Eating Healthy and Gluten Free for Cheap while Backpacking Europe
I’m not gonna lie. Food was the absolute hardest part of Europe. To be fair, it’s pretty much an ongoing theme in my life. I struggled immensely with avoiding gluten and other things that bother my stomach (corn, dairy, oats, etc.) Even if my budget had allowed for sit down dinners for every meal, I still would have struggled. Learning to communicate with the waitstaff in whatever country you travel too is important. I made sure I knew how to order food and explain my allergies in every language that I knew I would encounter – it still didn’t solve everything. I had several good experiences where the food was amazing and the staff was friendly, and then I had a few where the staff didn’t want to give me the time of day and I ended up sick.
By far the best meal of my entire trip was at La Rossettisserie in Nice. It’s a tiny family owned restaurant hidden in Old Town Nice behind the cathedral. I had lamb and ratatouille and my only complaint is that I didn’t get more food! It was amazing and everyone who works in the restaurant is very kind. The place couldn’t be more picturesque, either! (Note – it’s by reservation only, so keep that in mind if you plan on stopping by!)
Another amazing meal was at O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, which is a tiny fishing village that I stopped at while en route to the Cliffs of Moher. I had wild caught salmon over veggies with a salad – every bite was great and the staff was very accommodating.
If you find yourself in London, don’t be afraid to try Borough Market or some of the other famous food venues. I found tons of gluten free bakery stands, and stands that were very aware of Celiac and did whatever they needed to do to make a meal for me. This was definitely the highlight of food in London for me.
And let us not forget the easiest form of gluten free joy that there is in Europe — Macarons. Macarons are generally naturally gluten-free, and there are several places to get them where you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination. the most notable of these is Damyel, which is a gluten and dairy free chocolate shop with three locations in Paris.
For eating out, I mostly stuck to salads at subway for the sake of sticking to my backpackers budget. I ate a few salads at Pret (which are everywhere in Europe) and had stir fry at Wok to Walk in Amsterdam, where they were kind enough to accommodate my allergies as long as I waited a little longer for my food.
Traveling to hostels was the best thing that I did because it allowed me to have a kitchen for the first few weeks of my trip. As much as eating out is a cultural experience, grocery shopping in local markets and cooking the foods yourself is probably even better (and cheaper!)
I shopped at a lot of farmers markets for produce, and then found Tescos, Sainsburys, Coops, Migros, Monoprix, and even a Whole Foods in Kensington to get the rest. These all had gluten free bread (always crappy and cardboard-y, but food is food) and I generally was able to get meat and eggs as well.
Some things to make note of about grocery shopping–
- On Sundays, many European grocery stores have either very limited hours or are closed.
- Grocery stores in most countries close on the early side, and you won’t find many places to shop 24 hours.
- You will always have to pay for bags unless you bring your own
- Don’t expect a billion different options for the things you want – with the exception of certain places I found in London, most stores only carry one brand for each item.
- A note on coffee in Europe — filter coffee simply isn’t done so get used to espresso. I even found a Starbucks where the Barista didn’t know how to make the Pike Place Filter coffee and asked me if I could just drink an Americano since the manager was busy.
- Meat in Switzerland is very expensive — I ate eggs the entire time I was there until I managed to find a sale on beef.
- Don’t expect to find a lot of premade salads in grocery store for your Celiac self – especially in France. They usually always have pasta or bread thrown in. The Europeans loooooove their carbs.
- You’re generally going to find a small shelf of Schar gluten free bread and crackers. I could’t even find corn tortillas in Switzerland. Sorry.
- Hummus and a cucumber is always a good default option. Also tuna fish. I basically lived on cans of tuna fish at one point.
- Make sure you research what gluten free food labels look like in the country you’re going to and it’ll save you a lot of frustration trying to read labels that look like gibberish.
- If you’re cooking in a hostel, make sure you check out the fridge space and the cooking equipment before you go grocery shopping.
As far as foods to travel with, this can be tricky with flying, especially if you’re traveling with only carry-ons like I did. I managed to squeeze about 30 protein bars into my bags, which ended up being a life saver. I also brought vitamins, packets of tuna, a huge bag of almonds, and some individual packets of protein powder. Looking back, I wish I had brought a little more. Quest Bars are my go-to, and if you’re lucky enough to find them in Europe, they’re ways over priced. I found some other decent options in London which I stocked up on, but after that it was difficult to find foods that traveled well in any of the countries that I went to. If you want to avoid sugars and dairy, it’s best to stock up with as much as you can before traveling.
On the bright side? Markets are fantastic. You get a huge amount of super fresh fruit and veggies for a really cheap price, and I was able to eat really well when I could cook for myself. Budget travel and backpacking may not include an extravagant food budget, but there are still many ways to enjoy the food of the country that you are in, and make it gluten free!