How to Eat Gluten-Free When Flying

Your Airline and Airport Options, With TSA in Mind

gluten-free airline meal
Long-haul flights usually offer gluten-free meals. Cheryl Chan / Getty Images

It's easier than ever to travel gluten-free if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, gluten-free options aren't yet universally available. If you're following a gluten-free diet and don't particularly want to feel hunger pangs while traveling by airplane, you'll need to take steps to make certain you have enough to eat.

In many cases, you won't find gluten-free snacks on board a plane, just the ever-ubiquitous gluten-y pretzels.

For long-haul international flights, you can't always count on getting a gluten-free meal, even if you order one in advance. Here's what you need to know about traveling gluten-free by air.

Ordering Gluten-Free Airline Meals

Most major airlines offer gluten-free meals (abbreviated in the airline food world as GFML) for those on long-haul international flights. To get one:

  • Reserve your gluten-free meal in advance. You can't just ask for the special meal at the last minute. You need to request it anywhere from 24 to 96 hours before your flight. It's best to do this online at the same time you book the flight. Consequently, if you change your flight at the last minute, you'll lose your gluten-free meal.
  • Check with the flight crew after you've boarded the plane to claim your meal and to make sure they actually have it on board.
  • Don't assume you can eat everything on the tray. The special meal will be wrapped and sealed; all the flight crew needs to do is warm it up and place it on your tray. However, a flight attendant might add something you can't eat to your tray, such as crackers or cookies for dessert. Be cautious, and if something doesn't seem right, don't eat it.
  • Bring your own food. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts to order safe food (and the airline’s best efforts to provide it for you), your special gluten-free meal might not be on board after takeoff. Therefore, you always should bring something to keep you going until you land.

Bring-Your-Own Airline Meals

When you're deciding what food to take with you on your flight, you'll first need to consider what foods will pass the screening at security (hint: skip the pudding and the homemade smoothie).

You need to avoid any food that is liquid or can be considered to be a gel, or limit their size to 3.4 ounces. Choose solid foods to be safe. You'll also want to avoid foods that require refrigeration since refrigerated gel packs aren't permitted.

Here are some ideas for foods that are easy to prepare and easy to carry, and which won't suffer too much away from refrigeration:

  • Fresh fruits (grapes and bananas are especially convenient)
  • Dried fruits
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Cold cereals (you can purchase milk after going through security)
  • Cookies, crackers, and rice cakes
  • Meats
  • Nuts and trail mixes
  • Candy
  • Energy bars
  • Potato chips, corn chips, soy crisps
  • Muffins

Don’t forget to bring along napkins and plastic utensils if you'll need them

International and Long-Haul Flights.

If you're going on a long-haul flight, it's not a bad idea to pack something more substantial (such as a gluten-free sandwich or dinner salad), even if you've pre-ordered a gluten-free meal. If your meal appears as ordered, you'll have extra, or you can save some food for later.

For international flights, there may be restrictions on what food is allowed into the country by their customs agents or by the USDA and U.S. Customs. The items of most concern are fresh fruits, vegetables, and seeds that can harbor pests and diseases.

Bring only what you're likely to eat on the plane, and you may have to discard any extra at the port of entry.

Sourcing at the Airport

If you know the airport well and there are gluten-free food options available there, you also can consider picking up some to-go food once you're through security. However, this can be risky. If you're delayed and find yourself sprinting for your flight, you might not have time to grab something, and could wind up on board and hungry.

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