The "I'm Never Leaving Home Again!" Guide to Traveling With Corn Allergies
Do You Have a Corn Allergy?
Being diagnosed with a corn allergy or intolerance is never easy. It may appear so at first. Corn, after all, appears easy to avoid. It's bright, and yellow, and iconic. And then you read the full list. Your jaw drops. You look at the cupboard. You burst into tears. (Okay, you might not burst into tears. But a few fell the first time I went grocery shopping with The List.)
It's tempting to give up food in general. Unfortunately, there aren't many people who can survive the breatharian diet and live to tell the details, so instead you learn how to live corn free. That is, you learn how to find and prepare corn free meals and snacks at home.
Eventually, you have to leave the house. This is where things get tricky. From the safety of your living room, you might be able to track down a local restaurant or two who will let you bring your own food. Or, if you are exceptionally lucky, a small, individually owned restaurant where the proprietors are well informed when it comes to allergies and might even be able to accommodate your pesky corn-free diet once in a while. (Especially if you tip well and give them your undivided eating out business.) But what about when you want to really get out? When you, gulp, get away from it all?
Like it or not, the time will come when you need to get away from it all. You'll want time off from work, or housework, or school. A change of scenery. Or maybe your spouse will.
You might even be sent on a dreaded business trip. Vacations are supposed to be fun. They're full of restaurants, maid service, and someone else doing the dishes. They're just packed full of opportunities for the corn allergic individual to have a reaction.
For the first year (or maybe more) after diagnosis, you might not be able to face travel. That's okay. Take your time. Enjoy the house. Enjoy your safe kitchen, and use your time off to cook ahead. Take day trips, pack your own food.
But eventually, there's a good chance you may need to stray farther from home. You can survive that first trip...and the ones that follow. Here are a few tips to make it that much easier.
As usual, the rule of thumb is to plan ahead. This is simply a part of life when it comes to food allergies, and it's more vital when the problem is a corn allergy. Planning ahead will take several distinct phases.
First of all, plan your trip. Figure out where you will go, where you will stay, and how many nights (and meals) will be spent away from the safety of your own allergy free kitchen.
Next, plan your meals and snacks. What will travel well? What can you prepare in the confines of your plans? What will you be able to buy on the road, and what will you need to bring with you?
And finally, start packing. I'm not talking about clothes and cameras and phone cords. I mean pack your food, bake your muffins, and cook whatever small-serving meals you've decided to cook. And don't forget any essential appliances.
STOP. Don't go back to bed. I know. It's tempting. (I've done it half a dozen times) But I've also survived not one but two overnight vacations. So keep reading.
When traveling with a corn allergy, you're going to have food in the hotel room. There's no two ways about it. Be nice to the household staff. The sink in the room wasn't designed for full blown dishwashing, so don't dump food down the drain. Scrape it out. And keep it all in one plastic lined trashcan.
Leave a note with any requests and tip well. They may think you're crazy, but if they know you're tipping them, they'll be more likely to humor you. Some chains don't allow household staff to accept any gratuities until the last day, but at least you'll make things easier on the next trip.
Corn Free Travel Food
No one wants to cook on vacation...unless it's less work than trying to order out. When it comes to a corn allergy, cooking in a hotel room is much easier than the stress of trying to order out. The exception to this rule might be at a Disney resort, where the chef's are trained in the rudimentary knowledge of food allergies (well trained, they don't try to out think you) and will be absolutely frank. If they can't cook for you, they'd rather tell you up front than risk poisoning you. They'll also err on the side of caution while cooking.
Since not everyone can plan a proper Disney retreat, and even if you can, you might want or need to 'eat in' at some point, (Or chicken out when it comes to eating, like I did) I'll continue.
The Gear: Choose a hotel that offers in room fridges and microwaves. A kitchenette is nice, but you don't really need a full blown kitchen. At most, you just need one of those handy little dorm room plug in burners and a pot or pan. You'll also need to pack your own safe dish detergent and a sponge. You could even invest in a multi use breakfast machine, with a toaster, a burner and a teensy tiny coffee pot if you really want. But for anything but toast, a burner will work just fine for a few nights away.
