TSA Took My Lunch! Airports and Food Allergies

As I watched TSA swab my jar of peanutbutter, I thought back to the good old days–not the days before Sept 11 when airplane security was less rigorous, but back to the good old days when I didn’t have food allergies and celiac disease.  My biggest concern before becoming An Allergic Foodie was what shoes to pack. Now, I begin hyperventilating while making an airline reservation. What will I eat it? Where will I eat? What if I have a reaction? Should I just stay home with the dog?

I made many ignorant mistakes in my early days of traveling through airports with allergies.  Let me share a few.

Mistake #1. “Surely, I’ll find something in the airport to eat.”

Wrong. I’ve wandered through some of the largest airports in the U.S. and come up with zilch. Too many times I’ve drooled over my husband’s burger or pizza slice while eating a bag of potato chips and an overripe banana. On occasion I’ve hit the jackpot and found a restaurant with a menu I can eat off, but this is like finding a four-leaf clover in a field of dandelions.

Now I always carry a lunchbox with me and keep it by my side as if it’s full of diamonds. The plastic salad bowls with built-in ice packs are great for chicken salad and quinoa salad. I fill snack-sized bags with carrots, sliced peppers, and apple slices to replace the standard airplane pretzels.

Snacks for the airplane

Mistake #2:  “Peanutbutter is not a liquid.”

My husband travels every week for business and he even thought peanutbutter wouldn’t count as a liquid.  But it did.  Because it was the only protein I had with me, we allowed TSA to swab a spoonful. Now I know that if  I want to take peanutbutter, or applesauce, or yogurt, it must be under 3.4 ounces and placed in a plastic bag.

Mistake #3: “I’m starving! I’ll take a chance.”

It was midnight and there was only one restaurant open. Having to use sign language wasn’t making me feel too confident that the waiter understood “no dairy, no soy, no wheat.”  In retrospect, being hungry for another few hours would have been better than what happened next.

Mistake #4: “It’s a short trip; I’ll eat when I get there.”

Yeah, how many of your short trips have turned into 12-hour ordeals? And being irritable from low blood sugar and a grumbling stomach does not help one negotiate with the ticket agent. Don’t just bring one ham sandwich on gluten-free bread–bring two.  Statistically, you can pretty  much count on a flight being delayed.

United Snackpack

Snackpack from United Airlines: The only food An Allergic Foodie could eat was the hummus

Mistake #5:  “I ordered a special meal.”

We were going to Italy and I ordered a gluten-free/lactose-free meal, thinking there’d be something I could eat. What I didn’t know is that airlines can only put one code in for a meal: GFML for gluten-free meal and NLML for non-lactose meal.  There may have been a vegan option too, but those always scare me because I’m allergic to tofu (soy).

Somehow I got neither meal–maybe the two codes cancelled each other out? The flight attendants felt horrible and kept bringing me apples and bananas.  Fortunately, I had frozen some allergy-free turkey and ham with me that I nibbled on throughout the long flight. Beware:  You’ll have to throw away any food you take with you when you enter another country so eat it before you get off the plane.

Mistake #6: “Sure, I’ll have a second glass of wine.”

Hey, I got upgraded and the wine was free. I just couldn’t eat any of the foods in the snack pack. Actually the hummus was allergen-free for me, but my seat mate gave me the evil eye when I tried squirting it into my mouth. Eating wine on an empty stomach is never a good idea.

I’ve been traveling for six years now with food restrictions and it has gotten easier. Airports are offering healthier options including gluten-free menus, though I’m not sure how confident I am about the service folks being aware of  cross-contamination issues. Allergy-friendly snacks have started appearing in the convenience stores, too.

At the recent Food Allergy Research and Education conference, I had the opportunity to hear Kim Koeller of  Allergy Free Passport, share some tips for airline travel, staying in hotels and dining out with dietary restrictions.  She says, “There are three keys to safe travel and dining out: education, communication, and preparation.”

To learn more about traveling safely with celiac disease and food allergies, visit Kim’s website: Allergy Free Passport and check out her popular series “Let’s Eat Out Around the World Gluten and Allergy Free.”

TSA Took My Lunch! Airports and Food Allergies first appeared on Adventures of an Allergic Foodie.

10 thoughts on “TSA Took My Lunch! Airports and Food Allergies

  1. Reblogged this on allergictolifemybattle and commented:
    This is a dilemma many of you I am sure have had to deal with in some form or another.

    I remember once flying home from Dallas to California. I fixed myself something that I could eat knowing I couldn’t eat anything on the plane. What I didn’t think about was to eat meant removing my mask and taking off the oxygen that helped keep from reacting to all the stuff in the air. Lesson learned was to make sure I ate before I got to the airport so I could make it to my destination where I would once again be able to eat.


  2. I have learned to take my own food. I don’t do well with foods loaded with preservatives. Also I don’t do well without eating and there are too many times that the long layover turned into a run for my connecting flight. So to make sure I have protein, I take nuts, trail mix, homemade granola bars, etc. The TSA has never questioned my sandwiches, fresh fruit, veggies, cookies. If I question whether a food item will go through security, I call the airport to check.


  3. Great article, Amy! I do everything I can to pack my own food. Once, last year, I headed to the airport straight from the office where my team hosted a lunch — we had leftovers so I actually took half a margherita pizza (soy-free, nut-free and seed-free) through security! Those liquids will get you in trouble every time!


  4. Ah! I’m so sorry to hear about your experience! I’ve always had great experiences flying (fingers crossed), but I’ve never tried to bring in a jar of peanut butter.

    When flying within the US you can also bring a cooler with frozen ice packs as long as they’re completely frozen when you go through security. That’s been a life saver for me. And the few times where it’s not completely frozen, they’ve pulled me over, but let me through. I wear a medical ID with my allergies, so when I explain. They’ve always been super nice, and try to give me tips as to how to keep the ice pack frozen.

    Hopefully, your next trip flying goes better! When we were in the airport in Orlando, my sister and I were in different wings. She kept texting me foods she found that I could eat, but there weren’t any in my wing!


  5. I am so excited that you wrote about flying with food allergies! This week my family is flying for the first time in years, and it will be my first time flying with my (known) food sensitivities. I’ve been having nightmares about rabbit punching TSA officials for taking away my snacks (but I will totally do it if they try). So finding your post has likely saved me from a string of seriously ugly situations. I love how you used past experiences to develop tips and rules. The only way to learn and provide advice is to go through hideous situations — and survive, if barely! I reblogged your post — it is awesome. Hope your next flight is a huge success!



  6. Else says:

    The last time I flew Air Transit (there won’t be another time) they gave my GF meal to the person behind me, who ate the whole meal and only then asked why they’d gotten a special meal. So then they brought me the GF snack….rotten grapes and a soggy rice cake. Then they brought me a nice looking salad from first class that I still couldn’t eaten because I didn’t know if the dressing was safe. Then the head air hostess starting giving me attitude and saying no one should have ever given me the salad because it’s for first class passengers only. Another air hostess (the one who gave away my meal) told me next time I fly I should order a special meal. Ummmm, that’s exactly what I did you idiot!


What do you think . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s