Ways to Travel in Europe (and everywhere) with your Gluten-Sensitive Child

Ways to Travel in Europe (and everywhere) with your Gluten-Sensitive Child
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Since my family and I now live in Paris, at least for the Summer, I am again confronted with food choices and dietary restrictions that had become second-nature to me. Due to a spell of ear infections, a genetic predisposition toward food-triggered asthma, and probably as much a professional hazard of his mama’s specialty in natural kids health as much as anything else, my son does not eat gluten — and, as a result of my incredible, lazy, unwillingness to cook more than one entrée a night, the rest of our family doesn’t either.

This decision, along with the decision to omit dairy, and corn, is really on auto-pilot in my household, and doesn’t strike me as a particular hardship. We have our routine, we’re used to it, and the community we live in obliges, and often joins us in our dietary choices. We’re also known to indulge in the occasional splurge – so there’s no need to pull up the front page feature story and very large picture in the Austin American Statesman a few years back of my son and I trying a new cupcake place in the neighborhood, mouths open, captured in black -&-white. Our choices are only on auto-pilot, however, until travel disrupts our routine, and like a child myself, I start learning the basics of how/what/where to feed my family all over again…

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that my child’s gluten sensitivity does not manifest in behavioral issues, severe diarrhea; he has not been diagnosed with Celiac, or Crohn’s or any other illness in which gluten on any level is not an option. When we veer from our gluten-free regimen with my son he snores, his nose gets runny, he complains of tummy ache. That’s my son’s gluten sensitivity. It’s not small fries, but it does allow us some leeway to experiment with what works for him and what doesn’t as we travel.

Thank goodness… because when a mama friend of mine mentioned to me that she was bypassing France (and Italy) on her european tour with her daughters, due to what she believed might be insurmountable dietary obstacles (they are gluten and dairy free), it got me thinking… not see the Eiffel tower or experience the breathtaking wonder of the buildings along the Seine because of food restrictions? In one of the culinary capitals of the world? If I didn’t take on her cause as a personal crusade, I at least deemed it worthy of further exploration…

Here is what I did to prepare us for Paris (and for those of you stricter, by choice or necessity than we are, I hope I have included some good options for your next travel adventures as well):

1. I packed one small suitcase full of gluten-free staples. We had lived in paris before, so I knew the difficulties of finding a great bulk section of gluten-free delights (if you’re reading this and know of one, PLEASE let me know!). So, I packed up brown rice, lentils, mung beans, Tinkyada rice pasta (our favorite rice pasta), a gluten-free cereal, nuts, and a couple of jars of peanut butter – just because. This was relatively light-weight, and so far, has absolutely been worth the prime real estate it occupied in my luggage. Of course, check the restrictions on entering with food based on the country you’re visiting (hats off to immigration services here), but since none of it was fresh, we passed thru customs with flying colors.

2. I chose an apartment to sublet straight away, rather than a hotel. In addition to a significant cost savings – and a fabulous landlord who picked us up from the airport free of charge – this is much more convenient for preparing at least some meals in keeping with our health and dietary preferences. Eating out every single meal quickly becomes a little tiresome, spendy, and light on veggies, even for my gourmet streak and my husband’s pretty non-restricted palate. Check out Craigslist (watch for scams involving pre-payment and ending in ‘god bless you, don’t fail me’) or VRBO, for some options, many including per night and weekly stays.

3. I brought a pressure cooker. This is admittedly, bordering on lunacy (it’s so HEAVY!), but has absolutely been worth it – made it completely possible to cook up healthy one-pot meals, without wasting precious time exploring the city we’re visiting… And if I hadn’t brought one, I think I would have invested in one here — because I am not running back from the Galerie Lafayette sales on the most beautiful boutique sundresses and shoes early to make dinner, no matter what time it is. ☺

4. We take probiotics every morning, both my son and my husband and I. Probiotics not only bolster the immune system, and discourage new unwanted bacterial invaders from finding a comfortable home, but also help the digestive tract to absorb necessary vitamins and minerals. Absence of appropriate gut flora may also result in symptoms of food sensitivities, because of their profound effect on the gut’s ability to digest and absorb food. Because one of the unwanted potential effects of consuming foods to which we are sensitive is already more porous intestinal walls, I wanted to give our intestines some additional support. We take a probiotic that includes glutamine as well, an amino acid that also helps in the reparation of the intestinal wall tissue. Glutamine can also be purchased and taken as a separate supplement — at usual dosages of 1-5g daily, divided and taken at intervals throughout the day.

