Traveling with Dietary Restrictions
Gluten-free. Nut-free. Sugar-free. Keto. Vegan. It seems like everybody has some kind of dietary restriction these days. I recently took on a whole bunch of these at once and proved that whether you’re doing it for business or pleasure, traveling with dietary restrictions doesn’t have to be a nightmare. I decided to write a post for those of you flight attendants struggling with what to pack in your lunchbox and those of you regular people who think traveling has to break your diet (or your spirit!) I’ll give a bit of background on the dietary restriction bonanza I went on earlier this year and will tell you what I ate on the go, working as a full-time flight attendant. Take it or leave it, these are just some ideas to make packing food for travel seem less daunting, whatever your diet may be.
Why so serious?
Earlier this year I embarked on a pretty strict “cleanse” of sorts. I did not do a liquid juice diet nor any weird cleansing supplements, but I did extract some heavy hitters from my diet: Sugar, dairy, and gluten. Those of you who know me know that I’m a pescatarian, meaning no land animals, but even fish-eating has become infrequent as I don’t like cooking it at home. You’ll also know that I’m currently not drinking alcohol. So this slashed diet leaves exactly….Zero fun.
Or so you’d think.
My diet is way more lenient now. I’ve been slipping off the sugar and dairy wagons repeatedly and at this point I’m just trying to keep it balanced. But for a solid stretch of time, I was eating strict and, shockingly, not suffering. Far from feeling deprived, I felt satisfied and really, really healthy. Even while working multi-day trips—where I spend multiple days working on airplanes and sleeping in hotels—I stuffed my lunchbox full of good food and made it work. And you can too.
So why did I take on this super strict system cleanse? Spoiler Alert: It was not for weight loss.
The two reasons I piously cut out all the most delicious foods in life were thus:
1. My sugar addiction was Out Of Con-Trol.
2. All the crap I ate in the end of 2020 (hello holiday bingeing!) mixed in with the stress of a home purchase and squirrel eviction, had me feeling a bit “blah”. My skin was looking rough. Masks of course did not help, and I found myself with breakouts and dull-looking skin. I looked back at photos taken over the summer, when I was eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and spending time on self-care and ached to see my skin look that way again. I wanted to get back in the groove and back to the glow.
For a point of reference, this is how I eat when I don't have stringent dietary restrictions. Here's me and my three tacos, chips and guac, on a layover in Austin.
What is this “cleanse”?
Okay, so nothing official. I just cut most of the problem foods out of my diet and ate very clean.
The most important part of the whole thing for me was sugar. I wanted a serious sugar detox. Not one of the gentle “cut back” detoxes. I wanted withdrawal. To feel the toxins—their addictive goodness—leaving my body. So, I went cold turkey and a bit extreme. No added sugar whatsoever, and very little natural sugar. I did not eat fruit for 9 days. Since that 9-day mark, I have begun eating fruit again. I incorporated low-sugar fruits (blackberries and blueberries) first, and now I’m eating whatever fruit I want in 1-2 servings per day.
Dairy. Dairy, dairy, dairy. It is a real love-hate relationship here. I am constantly “trying to cut back” on dairy. Mostly for my skin, but also for general health and well-being. I feel less sluggish when I’m not eating dairy. I notice my skin tends to look much healthier when I’m not consuming cheese.
The other thing is a desire for consistency. I don’t eat meat because of all the gross hormones and antibiotics that get pumped into the animals, along with other cruel, unsustainable (and disgusting) farm practices. But here I am, eating the cheese products that come from said animals. Dumb.
Gluten. This is just for funsies. Over the summer I stopped eating gluten in solidarity with my mom. She had some health things going on and we thought she should try restricting her diet and testing for a gluten sensitivity. She felt much better not eating gluten. I felt good not eating gluten, too, but mostly because I was making more healthy choices. I’m not crazy strict about cutting gluten entirely because I don’t believe I have a real sensitivity or intolerance for it. But I am trying to limit and avoid it for now, because it feels good.
I don’t eat a ton of packaged foods marketed as “gluten free”. That can get you into trouble, with added sugars and salts. I still eat carbs, and plenty of them, but different ones—Rice lentils, quinoa, oats, potatoes, and my favorite: corn tortillas. It’s wild for someone who would have no trouble finishing an entire loaf of bread in one sitting (good bread only) to be okay with not eating it. It surprised me that I didn’t crave crusty, soft baguettes or a warm dinner roll. But I really haven’t. I guess because my carb monster has been so well-fed that it hasn’t had time to throw a bread tantrum.
Meat. I have been a pescatarian for 5 years or so.
