Travelling with children, and family members, who have food allergies can add extra stress to family holidays. The secret is to plan ahead! Check out our tips for travelling with family food allergies.

A strategy that includes proper preparation can take the stress out of all types of holidays — whether it’s visiting friends or family, the beach, bush walking, a cruise or an overseas trip, make sure your next holiday is one to remember—for all the right reasons.

General tips for travelling with family food allergies

  • Teach your child as early as possible to ask if a food is safe for them to eat, and once they are reading, teach them to read the ingredients on packets if they are unsure. There’s no reason why malt, wheat, barley, oats and rye can’t be sight words for 5 year olds with coeliac, just make sure they know the other ways gluten can be listed too.
  • Be prepared for possible exposure to the allergen. If your child is lactose intolerant, bringing along some lactase tablets is a good idea in case there are no dairy-free options, or they are desperate to have something with dairy. If they require an epi-pen, make sure everyone you are travelling with knows where it is kept and that a few people know how and when to administer it, not just the primary caregiver.
  • Be prepared for there not to be allergen free food. Make sure you always have a supply of something your child can eat with you.
  • Some places may have rules against bringing your own food in. You may want to bring a doctor’s letter with you into these places in case the food is not safe and you need to dip into your supplies.
  • Consider staying in facilities with kitchens so you can prepare some of your own food, or keep items in the fridge or freezer.

Road Trips with food allergies

traveling with allergies road trip

  • Prepare snacks that are safe for your child, including some that will last the duration of the trip.
  • Pack breakfast and lunch food for the first day in case you don’t have access to a shop.
  • Don’t assume the same products you can buy in your local supermarket will be available all around the country. It is a good idea to stock up on some items that may be hard to find.

Dining out with food allergies

  • If you make a reservation, let the place know when you ring that your child has a food allergy.
  • When you arrive speak with the staff and make sure they can provide safe food.
  • When the food arrives check with the wait staff that the meal is safe for your child.
  • Be firm. If you ask a waiter which foods would be safe for your child and they seem unsure, ask them to go and check with the chef.
  • Often upper end restaurants are safer. They can be more accommodating towards allergies and generally, although not always, have safer practices around cross contamination. Many chain restaurants now have allergy menus, but it is worth checking out each branch to see how they avoid any cross contamination.
  • Consider making “chef cards” detailing the allergen and the best ways to prepare the food safely for your child.
  • Be creative with your ordering. It is often hard to find safe items on children’s or dessert menus. Instead, check out the entrees or ask for a smaller portion of a main, then order a hot chocolate or special drink for your child for dessert. Don’t be afraid to mix and match from the menu, although be prepared for your suggestions not to be possible if the restaurant has meals prepped already.

Air travel with food allergies

  • Book an ‘allergy’ meal at least 24 hours in advance of travel. It is a good idea to confirm this 12 hours before, and then check with the flight crew before takeoff to make sure they are prepared, especially for long haul flights.
  • Carry substantial snacks. Often airlines lump all dietary requirements together which can mean you end up with a vegan, dairy free, gluten free, fat free, taste free meal. Having snacks to dip into can often save meltdowns!
  • If you carry an ‘epi pen’  – make sure your child’s medications are in their original containers with the prescription labels on the package. It is a good idea to carry a letter from your child’s doctor.

Visiting friends and family food allergy tips

People who aren’t familiar with different dietary needs can feel overwhelmed by having children with allergies come and stay. The following ideas can make it less stressful for everyone:

  • Give them a simplified list with things that are safe, things that should have the ingredients checked and things that aren’t safe. Include in your list the hidden ways the allergen may appear in the ingredients, eg malt or barley if your child is gluten intolerant; and easy substitutions that could be made, eg a dairy free cake can be made with dairy free margarine and rice milk instead of butter and cow’s milk.
  • Offer suggestions of specific brands that are safe for your child and that they enjoy eating. Then offer to bring those items with you if they are not readily available.
  • Ask them what they like to cook and then give ways that it could be made safe for your child. Eg if they are planning a roast, the gravy could be left out; or if they want to make spaghetti bolognaise, you could bring some gluten free spaghetti, or they could leave out the cheese.
  • Offer to bring food, share in the cooking or cook yourself.
  • Explain exactly why your child cannot eat these foods, and what would happen if they did.

Overseas holiday food allergy tips

  • If using a Travel Agent – make sure that the person is aware of your child’s food allergies and reactions, so that the right information can be passed along to the correct people.
  • Find someone who speaks the language of the country you are going to, and ask them to write down your child’s dietary requirements. This will save a lot of hassle when you arrive. Learning how to say the allergy is a good idea too.
  • Research before you go. You can often find websites that will give suggestions of great places to eat for your dietary requirements. Taking a list of these with you will make life a lot less stressful when you are dealing with hungry kids in an unfamiliar country. There are apps available so you can check on your phone while you are away. You may also find websites with suggestions of what types of food or outlets are best for your needs.
  • Make sure you can access any health services that may be needed once you arrive in a new place. If your child needs hospitalisation after contact with the allergen, ensure you know how that works and have the appropriate paperwork. It’s a good idea to check with your travel insurance company before you leave to see if there is anything special you will need to do in case of exposure.
  • If you take some of your own food, make sure it will get through customs by only taking prepackaged, unopened items.

Staying in hotels/resorts/cruise ships food allergy tips

  • Befriend the staff as much as you can right from the beginning. A smile and a bit of conversation will often mean people are willing to go the extra mile to make sure that your child gets food that is safe for them.
  • Speak to staff early if you are attending a buffet, so they can prepare food that will be safe. Don’t just turn up expecting they will have food that meets your dietary needs.
  • If your child is going to a childcare programme or similar, check the structures they have in place to manage allergies. A good centre should have a photo of the child with their allergies clearly stated and what action needs to be taken in case of an allergic reaction. Check that food will be suitable if it is provided, but also check how they manage food that other children bring in. Make sure you speak with as many staff as possible so when shifts change there will still be people there you have spoken with.

Once you have prepared yourself, make sure you prepare your child too. Holidays can be difficult times for children when they are out of their routine and comfort zone. Some children who cope well with their food allergy at home, but may struggle when they are away and faced with unfamiliar foods. Sit down with them and discuss some “what ifs” about the trip and how they could be dealt with. Some examples are: What if we are out and everyone else gets an icecream? What if you start to feel …? What if you realize your meal has …? Helping children prepare for any possible scenarios and deciding on solutions will help keep them, and therefore you, in equilibrium while you’re away.

Further reading

There’s a great gluten free directory for restaurants in New Zealand and go here for the Australian directory version can be found here:  this directory has a few good restaurants. Add your own recommendations! MPI have a great resource for eating safely with food allergies, you can download a copy here. And the Healthy Food Guide has a great resource on eating out with allergies.


For more great health advice, check out our Health and Wellbeing: Allergies section.

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Frank McColl is a primary teacher and writes teacher resource materials for primary and secondary schools. She has one quirky toddler who keeps her on her toes.

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Also get in touch with Allergy NZ – the charity in NZ that supports people with allergies & allergic conditions. http://www.allergy.org.nz

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