Traveling with food sensitivities
Whether you have some sort of food allergy or are on an intricate diet you might have wondered how in the world you can ever pull off travel. To experience the word with all its tastes and colors while not being able to order everything on the menu… particularly when there’s no menu, or when it is written in a language that you can’t understand, well, nevermind actually getting to your destination, managing this is a large enough task in itself.
After traveling for over 10 years as a vegetarian, and now as an aspiring gluten-free vegan, I have come up with a foolproof system for how to nourish myself. The following is a detailed Step-by-Step Guide to traveling and eating on a dietary budget (or restrictive diet). Follow at will.
Step 1: Acknowledge That It’s Your Deal
The first thing to acknowledge when traveling the world with any sort of food restrictions or intricate diets, is that this is your diet; these are your choices. It is your responsibility to deal with them and no one else’s.
Avoid setting yourself up for disappointment by expecting the world to cater to your needs. Regardless of where you are headed, keep in mind that you will need to be proactive to maintainyour dietary needs. Be prepared to make your own meals or to search for restaurants that fit your eating plan. Visit the local market before you explore the city or the trails. You might also need be ok skipping a meal or two until you find foods that truly suit you.
Step 2: Be Prepared
Start your trip right by packing meal alternatives that you can enjoy at any time. One thing that I do while traveling – particularly while flying – is bring food with me. This may be a fruit, snacks, or on longer flights a delicious full meal. Depending on the situation, you might bring a home cooked meal, or leftovers from a meal at a restaurant, but more likely than not, what you will find in my carry-on is a dehydrated meal. Yes, one of those things people use while hiking.
Forget any awful experience you might have with an MRE, now-a-days there are some tasty and actually healthy choices out there. My favorite are Good To-Go meals. They are so delicious and can often be the envy of anyone who sits next to you on the plane. Make them even better by adding some freshness into them, like some fresh spinach and avocado.
Find one that you adore, so when you have to skip the meal on a flight, train or drive, or whenever you cannot find something that suits you, you can eat it and feel great about it!
After your flight, drive or train, make sure to hit the local market first and start gathering supplies for the rest of your stay.
Step 3: Experience Local Foods
Another point to keep in mind while traveling, regardless of having a food restriction or not, is that you will need to be open to new experiences, to new foods and preparations. You need to acknowledge that you are traveling to a new country, possibly to a new continent, and the foods that you are used to having are not going to be available there. This is something that you need to make peace with before you leave your house. I have experienced several times, specifically when I first started traveling, going to a new continent – to a new culture – and wanting the foods that I was used to having on my continent. It takes a period of adaptation to get used to the new foods that are available.
The trick is this: Look for what the locals eat, what is locally produced or farmed, and make your choices from there. This will allow you to eat fresher foods of better quality and usually cheaper. It does take some willpower to go from what you want to what it is available. The length of the adaptation period depends on how much you are willing to mold your needs and how adventurous you are in trying new things. A way to ease into this process is to bring some things that you know you like until you find NEW things to love.
Step 4: Understand the Lingo
What it means to be a ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’, or anything else, does not mean the same in different places or cultures. Even the question, “Does it have meat?” can mean “No meat,” to, “Yes, there’s no meat, only bacon.” Know the lingo. Better yet, find the local words to describe your needs. In most of Asia, asking for a Jay meal means no meat, fish, or eggs, or the very elusive oyster sauce. Learning what to say can save your tummy. It can also save you tons of energy and miscommunications.
Step 5: Be Prepared to Cheat
Let’s face it, knowingly or unknowingly you will most likely cheat. Every so often you will be in a situation (the main reason always being that you were unprepared) in which you will need to step outside the constraints of your chosen diet. I like to be prepared with a list of priorities. What are the things that I need to maintain? What things will affect me the least? Note that this list will be dictated both by your belief system and your reactions to different meals. Consider which parts of your diet you can be more fluid about.
For example, I would rather have a small quantity of cheese, than milk, gluten or eggs. When I have to eat something that is outside my diet I go through that list to find the least harmful thing. I can manage small quantities of cheese much better than I can manage yogurt. If there’s nothing else I can eat and I can’t skip any more meals, then I might have something that has eggs. But under no circumstances would I eat meat. (Unless I am trying to survive starvation after our plane crashes in the Himalayas.)
Again, I have come with the understanding and the agreement with myself that, traveling as much as I do, sometimes it is not possible to be fully prepared and that then I need to allow myself to eat something outside my diet. Now, this is not something I can do every day, or even every week. It is something that I am willing to compromise every so often. Be mindful of your priorities. Again by being prepared these compromises can most likely be fully avoided.
Now when I do cheat, I try to make it worth it!
Would I have any sandwich?
If I am gonna cheat I am going to enjoy it and most probably I will find the best pizza in town, enjoy the process and quietly suffer the consequences (with opened windows).
Step 6: Keep It To Yourself
Along the same line of understanding that these are your choices, you must understand that no one else needs to carry the burden of your food preferences. Which means, first, you are acknowledging that these are your needs and therefore you are the person in charge to make sure that your needs are met. When you decide not to follow your own standards no one else needs to be bothered about it.
I have a million reasons that I could share with you about why you, and everyone else, should become vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. But that doesn’t mean that this has to be my conversation starter.
Unless of course you are some sort of advocate for that choice and you are on a volunteering trip to let the world know about it… and the people you are traveling with you know that this is the reason you are traveling.
Step 7: Live it Up!
What’s a little puke? Or, what if you shit your pants while walking down halways in the Vatican? Well, that’s a dietary restriction story that people would not mind hearing about and even seeing pictures of! Traveling is all about experimenting and experiencing new cultures, new flavors, and new scents. Be bold. Go out there. Experience the world, gluten and all! Just bring a change of pants and an epipen with you.