Coping with food intolerances when travelling

by | Apr 14, 2014

I wrote this whilst on a flight to New York. I wanted to capture my thoughts and feelings as I was experiencing them, so as to ensure I didn’t forget the emotions that I felt at the time.

I’m on a plane, travelling to New York with my family.
My five year old son has a dairy and wheat intolerance so traveling anywhere with him always requires a certain amount of planning ahead.

Knowing we were going on a long haul flight, I wanted to make sure that he would be able to have something to eat along the way. So I called BA customer services to make a request for a special meal. I did this so as to ensure that I spoke to a real person about it, rather than booking it on line. The problem was that on line you couldn’t specify that it was both a child AND a special meal that you required and also, you could only book either a gluten free OR dairy free meal (actually specified as ‘low lactose’) and not both.

I was assured that the request was made, but I wasn’t fully convinced. I spoke to somebody who didn’t speak very good English and I had a niggling feeling that something would go wrong or be lost in translation along the way.

So I decided to take a few things along with us, such as gluten free bread rolls and biscuits, plus a note from the paediatric doctor confirming my sons intolerances in case the flight company had a problem with us taking food on board. Luckily they didn’t as the first thing that happened when we got settled into our seats was that we were presented with three children’s meals. And you guessed it, the special meal request had not been made. The children’s meal was made up of breaded chicken, mashed potato, yoghurt, chocolate and biscuits. A whole tray full of dairy and wheat based goods.

The flight steward told me that they would have mixed up the request for both a child’s meal and a special dietary meal, as they can’t do both. Which is precisely why I rang up in the first place!

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Let down, yes. Upset, yes. The staff said they would try and provide him with something, which amounted to a banana, some raisins, more fruit (melon, which he doesn’t like, unfortunately) and a green salad. I challenge anyone to find a five year old who will eat a green salad! A little later they managed to find some jam, so at least I could offer a jam sandwich (with my own bread roll!).

We ate lunch in the airport,so it was not a case of my son being starving and yes I did take some things of my own, but the thing that bothers me most about all this is the vulnerability you feel as a parent responsible for a child who would be ill if he ate the normal things that other children do. How could I have coped on a 7 and a half hour flight with a sick child?

I often find myself apologising in restaurants, as though we are a burden for asking for something different, when really it’s not my son’s fault, he can’t help being the way he is. Yes it is a burden, but for my son, the person who has to live with these restrictions and not anyone else.

All I can hope is that he one day grows out of it, otherwise he may face his whole life feeling as though he is putting other people out. Either that or attitudes need to change. I thought they were, but it feels like there is still a long way to go.

Linked to Perfection Pending, Manic Monday’s Blog Hop.


  1. Louise

    Sorry to hear you had a bad customer service experience – especially on this where it really matters that they get it right! So frustrating.

    As for food allergies, I was so relieved I didn’t have to deal with it directly as a parent. I have a nut allergy and my mother has a fish allergy, so the odds were stacked against us – but both mine are fine. That said, so far my experience has been that most places are pretty good here (Ottawa, Canada) for ensuring nut-free schools and communicating which kids have special dietary needs. I also think Gluten free’s come a long way and there seem to be a lot more options than there use to be both for wheat and dairy allergies. That said, I can see the challenges of travelling/as soon as you are out of your comfort zone and options become more limited.

    • Nicola Young

      It’s good that your children don’t suffer in the same way as you and your mum did. I think you are in a better position if you are gluten free, than dairy free. I often find gluten free options in restaurants and cafes, but they tend to contain dairy half the time, so it is pointless us buying them. I don’t think it’s difficult to use a non dairy spread for baking. I use them all the time at home.

  2. Perfection Pending

    I can totally relate. Both of my boys had food intolerances that were pretty severe during the first two years of life. Trying to get people to understand the importance of not feeding them the wrong thing was always frustrating. Eating out was frustrating. Life was frustrating! My boys have grown out of their allergies now, but I still feel for the millions of parents that have to go through this every day. I wrote a post on my blog called: I feel robbed.
    I understand. I really really do. Sorry they didn’t take it more seriously.

    • Nicola Young

      Thanks. You would think things had improved and it’s surprising that it isn’t taken seriously. The thing with food intolerance is that it’s not life threatening, so I guess it’s not taken as seriously as, for example, peanut allergy.

      • Perfection Pending

        I know. My children had FPIES….it’s a rare one (you can google it if you’re interested) and could basically mean they have an intolerance to any food. Some people didn’t believe me when I told toem my child was allergic to rice and oats (two main trigger foods). They aren’t taken os seriously, that’s for sure. It makes me wish other people could take a turn taking care of my kid when they are having a reaction, because let me tell you, even those intolerances can be NO fun and all-nighter type experiences!

        • Nicola Young

          Yes, I can only imagine that it must have been a nightmare. You should visit Cathy’s blog at She blogs all about that.

  3. Jessie

    I also had a girl with a ton of food intolerances her first two years, she’s also outgrown most of them and going anywhere was terrible. I would avoid having dinner or lunch at people’s houses because I didn’t want to pack a pile of our own food (she couldn’t eat anything that traveled well like a sandwich anyway) and I hated having to put people out to conform to her crazy list of foods to avoid and then hated that we were all in such a situation to begin with. It was ugly. I so know where you have been, and I’m so sorry it happened on a plane!

    • Nicola Young

      I’m hoping my son will grow out of his. We have been advised to try things out on him every two years to see what happens. Fingers crossed.

  4. Megan L.

    Oh! This is my plight in life too…even if he doesn’t grow out of the intolerances, dealing with them does get easier with age! 🙂

    • Nicola Young

      I don’t suppose it will. He will also have to learn to make choices for himself one day too.


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