Ah, summer road trips. What’s not to love? The freedom of the open road, new vistas unfolding en route to your destination, the excitement of exploration, and… the lack of food choices for those of us following a gluten-free diet.
Since I was diagnosed with celiac disease in the early 90s, the number of people avoiding gluten for various reasons has grown exponentially, but road trip food options have not kept up. Being gluten-free can make for a challenging experience on the road. You need to eat, but the last thing you want is for your summer vacation to turn into a tour of gas station bathrooms.
But don’t worry – it can be done! As a veteran road tripper and gluten avoider, I can assure you that it’s definitely possible to have a happy, healthy, gluten-free road trip. Wherever you fall on the gluten-free spectrum, here are a few tips to get you started.
Plan Your Journey
In my opinion, the best trips are loosely planned. I don’t like to schedule every minute of every day, but I do want to have an outline of the journey. This is especially helpful for food planning purposes. So look ahead at how many days you expect to spend on the road. How many meals will you need? Where will you stop? Will you cook your own dinner over the camp stove, or hit up the local restaurants?
Research stops along your route and try to identify a few good meal options. Is there a natural grocery store –which tend to have more gluten-free products – or a café with gluten-free items on the menu? If you expect to make a grocery stop, try to do it in a bigger city, if possible. These places tend to have more gluten-free options than small towns. One website I often use to scope out restaurants is findmeglutenfree.com. A quick Google or Yelp search is often pretty helpful, too. Knowing what you’ll need and where you’ll find it makes for a less stressful road trip!
Make It A Picnic!
My number one rule when I travel is to bring my own food. I find that I’m the least stressed and best fed when I have a guaranteed lunch. On the road, I almost always pack a bag with sandwich supplies and snacks like fruit, KIND bars, carrots, and homemade trail mix. My favorite road trip lunch is a peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich—it’s delicious, satisfying, and doesn’t require any refrigeration. I love to pick a scenic spot for lunch and make a quick sandwich for myself while enjoying the view.
If you bring a cooler, your options are even better! Think leftovers, cheese, or other deli items, veggies with hummus, and ingredients for breakfast and dinner. I often pack breakfast supplies like yogurt and granola or hard-boiled eggs as well as sandwich materials, since hotels usually have pretty slim gluten-free pickings. Any gas station or grocery store should have ice for your cooler. If you’re staying at a hotel, you can also replenish from your lodging’s ice machine.
To go a step further, you may also want to call ahead and confirm that your hotel room has a mini fridge and a microwave. If you’re staying at an Airbnb, make sure to ask about the kitchen setup ahead of time. I usually don’t cook much when I stay in Airbnbss because I’m concerned about cross-contamination in other people’s kitchens, but it’s definitely helpful to have a microwave and fridge. If cross-contamination isn’t a concern for you, having a full kitchen can greatly expand your meal options.
If I pack my own food, I know I’ll have meals I can safely eat, and it’s usually better (and cheaper!) than rest stop offerings. Especially if you have a severe reaction and/or are highly sensitive to gluten, bringing your own food is probably the best option for you.
Not So Fast: GF Options for Fast Food
I rarely eat fast food even when I feel safe about the ingredients, but sometimes it’s the only option. If you do decide to eat fast food, it’s important to know ahead of time which stops can accommodate your needs. Unfortunately, the store employees often have no idea what’s gluten-free, so it’s important to know for yourself. If you already have fast food options you trust from experience, make your stop there, if possible. If you’re not sure, here are a couple of suggestions.
While it’s not technically fast food, Chipotle is my go-to for quick meals. Most of their menu items are already gluten-free, and I’ve found they tend to be pretty good about avoiding cross-contamination, especially if you ask the employees to take extra precautions with your order. The only menu item you must avoid is their flour tortillas.
Five Guys and In-N-Out Burger are also fairly gluten-free-friendly. You can order their burgers wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun and they won’t give you weird looks about it. Their fries are also free of gluten—which isn’t the case for many french fries, due to cross-contamination from shared oil in the friers. If you’re not very sensitive, or if being gluten-free is a preference rather than a necessity for you, then most french fries should be okay as long as they’re not breaded.
