Gluten tag: travelling with a coeliac child

Guest blogger Samantha Thomsen writes about the challenges of travelling overseas with a coeliac child

“I’m hungry,” my 11-year-old says at 38,000 feet somewhere over Tajikistan.

“Oh,” I reply glumly, my mood suddenly matching the gloaming darkness of the mid-flight cabin. Not even Melissa McCarthy hamming it up can cheer me now.

Normally, en route and at altitude, I’d banish the hunger pangs of my two loin fruits with a bag of airline chips, or a sandwich, or even a mini-pie. But not now, not on this flight. Since Miss 11 was diagnosed with coeliac disease last year it’s all become far more complicated.

But we’re a hardy lot, and she’s possibly the hardiest. We’ve thrown caution to the wind and are heading to one of our favourite holiday destinations for the first time since gluten became as despised in our house as cats and ISIL. We’re off to Zermatt, Switzerland.

Since diagnosis, we’ve tried to tread a pragmatic path with this coeliac thing: rather than expecting the world to bend to my daughter’s gluten-free (GF) whims, we bend her diet to suit the world. Thus these days she’s more accustomed to ordering meat and veg rather than pasta and pizza (unless, of course, GF options are available, which in Sydney – where we live – they most often are).

But she’s still a kid, and not generally a fan of quinoa tabbouleh. She’s still susceptible to an occasional attack of the glums. When you’re 11, you don’t want to be different in terms of the height of your ponytail, let alone the strictness of your diet. She’s had “friends” ask her whether they can taste her (thoroughly delicious, made by me) GF banana bread, then spit it on the playground and scream about how “YUCK!” it tastes. But we’re trying to propagate fortitude. We tell her there are both better “friends” and worse ailments with which to be cursed.

How hard could it be in Zermatt?, we asked ourselves. After all, no self-respecting stübe would be caught dead without a lamb rack and creamy potatoes on the carte.
Travelling with a coeliac

The answer is this: sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s not. A bit like life, really.

In case you need it, a quick and dirty rundown on coeliac disease. It’s an autoimmune condition in which the body develops an allergy to gluten, which is found in wheat. In coeliacs, gluten acts like a razor, shaving the small intestine’s sensitive little villi, which extract nutrients from the food we eat. Short-term problems for coeliacs who eat gluten include diarrhoea and bloating, and long-term problems (normally for coeliacs who don’t know they are) can be summed up as increased susceptibility to a range of horrible maladies, because for a long time the body hasn’t been getting the nutrients it needs to thrive.

And a quick rundown on Switzerland: it’s one of the big bread-gobbling countries of Europe, known for its fluffy züpfe plaits, chewy rustica and health-giving grainy rye. Oh, and don’t forget the consistently excellent schnitzel and pasta. In short, the little land-locked beacon of neutrality is a kiddie-tucker paradise – at least, for kids who can eat gluten.

Breakfast is easy: Miss 11 loves eggs. We send her off to her first day at ski school with a beaming grin and a full (unbloated) tummy, villi intact and standing to attention. All’s well. Until I realise lunch is provided for the ski school brigade, up the mountain. And it’s generally comprised of all the things she can’t eat. I panic.

Midday finds me standing with a forced, face-splitting smile at the station, greeting her and her new-found schuss chums as they stumble off the train in their ski boots.

“Hi!” I holler, slightly crazed. “I’m here to get your lunch!”

“But I have lunch with the ski school,” she says. Her discomfort at being the offspring of the only mother to follow the kids up the hill is evident. Conscious that I’m raising helicopter parenting to new heights, I plough on, fully aware that descending a mountain is often more dangerous than climbing it.

“But they’ll have gluten foods,” I say.

“What’s the problem?” her new multinational rainbow of ski chums start asking in seven languages. “Why is your mum having lunch with us?”

“Oh no,” I stutter, embarrassed, and aware I’m embarrassing her more by the minute.

“Is she gluten allergic?” the mini-Dane asks. “My mother doesn’t eat gluten. She’s friends with Princess Mary.”

“Oh,” I reply, unsure how to respond to the non-sequitur. I stumble into the restaurant like a lame mountain goat, and set about assembling a GF lunch then getting the hell out of there.

travelling with a coeliac

The salad bar’s great – I grab all the usual fresh suspects, plus some sauerkraut (may as well, everyone’s telling us preserved foods are great for our guts) and a generous heaping of bacony bits. The latter should go some way toward re-inveigling my way into the affections of my schwein-loving daughter.

