Let’s face it, airline food is not the best. But when you’re on back-to-back nine hour flights with a sprint through the connecting airport in between, you don’t have much else to rely on. I wondered what gluten-free airline meals would look like on my trip to Ethiopia and back, and thought you might wonder too. So I did what I always do, take pictures of my food. Want to see?
My first stop was in Atlanta. Only a 3 hour flight, so no meal. I probably ate a Larabar and drank some coffee. My bag was stocked with snacks. Once at the airport though, I had a few hours to wait on the rest of the team. I spotted a Pei Wei in the international terminal. None of the other restaurants looked safe, so I checked out the Pei Wei menu. They had one gluten-free offering, the Spicy Chicken. The cashier seemed to understand the seriousness of cross-contamination, so I placed my order. I’ll be honest, I was nervous about it. I’ve had good luck with their gluten-free menu at home, but this was airport food. I tentatively ate my chicken, and everything turned out fine. Off to Amsterdam.
The flight to Amsterdam was nine hours. I watched three or four movies, tried to read a little, and had two meals. Dinner consisted of a chicken breast over rice and vegetables, a side salad, fruit, water, and two rice cakes wrapped in plastic wrap. The chicken was…airplane chicken. Not horrible, but not great. I didn’t trust the salad dressing, so I ate a little bit of the salad dry. The fruit was fine, and the rice cakes were rice cakes. I stuck them in my bag for later, just in case.
After watching the sun set and then rise again three hours later, my body was starting to feel the effects of jet lag.
Even though it felt like the middle of the night, it was time for breakfast. I got a banana, some OJ, and more rice cakes with honey on the side. Talk about a sugar overload! I ate the banana and gave the OJ to the man across the aisle. He was chugging whoever’s juice he could get his hands on. I let Delta keep the rice cakes.
Our flight to Amsterdam was delayed which meant we had the pleasure of sprinting through the airport to reach our connection to Ethiopia. I felt like I was on the Amazing Race.
Once on board, I settled back into watching movies until my next meal. I wondered when more rice cakes would be coming. None came. In fact, they had no gluten-free meals for me at all. Apparently the order didn’t go through. I was so glad I brought a few of the GoPicnic boxes in my carry on. I started munching away on some dry roasted edamame when the flight attendant kindly brought me a tray of food she had put together herself. She gave me a salad, a chickpea salad, and some fruit. I wasn’t sure if I should trust it or not but I ate the fruit. I didn’t get a photo of that tray, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
The next meal was the same way, and I was starting to get tired of snacks, tired of airline food, tired of watching movies, tired of being tired. None of that mattered though over the next five incredible life-changing days.
We started our trek home by flying out of Ethiopia an hour late, sometime around 11:30 pm. They had to change a tire on the plane. Then they had to change another tire while we sat in Sudan. I wasn’t feeling very good by this point. In fact, many of us were feeling the physical toll of the trip on the way home. I pretty much passed out during our stop in Sudan. My stomach was a wreck because of the food earlier that day (I’m pretty sure some dairy and gluten were in my last breakfast and dinner in Ethiopia), so I wasn’t up to eating much on the plane. My first meal was pretty similar to the trip out, except they had packaged gluten-free bread instead of rice cakes. An improvement maybe, but the bread itself was very white and dense. I ate the fruit, drank lots of water (a huge thank you to Alece for keeping me hydrated on that first leg of the trip home), and slept.
After another sprint through Amsterdam because of the delays, we made it onto our plane with no time to spare. Drenched in sweat and popping Immodium AD, I tried to think of anything but food. I was so ready to get home. Unfortunately, one of our flight attendants had a gallbladder attack and we had to make an emergency landing in Iceland.
After sitting in Iceland for an hour, we were headed to Detroit. Slowly getting closer to home. My last meal was a curry chicken salad with grapes and more gluten-free bread. I ate the grapes.
Our unexpected layover cost us our connections in Detroit so we wobbled over to a restaurant to wait for the next flight out. There was nothing for me to eat, but at this point I didn’t care much. We all looked hungover and didn’t smell so great, especially after sprinting through airports with giant backpacks. I nibbled on what was left of my gluten-free snacks and said goodbye to the team. The flight home must have been comical for my seat mates. We had the exit row and I was on the aisle. I sat next to a young couple excited about their trip to Arizona and California. Once the plane took off, I couldn’t keep my eyes open or my head up. There was nowhere to lay my head, so it flopped around like a bobblehead as I passed in and out of consciousness. I’ve never been that tired in my life. And I’ve never been so happy to get home.
If you’re planning gluten-free overseas travel, make sure to pack lots of snacks. The GoPicnic boxes were great in a pinch. Larabars, nuts, jerky, and fruit are also good choices. Double check with the airline that they have ordered your gluten-free meals correctly and that you are on the list. Stay well-hydrated, and pack the medicines that you know can help you feel better if you need them.
Oh, and don’t pack any rice cakes, the airlines have you covered.
If you have any travel tips to share, please leave a comment!