Maintaining a special diet while traveling

This item appears on page 42 of the February 2014 issue.

Debra Driscoll of Dallas, Oregon, had the following information request for subscribers: “How do you handle traveling with special dietary needs? I especially would like to know how you find fresh fruits and vegetables, brown rice and cooked beans. I also welcome any tips on cooking with sparse kitchen equipment. In putting together your own meals, how do you ‘make do’ in hostels, etc.? Do you pack hot pots or hot plates or use the coffee maker in unusual ways?”

Responses received are printed below. If you have something to add, write to Maintaining a Special Diet While Traveling, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN). Photographs are welcome; include captions.


Eating only vegan while traveling is a challenge. We are not vegans, but we do have severe food allergies. Here’s what we’ve done to avoid problems.

We always travel with several copies of a translation of our food restrictions. We now use Google Translate to get our statements translated. 

It’s a good idea to list any food or condiment in which your restricted food is a hidden ingredient. For example, neither of us can have mayonnaise, as it has lemon and vinegar, which are items we must avoid, so in addition to “No vinegar” and “No lemon” we write out “No mayonnaise.” Similarly, for my husband’s allergy to vinegar, we write “No mustard.” 

Wheat is another ingredient often hidden. For example, it’s used in most types of soy sauce. 

When traveling, we take certain foods with us. One is instant oatmeal in packets, which I’ve eaten on airplanes, first asking for a cup of hot water. I don’t know of any brand of instant oatmeal without sugar. 

Another is protein powder. We use one that has whey, as I don’t eat soy, but there is probably a soy-based protein powder available.

We also pack trail mix and, a newly discovered item, powdered peanut butter and have also taken pouches of vegetarian Indian food, available at the grocers Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. We bought a collapsible plastic cup and have used it to mix the protein powder or the dry peanut butter with water when we didn’t have a cup or bowl. 

When we travel, we carry a plastic, washable picnic set along with a couple of new sponges and dish towels for our kitchen or just to wash off plastic utensils.

Having a kitchen or even just a refrigerator and a microwave really makes a big difference because we can better control what we are eating. Most of our accommodations have been rental apartments, and to find them we have been using

When fresh fruits and vegetables are not easily available, try the frozen-foods section of a market. In Iceland we found nice frozen berries. We’ve also purchased frozen food for main courses because the ingredients were listed, although it can be difficult to find such food without a lot of additives. 

In a supermarket, ask for help if you don’t know the language. We’ve found people to be very receptive. It’s also an adventure to shop in a supermarket in a foreign country.

Good luck! 

Libby Hollombe

Sherman Oaks, CA


I am intolerant of MANY foods (due to the migraines they trigger) and need to minimize sugar. 

When we travel, I take a box or two of the cold cereal that I like (Post® Shredded Wheat Spoon Size Wheat’n Bran) and small, disposable, zip-lock plastic bags. I take a serving of cereal to breakfast and select additional items from the buffet or menu to enjoy a big breakfast. I also keep a bag of cereal in my purse for snacks, in case I can’t easily find something I can eat during the day.

I sometimes ask servers about ingredients, but, just like in the United States, they don’t always know. Most are happy to inquire and provide answers. I use my own judgment. 

Before a trip, I search in guidebooks for grocery store locations.

My “fall back” meat is a can of tuna fish. In Edinburgh in 2012, I assumed tuna would be available in pull-top cans, but it was not. Sainsbury’s was out of can openers, but the department store Jenners had a very nice one of stainless steel with padded handles and an easy-grip turn piece. It cost about £14 (near $23) and measured 6½ by 2½ by 2 inches (i.e., bulky) and was “heavy.” My takeaway from that was ‘Next time, pack a can opener.’

For an upcoming trip to Ireland, I bought a very basic metal can opener at the grocery store for $3.28 plus tax. It is much smaller and very light. I tried it out to be sure it worked, and I will pack it in my checked suitcase.

Mary Jane Mattern

Kingsport, TN 


When we check into a hotel, we always ask where the closest market is for fruit and veggies or if we can purchase them through the hotel restaurant. We always try for organic and also avoid items on the “dirty dozen” list (i.e., strawberries, peaches).

For beans, we use Madras lentils and beans in microwavable pouches, purchased at Costco. It’s ready in 90 seconds in a microwave or you can cook it on top of a stove.

On rushed evenings we sometimes eat cereal. We pack prepackaged cereal, such as Nature’s Path Pumpkin Flax Granola (866/972-6879), and an assortment of nuts and seeds. 

Also, before we leave on a trip, we make our own cereal. In each of several zip-top sandwich bags, we put the following ingredients: about a cup, total, of oatmeal, raisins, chopped dates, coconut, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. 

We always carry two pint jars in which to make our oatmeal cereal. After pouring the contents of two of the sandwich bags into the pint jars, we fill the jars almost to the top with water and let the mixture soak overnight. In the morning, we fill the sink with hot water and place the pint jars in the sink for about 20 minutes. This is delicious served with chopped apples and soy milk. 

To heat the mixture, you also could use an electric coffeepot, if available, or an electric immersion heater. I saw a Norpro 559 Immersion Heater (877/879-1360) listed on Amazon for $7.

We have also sprouted seeds along the way using a small jar and sprouting lid.

George & Marlene Imbsen

Oceanside, CA 


This is not about following a special diet, but it is about our addiction to early-morning coffee or late-afternoon tea.

We carry with us an electric kettle made by Narita that we purchased online. There is an adjustment on the bottom for using it with 110V or 220V electrical outlets. (Just don’t forget to set it!)

We also carry two small plastic cups and individual packets of coffee and tea.

For us, it is a wonderful thing to have.

Dave & Molly McBroom

Redondo Beach, CA


I have Crohn’s Disease and cannot tolerate many ubiquitous foods, like dairy products, food with gluten and soy products. Some of these are visibly obvious when the food is served, but sometimes items that are not readily apparent, like butter or bread crumbs, are used in the preparation of foods.

So as not to spoil my trip with illness caused by eating any food I couldn’t tolerate, for a July 2013 visit to Iceland I went online and used Google Translate to get Icelandic translations outlining my most critical diet restrictions. I then printed copies of these instructions on a sheet of card stock used to make business cards. 

This is what was printed on the cards (without the English translations I’ve included here in brackets):

“Matur ver∂ur a∂ innihalda” [“Food must contain”]

Engin mjólkurvörur (mjólk, smjör, ostur)” [No dairy (milk, butter, cheese)”]

Engin glúten (hveiti, rúgur, bygg)” [“No gluten (wheat, rye, barley)”]

Engin soja (tofu)” [“No soy (tofu)”]

Whenever I went to a restaurant, I handed the server one of my cards, even though, in Iceland, the menus were in English and the servers spoke English. The responses were consistently pleasant and cooperative by both the servers and the chefs.

Sometimes the chef would prepare a special dish or even a meal for me without my requesting it. As an example, I handed my card to the attendant at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and asked which foods to avoid at their lavish buffet. I only wanted guidance on which of the choices to eat. Instead, the chef prepared an elegant meal for me, including dessert. 

I think having taken the trouble to print the cards in their native language (even though everyone spoke English) was the key to always getting positive reactions to them.

Susan Gordon

Riverside, CA