But what else? When I ask the oversized, sweaty Swiss cook whether the wiernerli sausages are GF, he looks at me like I’ve just asked him whether I can relieve myself in his goulash.

“Free? No, you pay!” I decide they probably contain flour as a thickener and move along the counter.

Then a brainwave strikes: spag bol without the spag! Slathered in parmesan! Done. As I teeter along the ice-strewn slates bearing the tray, Miss 11 looks relieved. Whether that’s at the arrival of food or the imminent departure of me I’m not sure.

“No spaghettis? Where are the spaghettis?!?” hollers a pint-sized ski school Dutchman. “Thanks Mum,” Miss 11 says with her mouth, while her eyes say, “Please be on the next train down the mountain.”

Dinner proves to be a less hostile experience, for coeliacs and non-coeliacs alike. We mention to the waitress that our daughter is GF, and there’s a small loaf of the most mouth-wateringly delicious GF bread (no word of a lie) in front of Miss 11 faster than you can say Toblerone*.

travelling with a coeliac

She smiles: she’s happy for once to be a part of our family’s pre-dinner, butter-slathered bread-munching routine, something we only ever do at restaurants. It’s a routine she’s had to abandon for the most part.

That kitchen, at the gorgeous Cervo hotel, proves to offer a veritable spoilage of GF staples: pasta, bread and pizza bases. Maybe that’s because its cool vibe attracts more of the GF-as-a-lifestyle-choice crowd, in their Bogner jeggings and Mukluk boots. (Mostly I detest that lot, but tonight I’m grateful for them.)

Dinner the next night indicates a pattern: as soon as we inform the waitress at Restaurant Julen, one of our favourites, that Miss 11’s GF, there’s once again an almost immediate offer of GF bread on which she can munch. And it’s good: bread’s important to the Swiss, so like everything they do, they’ve brought their engineering nous to bear on making excellent versions of it to accommodate an array of dietary requirements.

“Could I please have the spaghetti bolognese with gluten free pasta?” Miss 11 asks with her lovely manners (pat on the back to me), figuring she’s on a roll.

“Ah, sorry, only glutenische pasta we have tonight,” the waitress says.

Looking at my girl, willing her to rally, she doesn’t disappoint. “Oh, that’s ok, thank you, I’ll have the caraway-encrusted aged Valais pork chop with potato gratin and seasonal gemüse,” she replies without missing a beat.

We’ll be ok on this holiday, I find myself thinking. She’s old enough to make slightly more sophisticated choices. We’ve laid the groundwork: she knows what she can have and what she can’t, and more importantly, she knows that when she can’t have what she wants she just has to suck it up and have something else.

Around 12 minutes later, both she and her brother simultaneously fall asleep on their doily-covered placemats. I sip my kir royale and remember that sometimes the enemy of good nutrition isn’t gluten. It’s jet lag.

*Our family jury’s out on whether Toblerones are gluten free.

Five tips for travelling overseas with a coeliac child

Know the lingo

Learn how to say, “My child cannot eat gluten”, or “Is this gluten free?”in the language of the countries you’re planning to visit. The Coeliac Society (membership is available with a doctor’s referral) can provide members with cards containing the right language. Download a translation app on your mobile.

Plan ahead

Think about the staple foods of the countries you’re visiting. Can they be adapted to suit your child’s diet? Google, Google, Google – look for online discussion forums offering tips for cafes and restaurants at your destination.

Be snack-savvy

Just like at home, snacking for GF kids can be tough. Hit up the local supermarket, buy some zip-lock bags and make a trail mix, chop up apples and make mini-packs of GF chips or biscuits before you set out on the day’s adventure.

Make sure your child knows what’s what

Ensure they know what they can and can’t eat. Make them responsible for making the right choices, particularly if they are older. Build gourmet resilience – encourage them to try new things, particularly GF local specialities, and when they’re disappointed about what they can’t eat, remind them about all the delicious things they can eat.

Be creative

Nothing on the menu looks to be kid-friendly and GF? If there’s a hamburger and the meat patty is 100% beef, a naked burger’s a good option. Chips tend to work, on both the GF and junior-tastebud fronts. (There’s much debate about whether chips fried in oil in which gluten foods are also fried are safe for coeliacs. Our dietitian believes they are.) Ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side if you’re unsure about gluten content. Steak or grilled fish with potatoes and salad. Spag bol without the spaghetti, perhaps? Now there’s an idea.

Samantha Thomson advises businesses on communication, and blogs at