Gluten-Free Airline Meals (Oh look, more rice cakes!)

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 lifechanging 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!


  • Michelle @ Eat Move Balance September 4, 2012 at 2:20 am

    You hit the nail on the head: when traveling, I try and pack as much as I can for myself so I’m not relying on what I found in airports and marketplaces. Bars, trail mixes, hummus packets (Wild Garden makes portable ones that have been lifesavers), nut butter packets, and seafood pouches. It might not be ideal, but it’s better than wondering if I’ll be able to find something worth eating. 🙂

    • inspiredrd September 4, 2012 at 9:15 am

      I loved the hummus packet in my Go Picnic box. I would love to find more, thanks for the suggestion!

  • Nikos September 4, 2012 at 3:46 am

    I totally loved this post. Whilst I am not gluten free, I sympathize it must be difficult when travelling. I know of the Go Picnic snack boxes, they seem to be quite popular in the US, are they well priced? Going to share this one with my twitter followers, thanks for a great post! 🙂

    • inspiredrd September 4, 2012 at 9:14 am

      They are about 4-5 dollars a box, but I think you can buy them in bulk too.

  • alece September 4, 2012 at 11:50 am

    i felt so badly for you on that flight home… you looked like you were feeling pretty miserable.

    so… what do you wanna talk about?? (miss you.)

  • Sara Spark September 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Such a great post! I did not know about the Go Picnic boxes – I will definitely have to get some.

    My husband and I flew to France a year ago, and I had a similar experience with in-flight meals. Lots of dry chicken and rice cakes. Flying over, we had a long layover in Philly, which had a Legal Seafoods. I was thrilled! We flew back through Charlotte, and I have zero memory of any options there. I was so tired!

    I packed a lot of bars (Lara and Kind), but only needed them a few times. I did bring some safe crackers to eat with cheese we bought in France (I can have dairy), but I was able to find some “biologique” stores (basically, organic/health stores) that sold GF products. It helps that I am a Type A Planner, but the trip was very doable gluten-free. We even took a cooking class with a chef who altered the menu to be GF.

  • Playing Catch Up | gluten free zen September 6, 2012 at 10:31 am

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  • Riv September 3, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Yeah…asked for Gluten-free (forgot to ask for dairy-free) on recent trip to Turkey via Germany and back. Got ricecakes there on Lufthansa and gluten-free bread (more like the dark heavy rye-brod type) on the way back. Read ingredient list on the back and it contains “lupin flour”(??!!!). Tried it. Didn’t die. But the really stupid thing was that when they handed out snacks, they clued out about the gluten-free thing and I was handed wheat containing crackers. (Doh!!) The allergen free dressing on the return flight contained “Thistle-Oil” and I’m very glad that I gave that a miss since people who have ragweed and other related allergies often have reactions to thistle-oil.
    Flight from Munich to Ankara – not gluten free-we got a blank look when we asked (and the Turks on the flight all clapped when we landed. Did they know something we didn’t?). Went without supper, but then after over a day without much activity I wasn’t exactly hungry.
    Internal flight from İzmir to İstanbul – not gluten free either-they tried handing me a cheese sandwich (literally a bun with cheese – nothing else). Pulled out some Savi Seeds that were still left from what I packed prior to leaving Canada
    We were there during Ramadan (Ramazan) and we went to the Ziya restaurant on the basis of Lonely Planet Guide and got a sour look when I asked for no bread on my plate. Beware of “wheat rice” on the menu-it is wheat-bulgar. And stating “Bir buğdaya alerjim var. (I have an allergy to wheat.)” elicits non-comprehension. Go to a local market and buy roasted almonds and dried fruits so that you have something during the day and hope that there is a buffet breakfast and dinner although one evening at the Pamuksu Hotel in Pamukkale, there were breaded entrees and a fish entree (confirmed a fish sensitivity while I was in Konya prior to this) and so I explained that I couldn’t eat the entrees and asked if they had some hard cooked eggs left over from breakfast and they came back with an omlet for me. Excellent service at the Pamuksu and at the Fehmi Bey Hotel in İstanbul.