Culinary adventures can be the best part of a trip. From the things you eat to the way you eat them, anything can be a new experience, and everything can be fun – unless it isn’t. Upon arrival, you find out that no-one in the country you’re visiting has ever heard of your dietary restriction. Your vegan lifestyle is challenged when you learn that every single local dish appears to have meat in it. The ingredients in this soup could be life threatening… if only you could read the label! Here are some tips and tricks for dealing with dietary restrictions while traveling.
Get into contact with whomever you need to, well in advance. Make doubly sure that you have booked a special meal on your flights. If you have a serious allergy, let the airline know, and alert the staff. If you are staying at a hotel or going on a cruise, find out what can be done to accommodate you. You might need to pre-book something from a special menu.
If you need to bring any allergy medication with you, be sure to check any restrictions you may encounter in terms of airport security. Ask your doctor for advice, and perhaps for some pre-written prescriptions to bring along. Check with the airline, hotel, or cruise line what their medical facilities and capabilities are.
Snacks can be a great way to manage your day if you are unsure about whether you are going to find a meal to suit your dietary needs. Eating throughout the day staves off hunger pangs and allows you to make more careful food choices.
You can bring packaged snacks from home, of course, though you will need to check what the restrictions are on bringing different food types into the country you are visiting. A good idea is also to research the snacks that will be available at your destination. Branded snacks often have their ingredients listed online. Find out what is popular, and likely to be commonly available at bars, rest stops, and grocery stores. This way, you can enjoy something local while still knowing exactly what’s in there.
No matter how willing someone is to help accommodate your dietary needs, they can’t do anything if they are not able to understand you! Planning ahead can help you get over that language barrier.
First things first: get yourself a vocabulary cheat-sheet. This should include ingredients you need to avoid, including any variations. If you are avoiding wheat, also make sure to have words like “flour” “breadcrumbs” “pastry” etc. on there. If you are avoiding animal-based products, include “lard” and “broth”. I would recommend both a written version of the word, so you can find it on ingredient labels and menus, and a phonetic pronunciation.
Also make sure that you have a basic “please don’t include this” sentence structure memorized, in case someone thinks you are actually requesting the items on your list.
A great tip for eating out is to bring some translated instructions on your dietary requirements with you. You can get an app for this, or just print a few out yourself. Include a polite greeting, a brief explanation of your dietary restriction, and perhaps a few suggestions. A friend of mine had the phrase “perhaps you could prepare my goulash without thickening flour” on his, which seems a little specific, but it seemed to do the trick.
If at all possible, try to find a way to do your own cooking. Some guest houses have kitchen facilities, as well as certain hotels and B&B’s. This is obviously more effort than just going out to eat, but you can control your meals much better if you are the one making them. It is worth plotting a route to the nearest grocery store beforehand so you can get there more easily.
Grocery shopping in a new country can also be an amazing experience. You get to find new ingredients and experiment with them, maybe learning a few new skills as you go. Just make sure you bring your language cheat-sheet with you to the store.
Do Your Research on your Dietary Requirments
This is the fun part: it’s time to dive into as many foodie blogs as you can find. You need to learn the common dishes, ingredients and cooking methods used at your destination. Start compiling a list of things you think you should be able to eat and drink – and start looking forward to them!
A very fun part of travel is finding those new foods that you have always heard about. There is no reason to miss out on this just because of your dietary restrictions – you just have to dig a little harder to make your wish list. Perhaps the famous seafood curries that everyone is talking about are off the table (excuse the pun) for you. Well, maybe you can substitute a classic vegetable dish that is celebrated locally despite its lack of international fame.
The more familiar you are with the local cuisine, the better you will be able to navigate it. You can (and should) ask questions once you are there, but if you know in advance which foods to avoid, you can streamline the process.
Check, Check, and Double-Check
It can be hard to judge whether or not someone has properly understood you. A waiter might nod and smile after you ask him whether something is vegetarian, only for you to discover he thought you were asking whether the dish contained vegetables. (Yes, they’re under all the meat.)
Now, you know personally how strictly you need to pay attention to your own restrictions. Some people are able or willing to make exceptions. If you cannot, however, it is never worth risking your health just because you are afraid of missing out, or are nervous that you will be found annoying.
Smile and be polite – but firm. Keep a snack ready for if you are unsure, and relax knowing that your trip is not going to be spoiled by your eating something that you shouldn’t.