Traveling with extreme food intolerances
Table of Contents
I am an extreme outlier on food intolerances, so relying on food service while traveling is not an option for me. This makes travel a challenge as I need to either bring enough food to cover the entire trip or have access to tools to make food while I'm traveling. The strategies in this post reflect these constraints, which will only apply to an extremely small minority of people.
I've been traveling a lot over the past couple years, and it's offered an opportunity to improve how I approach this problem. I talked about some of the strategies I used to cope during my family trip to Disney in 2015, but I've learned a few new things since then.
- How long is the trip?
- What sort of food storage and preparation tools can you arrange access to while traveling?
- What food sources are available?
1. Length of trip
A weekend visit is relatively easy to pack sufficient pre-prepared food for, while a 2-week stay will require access to food options and careful rationing of prepared food.
I've traveled successfully with only the food I brought with me (both frozen and non-perishable) for trips as long as a week. Longer than that and it's challenging to both prepare and pack sufficient food, and to keep it from going bad once you hit the second week, since access to a freezer in situations where you don't also have acces to a kitchen is unlikely (e.g., most hotels, where if a mini-fridge is available it will not have a freezer, or, if it does, the frozen space will be extremely limited).
Access to a full kitchen is optimal, and may be a requirement for longer trips, but a microwave and a mini-fridge is a functional compromise that works well for a business week. It's often possible to arrange with the hotel to provide both if your room does not include them.
AirBNB makes getting access to a kitchen while traveling substantially easier (and usually cheaper) than it used to be. I have never had an issue getting a place to stay with a kitchen within my budget even on relatively short notice.
If your options are limited, a cooler and a hotel ice maker can work well for a couple days. Confirm availability of a microwave and mini-fridge ahead of time to avoid this situation, though.
- Up to 1 week, prepare food and bring it with you. Arrange for refrigeration and a microwave. Call your hotel ahead of time to make sure.
- More than 1 week, arrange for a kitchen where you're staying. AirBNB or similar is usually the best option.
2. Storage and prep tools
- Soft-sided cooler (AO Coolers 48-pack canvas cooler) - Keeps food cold during transportation and is easy to check as luggage.
- Food dehydrator (NESCO FD-75A] - For making jerky. Also just fun to have.
- Food processor (Cuisinart DFP-14BCWNYAMZ) - For making powdered jerky for pemmican.
- Vacuum sealer (NESCO VS-21) - Not necessary, but improves storability of meals slightly.
- Chest freezer - Not necessary, but can get much colder than your typically home refrigerator freezer which helps keep food cold longer in transport.
- Utensils and dishes - Plastic forks, paper bowls or plates, and napkins are usually worth bringing if you're at a hotel. You may be able to source them at the hotel, but it's often inconvenient.
3. Pre-trip food prep
My approach is to plan out my nominal daily consumption during the trip (e.g., 2 meals per day) and add non-perishable food on top of that. It is inconvenient to pack more perishables than needed, as it is much more difficult to transport a small quantity of refrigerated (not frozen) food safely than it is a full cooler of deeply frozen food. Non-perishables do not suffer from this risk and will help fill in any gaps in caloric intake.
Making non-perishable food like jerky and pemmican typically consumes most of my food prep time, so budget trip preparation time appropriately.
For actual preparation of perishable meals, I will cook food in bulk and portion it out into meal-sized servings in vacuum-sealed bags. At least 24 hours in a low-temperature chest freezer prior to departure ensures that it stays frozen during travel.
Travel food falls into two categories: perishable and non-perishable (or effectively so). The perishable stuff I freeze and pack, and the non-perishable stuff goes in plastic bags. I usually also freeze the non-perishable stuff (except what's going on the plane with me) and put it in the cooler to help add thermal mass.
Pemmican to the rescue
Pemmican is the best travel food I've encountered. It's extremely durable and very energy dense. The worst part is how time consuming it is to make, but it's worth it for how much simpler it makes life while traveling.
Beef jerky is also pretty great. It's substantially less energy-dense than pemmican, since it has very little fat, but sometimes it's nice to have variety and it's an easier finger-food snack.
As I am fully carnivore, I don't add anything to my pemmican besides salt, but many recipes feature raw honey, nuts, or dried fruit. There are plenty of excellent recipes online if you want more detail or a different approach.
- Thinly slice a london broil cut against the grain (alternatively, 90%+ ground beef is a cheaper option).
- Lay slices in dehydrator.
- Lightly salt.
- Dehydrate at 104°F (40°C) for 10–12 hours for raw or 160°F (71°C) for 6–8 hours for cooked.
- Use a food processor or meat grinder to reduce the jerky to a coarse powder (I recommend something closer to the consistency of steel-cut oats than to flour for best mouth feel).
- Place jerky powder in a large glass baking dish.
- Add approximately equal parts tallow to the jerky powder (I do this by sight. The fat should be enough to fully saturate the jerky powder but not so much that it's more fat than jerky).
- Let the fat set.
- Portion it out into baggies for storage.
If pemmican is fully dried and kept away from oxygen (silica gel packets and oxygen eaters help), it can potentially be shelf stable for months. I store mine in the freezer, though, since the miracle of electric refrigeration is cheap and easy.
I don't make these anymore since I went carnivore last year, but they're tasty and not an unreasonable travel food. I recommend the recipe from Wellness Mama. You can dust with cinnamon or arrowroot powder to prevent them from sticking. This is a fun recipe to use different raw honeys in to get different taste results.
On a business trip a few years ago flight cancellations, delays, and diversions resulted in an extra day of travel and bags that showed up even later than that. The frozen food was room-temperature by the time it got to me. Fortunately I had access to a kitchen from day one, so this was easy to work around (though 12 lbs of wasted grass-fed beef was a painfully expensive loss). Flying with checked bags is always risky, so be prepared to alter your plans and have contingencies in place if things go sideways. Flying direct reduces the risk here.
At a conference this year, it was a struggle to get a mini-fridge and it ended up being impossible to get a microwave. My employer uses an event management company and I have always had 100% success in getting a microwave and mini-fridge at hotels for our events through the registration request process with the event company, but it didn't work out this time. The hotel's solution was to use the microwave in their 24-hour bistro in the lobby. This resulted in gluten cross-contamination, a 2-week-long upper respiratory infection (from employees coming to work sick and coughing into their gloves), and having to sign a food safety waiver for each meal. Caveat emptor.
I'd like to be at the point where I can travel without needing several days of prep time ahead of a trip, but I'm not there yet. The strategies in this post make travel possible for me, which is a huge improvement. For most people, food is a huge appeal of travel and you should not take that away from yourself unless absolutely necessary.
In summary, to be successful with this food approach:
- Plan around the length of your trip and decide whether you will bring pre-prepared food or cook where you're staying.
- Arrange your accomodations appropriately depending on 1. Call your hotel about a mini-fridge and microwave, or get an AirBNB with a kitchen.
- Get the appropriate tools. A soft-sided cooler and a food dehydrator at a minimum.
- Determine how much food you will need for the trip and prepare what you need ahead of time if you won't have access to a kitchen. Figure out the split between perishable and non-perishable food.