent opportunity to learn to navigate different travel challenges—especially because my older child has expressed a strong interested in studying abroad. Helping her prepare for those future adventures seemed like an important gift we could give her. 

Our journey would take us through London, Rome, and the Tuscan countryside over a two-week period. In preparing for our trip we spoke with several other food allergy families to learn some tips on how to do it safely.

Here are the most useful tips we received, and what we learned during the journey.

Don’t forget the food suitcase. 

Looking back, the most important piece of luggage we carried was the “food suitcase,” a concept that was introduced to me by a friend who has traveled extensively with his food-allergic family. This sturdy companion carried two weeks’ worth of food to ensure our kids could always eat, regardless of the location. He also advised us to buy a hard case piece of luggage to prevent food items from being crushed. Inside the case were non-perishable items like gluten-free macaroni and cheese, garbanzo beans, safe granola bars, instant oatmeal, gluten-free bread, and of course, safe snacks and chocolate. It was basically a grocery store on wheels! We also packed containers and cutlery, which came in handy when eating out of a suitcase. If we had to improve for next time, we would have taken two smaller suitcases instead of one huge one, as it would have traveled better in taxis and rental cars.

Prepare chef cards and talk the talk!

Before we left, we ordered chef cards in Italian that explained our food allergies so that there would be no miscommunication between us and our servers. These cards turned out to be very useful, especially as our broken Italian was often misunderstood! Despite practicing the Italian words for “allergy to all nuts” (hoy un allergia a tutti de frutta secca), I kept accidentally saying “tutti fruiti”😂. The free Google Translate app often came in handy, as it can take an English phrase, and with its voice software, translate it into perfect Italian! It also has a label scanning feature, which is great for translating ingredient labels in foreign grocery stores. 

When in Rome…find a kitchen. 

We spent a lot of time finding accommodations with a refrigerator or kitchenette, to ensure we could prepare some meals at home and do some grocery shopping. Finding such places was a challenge. Airbnb proved to be a great option when trying to find a real home away from home, as the larger hotel suites with kitchens are few and far between (and astronomically expensive!). Fortunately, we were able to find accommodations with kitchens, and we were even able to place an Amazon Prime food order that delivered to our unit upon arrival! Amazon is now available all over Europe, and a helpful tool if you want to avoid grocery shopping during your vacation. 

On the day of our departure, we were quickly put at ease by the extraordinarily allergy-friendly Virgin Atlantic staff on our flight to London. Miraculously, upon hearing about our nut allergy, they informed us they would serve no nut products and announced to the entire plane that nut products should not be consumed. They then brought us their “allergy book” which enumerated every allergen in every meal served. Apparently, this is common on European airlines—labeling regulations are actually enforced with criminal consequences. Our airline industry could learn a lot from European carriers! 

Upon arriving in London, we were pleased to find that those same allergen laws are also taken very seriously by the restaurant industry, which had their version of a food allergy “book” for every dish served everywhere we went. We all felt like we were in food allergy nirvana! The absolute highlight was a visit to an allergen-free ice cream, waffle, and crepe shop—especially when my older child remarked: “So this is how most people feel in an ice cream shop: happy and relaxed.”  This comment made my mom heart break a little for sure, but there was also so much joy in hearing that statement.

We anticipated that Rome would prove a far greater challenge for managing food allergies since we had to navigate in a foreign language—and had to avoid gluten. Despite these concerns, Italy ironically was another safe haven for our family. Because of the high prevalence of celiac disease in Italy, most restaurants offered gluten-free menus, and we saw “Senza Glutine” (pronounced “sen-za glu-teen-ay”) signs wherever we went. Italy has been a trailblazer in gluten-free living, and my celiac sufferer was thrilled by all of the gluten-free pizza and pasta options. Tree nuts (“frutta secca” or literally “dried fruit”), however, were a different story, as Italians love to cook with nuts. Pistachios and hazelnuts are in lots of dishes, so we really had to depend on the kindness of our servers and restaurant managers who took our chef cards (and us) seriously. Even our hosts in the Tuscan home where we stayed were able to accommodate gluten-free and nut-free pasta-making classes, and went the extra mile to make us feel at home. 

In between the food allergy adventures, we took in the beauty, culture, and history around us. What a gift to be able to show my children parts of the world they had only dreamed of previously! The hours of preparation, stress, and research were well worth the smiles on my kids’ faces. 

As we flew back home, I couldn’t help but think about how behind the US is relative to Europe from a food allergy management perspective. US labeling laws are relatively lax, and only cover about half of the 14 allergens that Europe regulates. Air travel in the US is lightyears behind, as are most restaurants. Fortunately, products like the Allergy Amulet are on the horizon to help the food allergy community better navigate the risky terrain.  

Based on our experiences in Europe, I would definitely encourage other food allergy families who may be hibernating to consider a trip abroad. You may just discover, as we did, foreign gems like nut-free gelato and savory gluten-free crumpets! 

  

Halley Gilbert is the SVP of Corporate Development and Chief Administrative Officer of Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and has been in the biotech industry for over twenty years. Halley is on the Board of Directors of Allergy Amulet and is a minority investor.