5. We also take omega-3 fatty acid supplements every day. Omega-3s not only support healthy brain and nerve function and development, they are also anti-inflammatory and important for tissue repair — in this case, its the intestinal inflammation and tissue repair functions we’re aiming at, making it easier for our kid to handle the occasional difficult-to-digest food. We give our son omega-3s as Children’s DHA from Nordic Naturals (for vegan children, DHA from algae sources is also available), and for ourselves, we take krill oil. It is important with fish oils to pick reputable brands, free of contaminants. We also liberally apply flaxseed oil to foods such as rice, and in smoothies (no, we didn’t bring a blender, the apartment had one, I promise!). Children can get significant omega-3s from 1-2 tablespoons/day. Just don’t cook with flaxseed oil, it goes rancid quickly.

6. I carry glutenzyme in my purse. When we decide on the occasional splurge – or I’m just not sure, and my French does not extend to – ‘were these placed in a fry cooker or pan with white flour?’, I pull out the glutenzyme (gluten-specific protease enzymes). This is a relatively new product on the market, and very new to us, so the verdict is out, but we’re trying.

7. We’ve sought out health food stores and restaurants as part of our exploration of the neighborhoods and culture of the city we’re visiting. Not all Parisians love foie grois and crepes any more than all Americans love hot dogs and ‘freedom’ fries (well, a lot of us do…). Still, there are subsets within every culture, with different tastes and interests, and paris is no different. We’ve found Naturalia, Bio, and other natural food stores literally scattered throughout the entire city. (We haven’t tried BioCoop yet – I’ll keep you posted!) In the small stores we’ve found, the gluten-free selections are not abundant – we still haven’t found rice bread or sprouted wheat products, but there are some reassuring tastes of home – jams without added sugar, quinoa, almond milk – sweetened with agave! (not the usual evaporated cane juice aka sugar posing as something better for you.) We even found a macrobiotic restaurant 2 blocks away from our apartment. These outposts are different than home and in most cases smaller in the scope of what they provide (we’ve just come from Austin, headquarters to Whole Foods among other amazing natural health meccas & emporiums), but they are helpful and very fun to explore none-the-less.

8. We eat locally, and house-made products. What we don’t find in the health food stores — the incredible outdoor markets fill in the blanks in terms of fresh, non-pesticide-riddled produce. European groceries, restaurants and consumers still support local farm practices, and many of the pesticides that are still legal in our country, have been outlawed for decades in Europe. We traveled in Italy a few years back with a dear friend, who also happened to be the buyer of European foods and wines for a gourmet store in the states. When we mentioned our food sensitivities to him in the context of where and what to eat, he felt strongly that we might feel different after eating the offending foods in Europe. The ingredient quality was different, many GMOs were illegal, and things didn’t have to say organic to be organic. Even the wines, he contended didn’t have the additives of stateside wines. (I’m a Northern California girl so I don’t take kindly to any Napa bad-mouthing, but I will say, the French and Italian reds never give me a hangover.) In some ways, Europe is paces ahead of us health wise, in spite of scanty specialty health foods and crazy cigarette smoking. And I did notice that the occasional pasta splurge didn’t punish me with nearly the same effects as if I ate the same thing at home. All the pastas and breads were made in house, with fresh and local ingredients. There’s something to be said for home-made, even in the context of food sensitivities.

9. I’ve found many things on menus in ‘mainstream’ Parisian restaurants that do not involve gluten. Europeans may be fond of their breads, pastas and pastries, but they’re also fond of their proteins. If you’re not a vegetarian, admittedly the choices are more numerous. In my limited experience though, I can always find a wonderful fish dish, or salad, or chicken plate that my son enjoys. The restaurants seem to serve hamburgers without buns as the norm if they’re offered on a children’s menu. And if I ask the waitstaff in a fine Parisian restaurant not to set down the breadbasket, well, they’re confused, but not ungracious about it.

10. I’ve re-calibrated my expectations. Because we can, because the consequences are not of the dire variety, but more of a negative health accumulation over time (and I know many of you reading this may not share this blessing), I was willing to say we weren’t going to be perfect all of the time. We are going to try crepes, we are going to eat croissants, and I know it’s not good for us no matter what the food restrictions, but it is also a part of our experience, and I am going to let it be. I’m just trying to make sure they’re a small part of a larger experience, and not every meal, every day.

Picture credit for the Almond Flour, gluten-free macarones and a great blog post about gluten-free in Paris HERE

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