Alcohol. This sugar detox was much easier because I already cut one of the biggest offenders out almost a year ago. I’m at a serious detox advantage here, and I acknowledge that.
If you want to read more about why I quit drinking, check out THIS post.
Eating healthy on-the-go can be hard.
But only if you’re unprepared.
So, like, what do you even eat?
I got a lot of funny looks when I told people what I wasn’t eating. It sounded so restrictive that I wouldn’t be able to eat anything at all. But, surprisingly or not, I ate. Well, often and in impressive quantity.
I can’t break it down into daily meal plans for the month, but I have composed a list of some of the most common foods I ate while cleansing. I was working a lot, so these are flight attendant and airplane-approved meals and snacks. All are gluten-free, dairy-free, low or no sugar and meat-free. Also, importantly, these options are easy to prepare and tasty AF.
Baked, and by baked I mean microwaved. (simply make some stab holes and microwave for 6-9 minutes, depending on size. Flip halfway through.) Sweet potatoes are really nature’s candy. It is an easy way to satisfy your sugar AND carb cravings and get some healthy energy to keep that body moving. I cut them in half and wrap in foil to heat later. I’ll throw the hot potato right into my salad, cut up in chunks, and magically I have a meal instead of a sad bowl of lettuce.
The other spot this hits is the warm spot. Working on airplanes, making quick turns, and having the possibility or delays always on the horizon, flight attendants often don’t get a hot meal the whole time they’re working. Sometimes for days. Sometimes I give literally zero forks WHAT I’m eating, as long as I can have the feeling of hot food in my mouth. Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite go-tos because I can heat them on the plane, quickly and with little fuss.
I said non-dairy, but I am far from vegan. I eat a lot of eggs, maybe more than I should. But this is another of the easiest ways to get protein and satisfaction while traveling. Before a trip, I cook Eggs with broccoli or spinach—1-2 eggs per day that I’ll be away. I heat them in the hotel in the morning or in foil on the plane and I’ve got a hot meal, solid protein, and even some green veggies snuck in.
Go ahead, laugh. Perves. Almond butter is the perfect remedy for my sweet tooth when I’m trying to be “good” and not eat added sugar. I’ll spread it on apple slices, use it as a dip for my carrots and celery, or just eat it with a spoon when I need to get right to the point. Sunflower butter, cashew butter, or natural peanut butters (the kind with the oil layer on top) are great for satisfying sugar cravings and transforming otherwise boring fruit and vegetable items. Just be careful when choosing one in the store, many brands pack extra sugar into their nut butters. Always check that label!
Hummus is a healthy snack that virtually everyone-- regardless of dietary restriction-- can enjoy on the go.
Hummus is an easy, healthy snack for traveling with dietary restrictions and is probably the second-from-the-bottom tier in my food pyramid. I eat a shit-ton of hummus, and maybe you should too. Again, this is an easy way for me to get protein while masking the not-so-exciting taste of plain vegetables. Generally I’m a carrot/celery dipper. But when I’m feeling feisty, corn tortilla chips (Gluten-free and tasty AF) also make great dippers. There are a million flavors and this is an easy way to spice up snack-time on a road trip, airplane ride, or hotel binge-watching the Bachelor session.
Can I get an Amen!? Glory be to the wonders of roasted vegetables.
I’ve been on a roasting kick, which is awesome when I want my new house to smell like food for daaaays. I’ve been roasting cauliflower, sweet potatoes, tri-color mini potatoes, brussels sprouts, fresh garlic. So aromatic, but it’s totally worth it in the end.
Roasting is by far the best way to cook any vegetable. Fight me. It’s just facts.
The natural sweetness of the vegetable is brought out through roasting and the crispy bits on the edges are the stuff of dreams. Just a little olive oil is perfection, or spice it up with your favorite spice combos. The best part of this is they taste so good you can eat them hot or cold, and your mouth will celebrate either way. Once they’re cooked, you can eat them plain, throw the warm, crispy bites over a salad, or toss them into eggs in the morning! So versatile and approved for every dietary restriction. A simple to-go container makes roasted veggies an easy (if not smelly) travel companion.
Have dietary restrictions and craving pasta? Fear not! Spaghetti squash is the health-conscious substitute you need in your life. I eat spaghetti squash way more nowadays ever since my good friend Corey informed me that it can be cooked in the microwave. GAME CHANGER. Simply trim the ends, cut the squash in half, scoop the seeds out, and place upside down in a bowl full of 1-2 inches of water. Microwave 10-15 mins and you are good to go. (Note: If you are having trouble cutting the squash, stab it a bunch of times with a fork or knife and stick it in the microwave for 5 minutes. This should soften ‘er up.)
