Getting A Head Start On Dye-Free Summer Vacations

In my dye-free vacation fantasies, I get to enjoy time away from home by lounging in peace, or arriving fresh-faced at some awesome (but planned/reserved) “experience”…on time, even.  I can walk proudly in some new swimsuit that will never touch water, cabana boys will bring me naturally-dyed cocktails poolside, parents will be getting along swimmingly with their kids at theme parks, and hotel restaurants will serve kids’ meals made up of a few non-number ingredients that won’t send children over the edge.

Brrriiiiinnnng!  And then there’s my wake up call…

The reality is that something will go wrong, so as parents, we gotta be prepared.  And as parents of dye-sensitive kids, oh hell yes you better believe something will go wrong.  To the tune of locking yourself up in the hotel bathroom pretending to have “travel issues” just so you can catch a break.

Being prepared isn’t my specialty, and in fact, it doesn’t come naturally to anyone in my family, really.  So the following tips are just as much for me as they are for you.  Some of this is just “duh”, common sense, I know.  I already do some of these things, but I’ve learned quite a bit while researching for this post. Please let me know if any of it helped you this summer, and add a comment with your own tricks of the dye-free trade below.

For a little background story on why I am writing this post, check out my personal story of travel regrets, a la Disney World, in “My Rainbow Connection.”

A Problem By Any Other Name Is Still…A Freaking Problem

First off, let’s start with a little language lesson.  In order for anyone to take you seriously, you’ll need to call your family’s issue with synthetic food coloring an allergy.  Your chances of being heard and accommodated are greater than if you say you have a “sensitivity” to dyes.  This connotes a mental problem, and every snarky, childless waiter knows it’s just all in your head!  But – with more and more people turning up with food reactions all the time, I believe “allergy” now translates loosely into “cover your a**” in most languages.

Dye-Free Tips for Hotels, Restaurants, and Theme Parks

Before you travel dye-free, there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for the best possible outcome.  

Just a little tip, before you even leave the house…please skip the traditional spray tan – or at least opt for an organic spray tan.  I learned the hard way that Red 40 petroleum dye seeped into your skin for a week can really ruin your hot tub time.  Remember that whole locking yourself in the bathroom thing?  Yeah.

Okay now back to food.  You can plot out some safe eateries on your route by researching or  For road trips, map out safe restaurants along the way.  Carry nutrient-dense snacks and bottled water to mix with dye-free drink mixes.  Some decent ones to try are Hanson’s, Stevita, TrueLemon, Flavrz, and Emergen-C Kids.

E-mail or call your hotel a couple of weeks before your trip to ask about allergy accommodations. Book a hotel with either a kitchenette or the opportunity to rent a microwave and mini-fridge, so you can control what you eat and save a little money.  If you tell the hotel that these amenities are needed for medical reasons, they’ll maybe put you at the top of a waiting list.  

Stock up on the smallest individually packaged foods and drinks, because 64 ounce juice bottles and half-gallon milk jugs can make your mini-fridge feel more like a game of 3D Tetris.  For long stays, buy foods online and have them delivered directly to your hotel.  Fresh foods can be bought at a local grocery when you arrive at your destination, but specialty or organic foods should be brought from home.  And don’t forget to bring your own toiletries such as hand soap, shampoo and conditioner, and laundry soap.

Then there’s the daunting task of finding your clan a safe restaurant, because nobody wants to spend their whole vacation cooking.  And admit it, eating your five course lunch under a huge animatronic octopus kinda makes you feel like a rockstar.  But if your server and chef don’t seem too receptive to your special requests, visual aids may help.  For instance, when traveling overseas, you can use an allergy card in any language you need.  Check this site for custom orders.  Or make your own based on two samples from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and CherryBrook Kitchens.  It’s totally okay to leave if you are suspicious of the food you were given.

Some people laugh at the most obvious advice for allergic people – just stay away from restaurants that specialize in your allergen, (i.e., a dairy-allergic person should avoid ice cream shops).  If only it were that easy to avoid food coloring in a theme park.  Still, many theme parks are not nearly as bad as they used to be a few years ago.  

If you’re heading to any Disney parks, checkout kid menus posted on All Ears, decide on entrees, and then call the restaurant directly to speak with the chef about particular ingredients.   I was told by one reader that all Disney property eateries should have an ingredients list available for allergic folks.  For extra parenting points:  Pack one new dye-free snack that your child has never tried, as a special treat upon your arrival.  And I’d strongly recommend that you buy a big ole bag of dye-free Sun Drops or Unreal Candy, since seemingly everything on Main Street Disney has been bedazzled with M&Ms, and you probably won’t hear the end of it from your kid if you don’t get them something rainbow-colored.  Sun Drops and Unreal Candy are naturally-colored alternatives to M&Ms, as are Smarties from Nestle UK (both of these can be found in Whole Foods or online).

My own recent experience at Six flags was not nearly as bad as I had expected.  I called ahead and was told to go directly to guest relations if we brought our own food into the park.  They quickly gave me a medical sticker to place on the outside of our food bag, and we were off, no hassles.  I brought a sandwich, dye-free soda, fresh fruit, homemade trail mix, Snapea crisps, and fruit leathers.  I was dreading the fact that we didn’t have enough to feed all of us for an entire day, so after a failed reconn mission at Johnny Rockets, we ended up eating at Panda Express.  I had never been there but it was one of only a handful of recognizable eateries.  We were pleasantly surprised (and I use that phrase sparingly these days).  Panda Express doesn’t add MSG and dyes to the dishes we sampled, and they don’t use synthetic preservatives in their cooking oil.

