All travelers have to flex their memories whenever they decide to take off for a new location. Their mental checklist usually includes suitable clothes, toiletries, and technologies, of course, as well as other possible comforts like neck pillows and face mists. But there's one aspect of traveling that tends to fly under the radar: packing the right foods. As multiple airlines squeeze out complimentary grub and terminals make meals as pricey as a one-way ticket, packing your own food can keep budgets on track and headaches in check. And if you're a traveler who has food sensitivities, this additional point on your list is even more of a necessity.
"Food sensitivities or not, it's important to plan your meals ahead," nutritionist Mia Rigden, chef and founder of RASA, says. "Airports are notorious for poor-quality foods, and you don't want take the risk of being hungry with no options in sight. The holidays are always tricky with traffic, unexpected travel delays, and lots of temptation, so come prepared."
Since food sensitivities encompass a wide spectrum of symptoms and needs—and may include medications and doctor's orders—it's important to follow your specific requirements while on the road. But in order to provide some insight into how to pack the most inclusive foods in a bag, Rigden will focus on the common qualities of gluten and dairy sensitivities. We asked her for 15 tips on how to prepare for and navigate meal situations in airports and on planes, and how to stay on track after you arrive. Hopefully, you can have everything you need to stay full and satisfied during holiday travel and beyond.
What are some ways to plan ahead with food sensitivities in mind?
Bring a salad. "I always hit up Sweetgreen before going to the airport, because I trust the quality of their ingredients," she says. "Get the dressing on the side, and you'll be good."
Load up on healthy snacks. "As a general guideline, I recommend snacking on fats and vegetables to keep you feeling full and satisfied on your journey," Rigden notes. "Vegetables, avocado, raw nuts, and hard-boiled eggs are some of my go-to options."
Offer to help cook. "If you're at a relative's house and not sure what they will be serving, contribute a dish to the meal that you know you'll love and be able to enjoy," she says.
Let your host know about your sensitivities in advance. "Having food intolerances can be tricky, especially if you don't want to seem fussy or if you worry that your family won't understand your new way of eating," Rigden adds. "A polite email that lets your host know that you are unable to eat certain foods will ensure that you still have some options to eat."
Don't show up starving. "Hunger makes you more susceptible to making decisions you might regret later," she adds.
Bring digestive enzymes. "If you're worried that you may have eaten something that will upset your stomach, try taking a digestive enzyme," Rigden notes. "It may ease the discomfort."
What are some things to avoid during travel if you have food sensitivities?
Don't rely on plane food. "There's no guarantee that what planes have on board will be safe to eat, and most in-flight options are full of preservatives, additives, and inflammatory oils," she says.
Products marketed as "gluten-free." "If you're sensitive to gluten, be weary of processed foods with the GF sticker on their labels," Rigden adds. "These products are often full of additives and substitute gluten with other ingredients that may also be difficult to digest. Instead, look for products that are naturally gluten-free, like popcorn or nuts."
Airport salad bars. "I wouldn't trust the quality of the ingredients at most airport salad bars, and would be weary of contamination," she says.
Any meat product. "If you eat meat, you ingest what the animals ate," she says. "Airport food is all about low costs and high margins. Cheap beef and poultry are often fed with genetically modified corn and soy, which we then end up consuming. If you must get a meal at the airport, keep it veggie."
Be careful of protein bars. "I often find that protein bars are the most processed food in my clients' diets," she says. "Be mindful of this and make sure you read labels."
What are some foods or recipes that you recommend for easy travel?
Make your own trail mix. "Put it together with raw nuts, toasted coconut flakes, and goji berries," she says. "Pack it in a little container or bag and you're good to go!"
Add dark chocolate, too. "I also love having some good quality dark chocolate for a little treat," she adds. "I'd recommend getting a half-sized bar so that you don't eat the whole thing mid-flight."
Bring avocado. "Avocado is a wonderful in-flight snack—if it's ripe enough, you should be able to cut it with a plastic fork," Rigden says.
Don't forget an empty water bottle. "The cups on board are always too small," she notes. "Just ask the flight attendant to fill up your bottle."
Lastly, what if you're not sure if you have a food sensitivity?
"Symptoms of a food sensitivity or intolerance can range from mild or unnoticeable to severe and very uncomfortable," she says. "Gluten and dairy are among the most common foods that people are sensitive to. If you think you may have developed a food intolerance, the best way to find out is through an elimination diet."
"I offer a program, the RASA Challenge, which can help you discover such intolerances," Rigden notes. "I work with clients one-on-one to find delicious and satisfying foods that taste as good as they make you feel."