You'll also need to pack your own coffee mug, plate and utensils. Remember, paperplates and disposable silverware is often dusted with corn starch or coated in corn oil. Besides, it's also not very environmentally friendly.
Think about your food. What do you usually have for breakfast? Does it travel well? What about dinners?
Potential snacks and meals:
- Hard boiled eggs (these can be eaten out of shell or mashed up with salt and pepper into pseudo egg salad.) They last up to a week if properly refrigerated.
- Apples and other fruits that travel and store well. (You can core them in the hotel room and pop them in a microwave, or simmer them in a bit of water on the stove for a baked apple snack. If this is your plan, bring a sealed container of brown pure cane sugar premixed with your favorite seasoning.) You can also pack safe dried fruits.
- Porridge: If you like hot cereal in the mornings, you're in luck. Cream of buckwheat and Quinoa flakes both travel quite well. Pour pre-measured portions into sealed containers, add your favorite seasonings and sweeteners and use the in room microwave to cook.
- Rice cakes: they aren't the cardboard concoctions of the seventies. And they make an excellent base for a smearing of canned refried beans and a sliver of cheese. Or a layer of peanut butter and a few apple slices or a handful of raisins.
- Muffins: Just bake up a batch and tuck them in the freezer. Bag up the ones you plan to use on the trip. They travel well and keep well. And if you freeze them, they'll help keep any other cold food cold. You can do the same with pancakes or waffles.
- Trail mix: Before you leave, make up a batch of chocolate chips (at the time of this writing, December of 2011, 365 brand Vegan Semi Sweet chocolate chips are corn free), safe nuts and dried fruits. If you have a favorite safe dried cereal, add it in, too. Each day you can refresh a small container full for on the go snacks.
- Peanut butter: PB is the ultimate travel food. Okay, so you need a spoon or a knife to utilize it. But it's nutritious, tasty and fun to eat. Spread it on rice cakes, apple slices, celery sticks or just eat it with a spoon. Tuck a spoonful into your muffins before you leave in the morning and you've got a quick 'sandwich' for lunch. And it doesn't strictly require refrigeration, just stirring.
- Jerky: If you are blessed with a dehydrator, make up a generous batch of jerky before you leave. It travels well, stores easily and is a good source of protein.
- Sliced cheese: Yes, as you probably know by now, you need to slice it yourself. So sliver up a half loaf or so of safe-for-your-needs cheese and pack it in a plastic bag, with as much air pressed out of it as you can manage.
Actual meals are a little more complicated, but only a little. You can make your favorite meals at home, and then freeze them in individual containers. Things like casserole and lasagne freeze really well. At the hotel, you can pop them in the microwave or heat them on the burner. You can also prepare single servings of pasta relatively easily, or even scrambled eggs (if you can get a hold of some eggs.) Rice needs to be cooked before you leave home, but travels well in individual containers. You can top it with homemade baked beans, or fry up some frozen veggies, or just melt a little cheese on top. If you have those eggs, scramble a few up with the rice.
Salad is another easy to prepare food. It doesn't last long, and needs to be kept chilled. But you can bring a couple days worth with you and it makes a nice, light snack or part of your meal.
If you decide to brave the restaurants, choose smaller establishments. You might want to call ahead and figure out which restaurants are going to be most accommodating to food allergies.
Breads and sauces are almost always out. Ask lots of questions, and stick to the blander dishes (yeah, yeah, I know. But the less complicated the ingredients are, the lower the risk of getting attacked by unintentional corn.) Plain meats, a baked potato with no butter or oil, and fresh salad with no dressing are potentially safe items. Just make sure the salad wasn't prepackaged or rinsed in a citric acid wash. You can bring a small container with your own oil or butter and some salt. Top the salad with a squeeze of lemon.) Another possibility, if you do well with factory farm eggs, is to ask the cook to break a couple eggs in a clean pan and cook them sunny side up (or down) with no oil or butter. Explain your allergy so they get it. Scrambled eggs are another possibility, just make sure the eggs start out in the shell.
