Being A Picky Eater Abroad a.k.a. How I Travel with Dietary Restrictions

traveling with dietary restrictions
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While not a picky eater per se, as a vegetarian, traveling with dietary restrictions can be tricky. I decided to become a vegetarian almost nine years ago, following eighth grade. Soon after making that commitment, my mom and I left for a trip to Greece that had been arranged by a travel agent. Having done only cursory research into what things a vegetarian could eat, I wound up losing 7 pounds during that week and a half trip because it was so hard to find options that weren’t meat based, especially in a foreign country where the idea of vegetarianism often seems absurd to them. It’s like that scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “[He] is a vegetarian, he doesn’t eat meat.” “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat? Oh that’s okay, that’s okay… I make lamb!” The most hilarious part of that interaction is how accurate it is to the real world and I can honestly say I’ve been given similar responses as I travel. But you should never let dietary restrictions restrict where you travel. Travel is too important an experience to give up because of inconvenience. With a little foresight and planning, you can still have wonderful meals wherever you are.

I have been traveling with dietary restrictions for years and I know it can be so frustrating. One of the biggest dilemmas has been the transportation itself, especially airplanes. Most airlines nowadays offer alternative meals on their flights if you order ahead of time. Yet some will serve a perfectly good vegetarian option with the regular meal service and force you to eat the horrible white rice and steamed flavorless vegetables that are delegated as the vegetarian meal choice. I never know whether I should even bother ordering ahead because the vegetarian meals are almost always horrible but I feel like every time I don’t preorder, there is no vegetarian choice, and every time I do preorder, there is a vegetarian choice that they won’t let me have because I ordered a special meal.

So what to do when traveling with dietary restrictions?

The failsafe choice is to bring your own food. Even though you may have paid for the meal that is included with your ticket, you have to expect that your restrictions will not be respected as they so rarely are. The burden of traveling with dietary restrictions always ultimately falls on you alone and you cannot expect others to be understanding or even nice about the situation.

Though I am a vegetarian, this dietary preference is a choice that I made, not necessarily a necessity. If I have to eat meat or fish, I can (though I hugely prefer not to since my system doesn’t respond well to those types of foods anymore). But many people are traveling with dietary restrictions that are medically more serious, like allergies or gluten intolerance.

Scope it out beforehand

With this it really comes down to planning…

  • where are the restaurants that accommodate your diet?
  • what types of food are there within the culture you’re visiting that can you eat?
  • what things can you pack to eat if need be?
  • who should you notify of your diet?
  • what emergency medicines should you have on hand just in case?

Certainly those with more severe medical restrictions have been thinking of these questions most of their lives, but they become even more uncertain when in a foreign place. The thing to keep in mind is that all of these dietary problems have solutions. Whether you are traveling to a safari camp in the middle of South Africa, a remote island in French Polynesia, or a huge metropolitan city in Europe, it will be possible to find a meal. It may not be as simple and will not always be straightforward, but it is not impossible.

Dealing with the haters

I have gotten fairly good at planning ahead for my dietary restrictions but there is no way to prepare for how people will react to your diet. I honestly find that too many people are downright rude about the situation and it can sometimes feel like you are being punished for what you don’t eat. It’s not always direct, but it is implied when you explain the situation and are told “We can give you this horrible flavorless vegetable with no nutritional value because clearly that is all that is good enough for you.”

A recent example was in Spain, when I went down to the concierge to ask for dinner recommendations and mentioned that I’m a vegetarian. His tone changed immediately and he actually laughed at me, saying “Oh, you’ll never find tapas that aren’t meat or seafood. That’s not something we do here.” Lo and behold I had already found several restaurants that did, in fact, have many vegetarian and even vegan and gluten-free options, so I was extremely angry that he would get such an attitude. For someone outspoken like me, I had no problem telling him as much, not so much for my own sake but for the sake of others. What if another vegetarian had asked the same question 15 minutes earlier and been told to eat at some chain restaurant because the concierge made them feel so bad about their diet?

When people give me hassle, my reaction is usually to stick to my guns and refuse to be disrespected. It helps to have done some research ahead of time, but even if I haven’t, I always assume there are good options for my diet and I won’t settle for something subpar. I have eaten an 8 course tasting menu at one of the top 10 restaurants in the world, I have eaten at hole-in-the-wall cafes, I have eaten incredible meals in towns that have only one or two restaurants–all of which have given me vegetarian options.

My point is that you should never let anyone tell you there are no options because you are the only one that understands what you can and cannot eat.

When you’re not traveling solo

The next problem to grapple with are the people you are traveling with. It is doable when you’re traveling alone to say to yourself, I’m going to eat at this great vegetarian restaurant I found online, but when you’re with other travelers, particularly a larger group, you can often feel ostracized when you have to insist on finding a place to eat that can accommodate you.

It can help to know a few key phrases in the local dialect, like “I am allergic to all shellfish,” or “I do not eat any meat,” and to be flexible with your choices, like eating a few appetizers and no main dish if all the mains are against your diet. I can certainly say that I have gone without eating a meal before due simply to dietary restrictions conflicting with the group or people I am with. You should make sure that your travel partner(s) understand and respect that you are traveling with dietary restrictions and let them know that you will do your best to mitigate the difficulty those restrictions can bring.

What traveling with dietary restrictions ultimately comes down to is your preparedness and your expectations. If you expect the worst, then you can prepare for it. I always assume that people will not want to accommodate my dietary needs and that I will have a hard time finding options, this way I can do my research ahead of time to find options and minimize the annoyance of those around me. Like I said, the burden will always fall on the person with the restrictions, so you cannot get frustrated when you are not accommodated, only adapt accordingly.

Do you experience travel anxiety from your dietary needs? How are you guys not letting it stop you from a killer vacation?

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