Discover more from Gluten-Free Guidebook
In-Flight Gluten-Free Dining
The best-laid plans can go awry, so be prepared
I’m an optimist about travel. While I know delays, bumpy rides, and unwanted surprises can crop up on any trip, I believe the inconveniences are worth it. Whether you’re traveling to take in new sights, spend time with family and friends, or for a specific event, you’re making memories that will last.
But there is one aspect of travel that’s an ongoing challenge: airplane meals.
To be fair, it’s easier than it used to be to get gluten-free food on a plane. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease 19 years ago, many airlines didn’t offer them at all. But now that everyone seems to offer meals for the gluten intolerant, other issues have come up. Before the pandemic, some airlines had started pairing gluten-free meals up with other special requests, so that the meal was also dairy-free, for example. More recently, the meals, have sometimes served triple-duty: gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan. While this is a blessing to anyone observing all three restrictions, it doesn’t make it easy to come up with a meal. And it explains why I’ve had airplane “meals” that consisted of a fruit cup with a banana on the side. It’s not unusual to have protein missing from the plate.
While you can’t control everything, you can compensate. Here’s how I handle eating in-flight these days. For starters:
If you’re a member of an airline’s loyalty program, add your preference for a gluten-free meal to your profile. (I know it’s not a “preference” but that’s how airline websites generally refer to it.)
Reserve your meal in advance: some airlines need 24 hours’ notice, others require 72. I suggest requesting your gluten-free meal at least a week in advance (some airlines will let you request it as soon as you buy your ticket, but this isn’t true across the board). Having the gluten-free meal preference in your profile should make this step unnecessary, but you know how airlines are.
Mention your meal when you check in at the airport: It never hurts to remind people.
Tell a crew member when you board: You may have noticed crew members running around the plane with trays in hand before regular meal service begins. Letting them know you’re onboard and where you’re sitting is helpful (and if the catering company hasn’t handed over your meal, this may be the last chance to get it).
Double-check what’s on your tray: Sometimes things that aren’t part of your meal will land there (like the small bag of wheat pretzels I once found). You’re on a plane with a tiny galley, and things happen. Just be cautious.
Supplement with your own food: This can be tricky, because you need to bring items that can get through airport security (no liquids or gels), and you need to keep in mind international rules. More on this below.
Those are the basics, and if you follow them, the flight crew will serve you a gluten-free meal. But what if it is just a fruit cup and a banana? Some guidelines to make sure you don’t go hungry:
First, you’ve got to comply with TSA rules. To the TSA, peanut butter is a liquid/gel. So is yogurt, and salsa, and dipping sauce, and salad dressing… you get the gist. Here’s a terrific primer from Travel & Leisure about TSA rules on food.
The main thing missing from most gluten-free meal trays is protein. I’m a believer in having protein at every meal. I never travel without protein bars (current favorite: Pure Protein, which has roughly 20 grams of protein in each bar; all flavors are gluten-free). I also bring almonds and cashews.
If you’re flying internationally, be very cautious about bringing fresh fruit. Don’t be like that poor traveler who was fined $500 for bringing a single apple off a plane after a flight from France!
On the other hand, dried fruit is usually fine to travel with — but every country has its own regulations, so always check before you head to the airport. (I’m partial to dried apricots — they’re delicious and not sticky or messy.)
Bring a little extra, in case you’re delayed. I recently had an eight-hour delay on a one-hour flight at an airport with no gluten-free options except for candy bars and potato chips.
The bottom line: whatever you bring must get through security, not get you fined, and survive hours without refrigeration. A lot of processed food fits the bill, though it’s not necessary healthy. Choose wisely!
One thing that would make this process a lot easier is if airports were reliable about selling gluten-free food. In New York City, where I live, that’s unfortunately not the case at La Guardia or JFK. Let me know what foods/snacks you travel with. And I’d love to hear if you live near an airport with good gluten-free options! I’m in Greece this week, so I’ll respond after I get back.
Gluten-Free Guidebook is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.