The packing and transportation process is probably the hardest task. But if you take a deep breath, and don't overthink things, it really isn't too bad. First off, make sure that you've started with a meal and snack plan that's reasonable. Assume that the other members of your party will want some snacks and can purchase their own while out and about. Now, figure out what, exactly, needs to be kept cold. Freeze a couple of safe waterbottles (you'll want at least one for each day you're gone anyway) and tuck those into each corner of an ice chest. Pack the frozen parts of your meal next, it's okay if they defrost a little as long as the ice chest never gets warmer than a fridge would. As long as you eat them within 3-4 days, and heat them thoroughly, they're safe. Finally, tuck in anything else that needs to be kept cold.
Pack a lunchbag for yourself for the trip. (This can be packed the night before and kept in the fridge) Include snacks.
The 'not cold' items can be packed and brought with you, or they can be shipped ahead. If you're going to be gone more than a couple of nights, you may want to ship a small box ahead of yourself. Address it to yourself care of a relative, or alert your hotel to hold a package that arrives for you. (Most are willing) You may want to put the dates of your expected arrival.
Don't forget to pack your burner if you need it; your utensils and plate (these can go in the ice chest if there's room) and your dishsoap and sponge. (Hint: Pack these in a plastic zipped baggie)
More Important Corn Free Considerations
Whether you're going to visit relatives, or visiting a place you've never been before, it's hard to leave the safe nest of your own home. No matter how much experience in travelling you've garnered, it's nerve racking.
There are little things that we all take for granted, things that tend to slip through the cracks when we have our sight set on the bigger picture. As a corn allergic traveler, letting things slip through a crack is a luxury we can't always afford. So remember to think beyond food.
- Can you tolerate soap? You might want to consider bringing your own handsoap. Or, use that dishsoap you need to bring anyway. (Trader Joe's hand dishwashing soap is pretty gentle on hands, and the corn free community tends to tolerate it pretty well, too.)
- Bathroom Tissue: It's something no one really likes to spend a lot of time thinking of. But the last thing you need on vacation is to suddenly realize that you are having a contact reaction to...bathroom tissue. It's painful, uncomfortable, and embarrassing. And hard to fix. So bring a roll of your own. Tuck it in with the rest of your toiletries.
- Speaking of toiletries...Those handy little bottles of shampoo and lotion that hotels thoughtfully leave by the side of your shower and sink? They're full of corny derivatives and strong scents that may not agree with you if you're sensitive. So make sure to pack your own, in a zipped bag so they don't make a mess of everything else.
- Air Fresheners: No, you don't need to pack your own. But be aware that if you react to air fresheners, you may need to air out your hotel room thoroughly. And check all the outlets as soon as you check in to make sure there aren't any sporadically released fragrances plugged in.
- Linens: Many people with a corn allergy can tolerate some exposure. But there are a few hotels that may use baby powder (with cornstarch) to freshen their linens. And few if any use corn free detergents. Some corn free individuals pack their own pillowcase and towel. Just make sure you don't bring a towel that could be mistaken as hotel property and requisitioned by your maid. A few go so far as to pack their own sheets, too. If you have to make up the bed, treat the bedspread and blanket carefully, just in case of that aforementioned baby powder. (It's supposed to be an outdated process, but who wants to learn things the hard way?)
Planning in advance can go a long ways toward making your trip away from home go smoothly. But remember that the farther you go, and the longer you're gone, the more complicated your plans need to be. With a corn allergy, brand availability is crucial. You don't just need to know if you can find a grocery store, you need to know if you can find Poconos buckwheat cereal, or Tinkyada rice pasta. (Or whichever brands best suit your personal needs) Fresh produce needs to be investigated for wax and citric acid in the wash.
It's easiest to pack enough food for just a few days. So make your first few trips close to home. Enjoy a weekend in the woods, or at the seashore. That way, you can easily get back to your safe zone if worst comes to worst. (It's a reassuring back up plan that might just give you the motivation to get going)
If you're going to be gone longer, make sure you have a back up plan for your food. This is especially true if you need to travel by plane. Make sure you know what the rules for your airline are, and get a doctor's note stating your need for a medically restricted diet just in case your food or water bottle gets questioned.
Wherever you go, and however you get there, remember that your food is just one aspect of the adventure. Maybe you won't be trying out new restaurants or recipes. But, you can enjoy your stay. See the sights, take pictures, and have fun. That's what vacations are for.