There are also a handful of fast food chains that offer menus listing the allergens in each menu item and/or which meals are gluten-free. These include Zoe’s Kitchen, Arby’s, and Chik-Fil-A. While the items there are pretty limited, at least you can feel more secure about placing your order. However, these menus are only available online and the store employees may not be familiar with the details. Make sure to check for yourself before you order. It’s also worth asking the employees at any restaurant to take precautions to avoid cross-contamination with your order if you’re highly sensitive. At many restaurants, employees are trained to change out their gloves and other measures upon request.
Caffeine is a must on a road trip, and fortunately, Starbucks is a great place for celiacs. Most of their drinks are gluten-free—to my best knowledge, the only ingredients in their drinks that contain gluten are their caramel flavoring and java chips. They often also have some gluten-free snacks, like KIND bars, by the cash register. Some locations even have a gluten-free breakfast sandwich and a GF-certified Marshmallow Dream Bar and chocolate brownie. It seems like Starbucks is stepping up their game and adding other gluten-free food options, too!
Another option, although not as ubiquitous as Starbucks, is Caribou Coffee. Their gluten-free food offerings are pretty limited, though they do offer a few sandwiches. But rest assured, their drinks are almost all safe. The only drinks to avoid are the Cookies and Cream Cooler, kid’s cocoa, and their seasonal crushed peppermint topping.
If your caffeine stop isn’t one of these joints, you may want to ask to check the ingredients of flavored syrups, since some flavor shots may contain gluten. If you use soy milk instead of regular milk in your beverage, that’s another place gluten can hide. Make sure to check if the coffee shop is using gluten-free soy milk, as some brands are made with barley. However, coffee, lattes, and tea are almost always safe!
Eat Dessert First
Often, when I tell people I don’t eat gluten, they say something like, “Oh, you must be so healthy.” That cracks me up because there are so many gluten-free foods out there that are not healthy at all. My personal weakness is ice cream.
At its most basic, ice cream is just cream and sugar—both of which are naturally free of gluten. And when you’re road-tripping, especially during the summer months, sometimes there’s just nothing better than a scoop or two (without the cone, of course!) Make sure to avoid flavors that contain cookie dough, brownie crumbles, or bits of other baked goods. I’m also wary of fudge, which is sometimes thickened with gluten. With these exceptions, ice cream is almost always gluten-free!
I dearly love mom-and-pop ice cream joints; some of my favorites across the country are Crescent Ridge (Sharon, MA), Zoe’s (Ashland, OR), and Purity (Ithaca, NY). These places can usually let you know which flavors are safe for people avoiding gluten. More widespread, Dairy Queen is also a surprisingly gluten free-friendly stop that you can find at many rest stops and even gas stations (especially in the South). In my opinion, a DQ Reese’s Blizzard is perfect brain food for a depleted driver. If you’re being extra cautious, ask the store employees to clean the equipment before blending your treat.
Have A Backup Plan
Accidental gluten happens. But when it does, it doesn’t have to be the end of your road trip. A few brands of enzymes out there can help to break down gluten for you if you can’t digest it yourself. Having enzymes on hand can be helpful for celiacs and those who are gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant. The evidence is mixed on how effective these enzymes really are. I definitely wouldn’t recommend eating gluten on purpose and expecting an enzyme to make it all okay. However, they’re a good aid to have as a last-ditch resort. When I’m traveling, I like to bring some along just in case I accidentally eat gluten. I’ve found that they ease my symptoms somewhat, although it’s definitely not a cure.
The pure enzyme is known as AN-PEP, and a number of commercial brands sell versions of it in drugstores. These include GlutenEase (made by Enzymedica), Gluten Digest (made by Now Foods), and Glutenaid (made by CVS). Take them along with meals that you’re concerned may contain gluten, or as soon as you know you’ve ingested gluten.
Get Out, Eat, And Explore!
It’s true that taking these steps requires more time than just hitting the road and improvising as you go. But that’s simply part of the reality of being gluten-free. If you want to stay healthy and well-fed, you need to do your research and plan ahead. This is especially true if gluten-free is a medical condition rather than a choice for you. Your level of caution will be dependent on the severity of your reaction. If gluten-free food is a preference for you, but not a necessity, then you probably don’t need to worry about cross-contamination. If you’re like me, and any amount of gluten is too much, you may want to steer towards bringing your own food (or just eating ice cream!)
The good news is that you do have options. So don’t let your diet keep you from exploring the world. Pack wisely, do your research, and I’ll see you on the road!