A family vacation can be nerve-wracking when your child has food allergies—and you can't prepare meals or be certain about cross-contamination. Here's how to deal.

By Christine Coppa
August 02, 2017
Mom and son eating ice cream on vacation
Credit: Alexey Fedorenko/Shuttersock

Having a child with food allergies is nerve-wracking enough on a day-to-day basis. But when you go on a family vacation where you can't prepare meals or be certain about cross-contamination, that fun-filled trip can turn you into a super-anxious parent. Here are tips on how to deal, from an expert and parents who've been there.

1. Research the resort ahead of time

My son was diagnosed with celiac disease shortly before we left for a long-planned island vacation, and while I initially panicked and considered cancelling the trip, I called the resort instead. The head of food services atBeaches Turks and Caicos explained that they are an allergy-friendly resort. When we arrived, she met me in the lobby, handing me a stack of allergy-sensitive forms to fill out. I picked a place to dine, filled out what my gluten-free son wanted to eat, and turned in the form.

On the days when we wanted food mid-day and had to dash into a restaurant, we consulted the menu's allergy key code. A sprig of wheaticonnext to an item meant it was gluten-free. (There were also peanut and dairy icons.) So check to see if your resort or hotel offers similar services.

2. Pack smart

Jean Goh, M.D., a pediatrician in private practive in North Brunswick, New Jersey, whose daughter has a peanut allergy, brings up an important note about checking your bags (because let's face it, if you're traveling with your family, you're likely to check your luggage curbside and gate-check the stroller).

"Emergency medicines such as EpiPens and Benadryl should never be stored under the plane because they need to be on hand and available for use at all times," Dr. Goh says. "I've never had a problem traveling with multiple EpiPens both on domestic and international flights."

She also recommends traveling with more than you think you'll ever need: "Carry four to six EpiPens, in case repeated injections are necessary in the event of an anaphylactic emergency," she says.

What about TSA rules, you ask? Yes, TSA has strict rules limiting the amount of liquids that can be carried on board an airplane, so pack chewable allergy tablets until your child can swallow pills.

"It's also a good idea to travel with a doctor's note that delineates what life-threatening allergies a child has and that epinephrine and tablets/pills need to be available at all times," Dr. Goh says.

3. Don't be too quick to buckle in your kid

Before your kid plops down in an airplane seat, Dr. Goh advises giving everything a thorough wipedown. "I always wipe down my daughter's tray table, seat, seat belt, and remote control with antibacterial wipes," she says. "You never know [what] someone was eating in that seat on the previous flight."

4. Have an action plan

When Denver dad Daniel C. took his kids to Disneyland in California for the first time, he made sure to research the nearest hospital, pharmacy, and walk-in medical center. "I would call 911 first, but I felt better knowing there were medical facilities nearby our hotel," he says. "I have an action plan at our son's school, so it made sense to have one when I traveled out of state with my son, who has a peanut, tree nut, and seed allergy."

That's smart, says Dr. Goh: "Parents should always know where their closest local hospital is. And with international travel, it's especially important to know how to contact emergency medical services."

In fact, Dr. Goh once had to use an EpiPen on her daughter after she ate a supposedly nut-free cookie in St. Martin, and admits, "at that point, we did not know where the nearest hospital or health clinic was. I've not made that mistake again of being unprepared with an emergency plan."

5. Consider renting a private home or condo 

When it came time to book a vacation to South Carolina, mom Kayla L., from Rye, New York, decided to skip the hotel. "My daughter has a severe peanut allergy, plus dairy sensitivity," she says. "If someone eats a health bar with peanuts in it, doesn't wash up, and then high-fives my child, she'll have a reaction."

Given the severity of her child's allergy, Kayla and her husband "agreed that renting a home and cooking our meals was the only sure way to ensure our daughter ate safe—and also that we were able to relax and have fun," she says.

6. Know how to store your child's EpiPen

EpiPens can be stored within a temperature range of 59–86 degrees Fahrenheit, explains Dr. Goh. "It's really important that EpiPens not be exposed to extreme heat, because the epinephrine can degrade and become less effective or ineffective." Dr. Goh advises that the EpiPen is stored in a shaded area away from direct sunlight. "That said, never skip bringing an EpiPen to the beach with you, even on a hot day. When we go to the beach, my EpiPens lie in the shade of an umbrella, under a towel!"

7. Avoid buffets

Dr. Goh says kids with food allergies should avoid buffets because of the possibility of cross-contamination with serving utensils. "Food from one serving tray could easily contaminate another food item in its vicinity," she says. "A tree-nut allergic child would have to be wary of eating any dishes that are served around a tray of cashew chicken and a shellfish-allergic child would have to be careful eating from a buffet where shrimp dishes are laid out."

Your best bet: "Speak to a chef who can walk both parent and child around the buffet to see what foods are safe to eat. Or just nicely ask the chef to bring food directly to your child from the kitchen."

8. Wash up

It may sound really obvious, but we've all had that long, hot vacation day with our kids where we just want to come home and collapse into bed. But for kids with food allergies, "it's important to shower, wash hair, and change clothes at the end of a day out, especially if a family is traveling or visiting new places," says Dr. Goh. "Allergens can linger on clothing, even if a child hasn't actually eaten any of the foods."