I always cook both halves, one at a time, planning to eat one and save the other half for the next day, whether on the plane or in the kitchen. But if I’m being honest, I often end up eating both sides. Big appetite here.
Spaghetti squash is great because it satisfies that craving for pasta without being pasta. Again, make sure to check the labels if you’re using a store-bought sauce on top. Red sauce in particular can be a major sugar haven. I found a good pre-made no sugar added pesto that I have been using on my spaghetti squash.
Did I mention how much I love roasted vegetables? Perfect for a hot, healthy meal, at home or on-the-go.
I was not eating dates during the strict phase of this cleanse because I was trying to curb all sugar—added and natural. But I have since loosened the reins (quite a lot lately) and dates are my current obsession. They will CRUSH that sweet-tooth craving without causing a post-binge energy crash or skin breakout.
Those of you who are nut-free won’t enjoy this one, but for all the rest, nuts are a great source of protein and healthy fat. Just be aware that you *may* be asked to refrain from eating them on the airplane. While you are not allergic, many people are, so if someone seated near you has a nut allergy, the flight attendant may ask you to hold off until after the flight. Don’t be too upset about it if this happens. I’m sure you’d want someone else to cooperate if your or your child’s life and health was on the line.
Corn Tortillas (And tortilla chips)
Saying No to gluten means cutting wheat, but it does not mean saying No to corn. A girl has got to live and having the carby goodness of a crispy tortilla chip dipped in guac, the toasty, traditional taste of a warmed corn tortilla (wrapped around literally anything) made it easy to give up other trigger foods. I didn’t need bread because I had a corn tortilla. Like I didn’t need pasta because I had spaghetti squash. I am a carb fanatic, so this discovery was mind-blowing and I never would have believed it unless I tried. I actually am fine without gluten and wheat products. Corn tortilla chips became my go-to snack when I wanted to feel slightly bad, and they remain so to this day. Skip the big brand, chock full of preservatives and other additives that may hinder it’s “diet-approved” status, and opt for an organic bag with simple ingredients. Just TRY feeling deprived while snacking on chips.
(And in case your wondering, my favorites are these RW Garcia chips.)
I have been DYING over So Delicious brand coconut milk vanilla yogurt. It has only 3 grams of sugar per serving and tastes fricken delicious. I chop fruit and macadamia nuts and top it all wth unsweetened coconut shreds, pumpkin and chia seeds for an antioxidant-packed, flavorful brekkie or afternoon snack. Try it and thank me later.
As mentioned, I am not being nearly so strict with my diet as I was during this cleansing period. I have incorporated some of the no-go foods back into my life, but have kept them in check, operating on a 70/30 system. About 70% of the time I’m dairy, sugar and gluten free, and 30% of the time I’m at some level of “cheating.” The sugar is always the hardest to keep on top of—my sweet tooth is relentless. But overall, I’m staying balanced and healthy, even on the go. I wanted to write this post because SO many people have dietary restrictions and struggle with making good choices on the road. I also get asked a lot what I pack in my lunchbox for work, so this post was a good 2-for-1. To follow up on this thread, I’ve included photos of four days worth of food crammed into my lunchbox. You can get the insider scoop on what this flight attendant eats at work. You can see all of it and how I Tetris-style cram enough food for four full days into a small cooler.
It is not always easy traveling with dietary restrictions, but if this carb/cheese/sugar-lovin’ flight attendant can do it, then anyone can. I hope some of these suggestions help.
People with dietary restrictions—what are your go-to foods to pack or buy when traveling? Any FAs out there with great on-the-go food ideas? Don’t be stingy, share with the class!
Hope you all have a safe and healthy weekend, and that we will have more excuses to use these foodie travel tips soon!
Now, if you’re so inclined, scroll on down to see what a flight attendant eats on a four day trip and how in the WORLD she packs it all in one lunchbox!
sweet potato, salads, eggs with broccoli, veggie burger, veggie and tofu dumplings, carrots, celery, hummus, avocado, bananas, apples, almond butter, salad dressing, an assortment of different nuts and dates
Now watch me fit ALL that in one lunchbox.
large items first.
Extra lettuce for more salads. Add some apples (and dip them in nut butter!)
The top portion of the lunchbox is for nonperishables that don't need to be kept cold. Dates, tea and bananas. The foil on the tips is supposed to keep them from turning brown too quickly.
Pile on the nuts and zip 'er up! We are ready for 4 days of work, traveling with dietary restrictions!
Happy snacking y’all!