How to Eat Gluten-Free While Abroad

I get it.  Jumping on a jet and going across the ocean is exciting, but when you have dietary restrictions, it can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially if you’re gluten-intolerant or have celiac disease.  I’ve been eating gluten-free for more than six years, and I have three family members with celiac disease.  But here’s the thing: I love travel, and I’m not going to let the fear of not having anything to eat or having a reaction keep me from exploring.  And you don’t have to let it stop you either.

First things first, gluten intolerance and celiac disease looks different for every individual.  I’m able to cheat some wheat on occasion, but be sure to discuss your dietary needs with your healthcare provider.  I’m not a doctor, but I have travel experience with a food intolerance.

I lived in France for a summer, and most people hear that and say, “Oh!  You must’ve eaten so much baguette!”  Unfortunately, not so much.  But I survived and still was able to eat some delicious French things. After traveling to 11 different countries, here are my top tips:

Do what research you can ahead of time.

There’s not much you can do until you arrive, but there are several things you can do to take control and give yourself some piece of mind.  Download an app like TripAdvisor and look up restaurants with gluten-free options.  It’s not always a winner because sometimes it just means they have salad.  But take a look at the reviews and see what people are saying about their gluten-free options.  

If you really don’t know the language, look up the word for “gluten-intolerant” or “celiac” on WordReference or Google Translate.  Screenshot it and show it to your server.  Awareness is growing, and I was quite surprised that many servers abroad knew what I was talking about.

Go grocery shopping.

Another thing you can do is find local grocery stores and markets near the place you’re staying.  I recently went to Prague, and I don’t speak a lick of Czech.  I tried to learn how to say thank you, but my feeble attempt was met with really confused looks by locals.  That being said, I was able to find gluten-free options even though I couldn’t speak the language.  Near the end of our stay, we wanted to save money, so we opted for a grocery store lunch instead of a sit-down restaurant.  Once inside the supermarket, I was able to order sliced meat straight from the deli and fresh cheese.  I found their gluten-free/allergen aisle and found packaged gluten-free bread.  Even if you don’t speak the language, look for the universal symbol of wheat with an x through it.

The fresher, the better.

Less processing, more luck.  Head to a fresh market with fruit and vegetables.  Order a salad with the dressing and croutons on the side.  Opt for grilled meat with roasted potatoes.  Sauce on the side.  Order without the bun. (But I did find a gluten-free bun option at the McDonald’s in Prague.) Making it simpler usually makes it gluten-free.

Pack snacks before you leave.

I also like to keep a granola bar or two in my bag because I get very hangry.  You might find a salad and a side of fresh fruit but still have a rumbling stomach.  It’s not ideal, but it makes it so you get more nutrients and don’t hold the group back.

Ask, ask, ask!

Typically, I love attention, but when it comes to being gluten-free, I hate drawing attention to myself.  I feel awkward and am not crazy about this diagnosis, but sometimes you just gotta ask.  Menus are getting better about listing gluten-free options next to items or at the bottom of the page.  Europe likes to place their menus outside their restaurants, which makes it easier to scan the menu beforehand.

Before you sit down, ask if they have gluten-free options.  I sat down at a place in Paris, and we’d been looking over the menus for awhile when we realized they did not have adequate options.  And we left.  Don’t be afraid to leave; it’s not your fault that you have a dietary restriction.  But some of this can be avoided if you ask before you sit down.  I’ve walked away from many a place, which can be awkward, but it’s better than having a reaction.

You don’t know if you don’t ask.  At a restaurant in Italy, I didn’t see any gluten-free options listed on the menu, but because I asked, the waitress told me they had handmade gluten-free pasta.  Mic drop.  Just ask; it might not be listed.  And typically, the nicer the restaurant, the more accommodating they tend to be.  (Not always the case.)

The bottom line is look, look, look for those symbols with wheat being crossed out.  Keep any medications near you like tummy relief just in case.  Eating gluten-free can be stressful, but it’s not impossible.  What are your tips for eating gluten-free abroad?

For more pro travel tips, check out 40 Ways to Travel Better and download a free chapter!

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