The only downside of our Six Flags visit was the parenting slip-up that is known as Feed Your Kid Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream As Soon As You Enter The Park (it wasn’t my idea).  I thought I was getting pretty good at reading labels, and the friendly people at B&J’s had a large ingredient list available, which was nice.  The label looked fine…but either the alkalized cocoa (charmingly nicknamed “Dutch Cocoa”, how adorable) or the carrageenan really made my child turn into a spazz.  For five hours.  Oy.

I did wonder about the candy-themed parking lot signs, which I honestly never noticed before.  Candy is so much a part of our culture, and it’s now completely intertwined with “fun.”  All I can hope is that someday, Skittles will be naturally-dyed in the US like they are in Europe.  I mean come on, they have a “British” section in many theme parks already – why not make some coveted dye-free M&Ms available in a specialty shop?  I know lots of folks who would pay a pretty pound for that.

I almost hesitate to add this last bit because speaking up for myself in real life is something I’m still working on…but sometimes you gotta put on the scary mama bear hat and question places that won’t accommodate allergies.  One person shared that, while she never ended up having to do this, she was fully prepared to threaten a lawsuit for discrimination against allergic patrons.  Hearing others’ stories definitely empowers me to step up and protect my family (which is the reason I started this blog). I so get it!

Planning For The Worst Case Scenario

While most kids react to synthetic food coloring with behavioral changes, some kids become seriously ill and can experience life-threatening symptoms like breathing or gastrointestinal problems.  Be prepared for the unexpected.

Make a copy of your Allergy Action Plan.  If you don’t have one for each person, get one here.  Notify all chaperones, babysitters, nannies, camp directors, staff at special events, and instructors of the allergy – and show them the Action Plan.

Get your prescriptions in order a couple of weeks ahead of your trip.  You’ll need enough prescription refill to get you through the trip, a note from your doctor if you need to carry special equipment, a copy of the actual prescription in the case of international trips, two sets of special equipment such as EpiPens and bronchio dilators (in original packaging), plus some dye-free Benadryl or Zyrtec (if your kid has taken those successfully in the past – vacation is not the time to be experimenting with treatments).  See below for some natural remedy ideas, too.  Extra medications need to be placed in your carry-on bag for air travel, just in case your luggage is misplaced.  Check expiration dates on all medications and ensure that all labels are intact and legible. 

Get a medical alert ID bracelet here (some of them are pretty fancy – these aren’t your grandmother’s medical alert bracelets!).  This helps convince others of the seriousness of your allergy, helps to legitimize this little known allergy to unaware folks, and helps your kid get help if/when you’re not around.

Buy travel insurance, and include your allergy as an existing condition to ensure coverage.  

Know where the nearest hospitals are.  At theme parks, know where the first aid stations are located.  For a list of English-speaking doctors and hospitals overseas, contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) at (716) 754-4883 or through

Call to book directly with an airline or cruise ship to get the most accurate allergy policy and accommodation information.  Pack snacks for airplane trips, and extra snacks for unexpected travel delays in a soft sided cooler or thermal bag, and also one meal for when you arrive.   If you’re not absolutely certain of the ingredients, then don’t eat the food on an aircraft or in an airport food court.

For air travel, call the TSA well ahead of your trip for restrictions, such as carry-on liquid volume limits.  You don’t want to be stuck 30,000 feet above any medical help.  Let a Transportation Security Officer know about any special medications you’re carrying.  For specifics, see, call the TSA at (866) 289-9673 (toll-free), or e-mail the TSA at

Keep cell phones charged and carry a charger with you everywhere.  This might go without saying, but for someone like me who tends to get in a rush, phones do occasionally go uncharged and cables get left in wads under nightstands.

If your kid shows signs of a mild, non-life-threatening food coloring reaction, try some of these home remedies, recommended by some parents in the Feingold Association:  1)  Let them soak in a warm bath with half a cup of Epsom salts.  2)  Give them a half teaspoon of baking soda with some water or juice to drink.  Alka-Seltzer Gold can also be used.  3) Try a supplement called Vitaline Alka-Aid to stop a reaction.  4)  Give your child club soda.

Of course, I make no claim to being a medical expert, and these remedies should not be considered the only appropriate care for someone having an allergic reaction – so if you feel that your child needs medical attention, do NOT hesitate to call 9-1-1.  For some great food allergy resources, see The Food Allergy & Anaphylactic Network and the Feingold Association.

And finally – Expect setbacks and delays.  Be thankful for small victories.  Set realistic eating expectations…except for that octopus lunch.

Now…relax.  You can find your car later.


You may also like:

Guide to Summer Camps Without Food Coloring

Our Dye-Free Summer Road Trip

12 Must Try Dye-Free Summer Treats


5 Responses to “Getting A Head Start On Dye-Free Summer Vacations”
  1. Jennifer says:

    Where have you purchased Smarties online? I don’t have a Whole Foods near me. Thanks!!

  2. Jill says:

    Thoughtful scheme! It’ll be safe enough for the kids to join this party and keeping parents from the stress. Thanks for your concern and a better plan of ‘dye free organization’.

  3. Christina says:

    We just returned from 3000 mile road trip. I downloaded the Yelp app to my phone and it was a huge help! You can search restaurants near by or in an upcoming city and find local organic places to eat or “safe” chain restaurants like Chipotle. 🙂

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