By Annie Martin
For those of us with any sort of dietary restrictions, from lactose or gluten intolerances to vegan or vegetarian lifestyles, the idea of travel can be daunting. Where others drool at the idea of the bubbly-hot cheese pizzas and colorful gelatos of Italy, we might feel our stomachs turn in stressful knots.
When I decided to study abroad in Europe this past semester, one of my biggest fears was not being able to find any gluten-free options. After all, one of the most exciting parts of travel is getting to expand your culinary palette.
One of my roommates was vegan, the other lactose-intolerant, and finding a restaurant where all three of us could walk away full and happy, in places where we didn’t even speak the language, felt like a nearly impossible task.
But fear not, fellow diet-conscious travelers! We survived and thrived, with only a few minor bumps along the way. I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts to help you travel with mindfulness and ease, so you can savor the adventure without your restrictions getting in the way.
Do educate yourself.
When you’re traveling, the first and most important thing you can do is a little research. Learn how to ask about your dietary restriction in the local language before you get there, and make sure you can to list the ingredients you can’t eat, too. You may know how to say “vegan” in thirty different languages, but that won’t make any difference if someone simply doesn’t know what “vegan” means.
Knowing how to explain your intolerance, on a basic level, is something both the person taking your order and your gut will thank you for.
Don’t expect to be catered to.
No matter how flawlessly you can talk about your dietary restrictions, the fact of the matter is that some places just won’t have an option for you. This doesn’t just apply to traveling abroad; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven through parts of rural America, stopped at a local restaurant, and asked about gluten-free options only to be stared at like I’m from another planet. This is okay. Not everywhere is an LA Farmer’s Market.
Nobody wants to deal with an entitled tourist; if you get frustrated with a restaurant because they don’t have what you need, check yourself. Part of being a mindful traveler is recognizing that people have different cultural norms, and this also applies to the world of food. You’ll get frustrated very quickly if you’re expecting to sit down in any local cafe in provincial France and immediately find a gluten-and-lactose-free vegetarian three-course meal. Your server will get frustrated, too.
If you have done your research, you can generally find your way around a menu on your own. It helps to look up recipes for popular local dishes ahead of time: that way, you can ask your server about specific ingredients in dishes that you already know you can probably eat, rather than going through the whole menu or asking for complicated modifications.
Do prepare backups.
Let’s say you do go to provincial France. It’s a lovely day, you just got off the train, and you’ve been traveling for five hours. The only place within walking distance is a small, family-run local cafe. It’s cute, the server is friendly, and you’re thrilled at the prospect of getting to experience some true local flavor. You ask in perfect French for a vegan meal, and explain that means you don’t eat meat, dairy, or eggs. The server understands you, but regrets to inform you that there are no options available for you on the menu.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-likely scenario. If you’re not prepared for it, you may find yourself stuck somewhere with an empty stomach and a rapidly declining mental clarity. Which is why I cannot stress the importance of this tip enough: pack backup options. Low blood sugar can make you foggy and even less capable of finding food you can eat, and a protein bar is often the difference between a beautiful day and a miserable day. It may not be the glamorous, Instagram-worthy meal you were hoping for, but it will help you get back to the most important part of traveling – the ability to be present and fully take it in!
Don’t get frustrated when things don’t work out.
When you do have your inevitable protein bar moments, try to make them positive. It’s easy to feel bummed out when you’re expecting a warm sit-down meal and end up settling for something out of a package. Look at these moments as opportunities to meditate, rather than thinking about what you feel like you’re missing out on. Focus on the intention behind what you put in your body, and practice harboring thoughts of thankfulness rather than frustration. Traveling is a luxury, and caring for your body is a priority.
Do use your phone.
Phones can easily distract us from being present when we travel; but they can also be an excellent tool. Take advantage of review websites like Yelp and Trip Advisor to scope out a few restaurants that have options for you before arriving in a city. While it’s fun to be spontaneous and pick a restaurant at random, knowing of a few options where you’re guaranteed a meal is always a good idea.
Plus, review websites often highlight places that offer options you wouldn’t normally be able to find; I was able to find delicious gluten-free schnitzel in Berlin that I would have never found without the aid of enthusiastic Yelp reviewers.
Don’t rely on Google.
With that being said, while phones are extremely helpful in finding options that suit your dietary restrictions, they can also be misleading. Just because a place is listed as having vegan options doesn’t mean they’ll have vegan alternatives. While there’s not much you can do to prepare for this before getting somewhere, unless a place explicates on their menu or website that they cater to your restriction, it helps to set your expectations fairly low, and to bring backups just in case.
Do savor the treats you find.
The good news is, because of increasing popularity of diets such as gluten-free and vegan, there are actually lots of opportunities for travelers with dietary restrictions to have full and diverse culinary experiences. When you do find alternatives, make sure to savor them! I can still remember a specific piece of cake I ate in New Zealand, that I’ll probably never get to eat again. Having a dietary restriction can seem like an annoyance, but it can also mean that when you do find food you can eat, it tastes even better.
Don’t forget to leave reviews and thank the people who provide you with an awesome experience!
Spread the word!
I used to think that the only people who left reviews were cranky middle-aged ladies, but after working in the restaurant industry and doing some traveling I’ve learned the importance of leaving positive reviews. Letting someone know that they did a good job of taking care of you not only helps other people find the restaurant, but encourages the employees of the restaurant to keep up the good work.
Going out of your way to thank the people who helped you and prepared your food is not only courteous; it’s how you make your meal a fully cultural experience. Because, while food is an integral part of culture, what’s even more important are the interactions you have with other people.