Picture this: After a long day of driving that included a wrong turn at Albuquerque, a crazy detour around unexpected road construction, a sudden thunderstorm, and at least five separate arguments between two cranky kids in the back seat of your car, it’s well past dinner time, and you find yourself, not sitting down to eat at the amazing, allergy-friendly restaurant you made a reservation at two weeks ago, but instead, standing in front of a rest stop vending machine, staring in despair at a selection of 12 suspicious looking snack-foods you cannot see the ingredient labels for.
Fear not, food allergic friends! This sad scene won’t happen to you on your road trip, because you are going to follow these tips on packing for food-allergy-friendly travel by car. Here’s how to avoid running out of safe meals and snacks.
Pack more allergy-safe, non-perishable food than you think you will need.
During travel, delays and detours happen. Plan ahead for the possibility of missed turns and missed safe meal destinations– by packing extra emergency snacks. If your trunk space is limited, and you have to make a choice between packing safe food, or an extra pair of flip-flops, pack the food. You can buy a pair of souvenir flip-flops when you get to Florida.
While it’s a good idea to bring a cooler or an insulated bag with ice packs and a few tasty safe perishables, keep in mind that, unless you are traveling in an RV with a fridge, you will probably only reasonably be able to keep your food temperature-safe for a few hours on the road. When packing for a journey, focus primarily on nonperishable snacks that won’t quickly melt or spoil. Depending on your allergies, allergy-safe snack bars, dried fruit, applesauce, jerky, pretzels, crackers, or popcorn can be good shelf-stable options. Fresh fruits, like oranges and bananas, hold up well for a day or two in the car, and come in their own biodegradable packaging. (Make sure, if you do bring fresh fruit, that you wash it well before you pack it, so that you don’t find yourself trying to decide whether rinse your apple in a gas station bathroom sink.)
And if you do want to bring along some fresh potato salad, or your famous bacon-swiss-and-avocado sandwiches, consider freezing perishable foods overnight before packing them in your cooler, to help them stay in a safe temperature range longer.
If you find yourself strapped for cooler space for both perishables and cold drinks, consider freezing few bottles of water or and using them in place of ice packs.
Pack wet wipes and cleaning supplies to clean allergens from your hands and surfaces.
Washing your hands before you eat is a healthy practice in general, but for people with food allergies, hand washing before eating can be life-or-death essential. Keep a pack of hand wipes or baby wipes in a place in your car that is easy for both the driver and the passengers to reach. That way if you wind up having lunch on the go, you’ll be prepared.
Pack some extra cleaning wipes, or a spray cleaner and some paper towels, in your trunk to wipe down restaurant tables, picnic tables, and hotel room surfaces.
Consider packing your own small cooking appliances. When you’re traveling with food allergies, a mini microwave, a hot plate, an Instant Pot, or a rice cooker can really come in handy, allowing you to prepare safe meals on your own clean equipment in a hotel, at a campground, or in a relative’s home.
If you do decide to BYO small kitchen appliance, do a little research on the places you’ll be staying to make sure that your appliance will be allowed, and that you will have a safe, clean place to plug it in and set it up.
Pack your epinephrine autoinjectors, your antihistamines, and any other allergy medication you think you might need, and make a plan to keep your medicine in a safe temperature range and close at hand.
A person with a food allergy should never leave home without epinephrine! It’s especially important to make sure not to forget your epi when traveling. Triple-check before you leave to make sure that any medications you may need on your trip are packed safely in a place where you can easily access them in an emergency.
To maintain full effectiveness, epinephrine autoinjectors must be kept within a certain safe temperature range. This can be especially difficult to manage when traveling in the summer. Autoinjectors should never be left sitting for hours in a hot car! Exposure to high heat degrades epinephrine and can damage the autoinjector device.
Make sure before you leave that you have a way to keep your epinephrine from overheating– or freezing– on the road. Insulated epinephrine carriers can help, but they may not be enough when you are traveling far. And while ice packs can keep epinephrine autoinjectors cool, if you place an autoinjector directly in ice or next to an ice pack in a cooler or insulated bag, you risk freezing your medicine instead of overheating it!
Many people with food allergies recommend using the Frio brand evaporative cooling pack for trips in the summer heat. Originally designed to keep insulin at room temperature, it also works well to cool (but not freeze) epinephrine autoinjectors. And you don’t need a freezer to recharge the Frio– all you need is clean water. Just make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to keep your medicine dry and keep your Frio working properly.
You can also try this road-tested food allergy travel trick: put your epinephrine in a small insulated bag, put a small ice pack in a second small insulated bag, and put them both in a larger insulated bag. This system protects the epinephrine autoinjector from direct contact with an ice pack, which helps to prevent freezing. If you do try this route, make sure you monitor the temperature of your epinephrine regularly to make sure it does not get too hot or too cold.
Read more food allergy travel tips:
Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part One: Plan your Route
Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Three: Find Safe Food on the Road