One of the best parts about traveling, whether domestically or abroad, is sampling new foods along the way. Food is a window to the heart of a culture, and it’s one of my favorite ways to experience a new place. If you have dietary restrictions for medical reasons, though, traveling can be a source of tremendous anxiety. Whether you have an allergy to peanuts, Celiac disease, need to avoid dairy, or whatever else, life on the road isn’t always easy, especially if the restrictions are new.
I’ve been traveling internationally quite a bit since I had to cut gluten out of my diet, and there’s definitely been ups and downs. After my gall bladder surgery, my doctor told me to start treating my diet as if I have Celiac Disease, because it’s suspected that I might (they can’t test for it since I am on a gluten free diet and would have to go back off in order to be tested, just to go back on if they find out that’s what it is), so I have to be extremely strict. That’s not necessarily easy when you don’t speak the language or are visiting a country where they don’t know what gluten is. Since my digestive system reacts rather, um…violently to ingesting even small quantities of wheat, barley, and rye, a mistake has the potential to ruin multiple days of a trip. Not ideal!
But whether you are keeping dietary restrictions for medical reasons or personal beliefs, if you want to be successful when eating abroad, it is possible with a little research and preparation. I’ve learned more each trip I’ve been on and was able to navigate Portugal and the Azores completely successfully on my own! Here’s how I do it:
1. Plan to explain yourself in another language: It might be completely intimidating to have to explain your dietary restrictions in another language, but you don’t necessarily have to speak the language in order to do so! For people avoiding gluten, for example, you can simply print out the cards provided at CeliacTravel.com and show them to your server. Of course, this doesn’t always work – when I went to the UAE and Oman, for example, I printed out the cards in Arabic, but most of the servers were from other countries like the Philippines or Indonesia and did not speak Arabic, and English was a second language. But it was very helpful in Portugal! Search the internet for cards for other restrictions, or write your own and use a translating app!
2. Learn the phrase that people use to describe your condition: This might sound strange, but not every country describes the same problems the same way. For example, if you tell someone in the U.S. that you have celiac disease, there is a good chance they won’t know what that means. But if you tell them you’re gluten free, they probably will have at least a basic understanding. By contrast, Argentina is the opposite. When I told people that I needed my food prepared “sin gluten” (without gluten), they had no idea what I was talking about. But if I mentioned celiac disease, they immediately understood! A quick internet search – especially of sites like Yelp or Trip Advisor – will tell you how your restriction is described.
3. Research the location of grocery stores near your location that will sell food you can eat: Although this won’t be the case in every single country you visit, the vast majority of countries have some type of major grocery store chain that can be found in large towns and cities across the country and carry similar products. In the Azores and Portugal, for example, Continente/Modelo stores are found everywhere, and they carry their own line of gluten-free products. Use Google maps to get directions from your accommodations to the market and stock up on food that meets your needs when you first arrive! Even if it is just a few granola bars and some snacks, you’ll have something to carry with you in case you’re somewhere that doesn’t offer food you can eat. This has saved me more than once when I’m gone all day hiking!
4. Find accommodating restaurants before you go and map them out: Whether you choose to use Yelp, TripAdvisor, or the good ol’ fashioned WWW, there’s sure to be someone who has visited your dedication before you and has had similar issues. I found a 100% gluten-free restaurant in Buenos Aires and a tiny cafe in Patagonia with gluten-free bread on our trip, which tremendously relieved my anxiety. Whether you’re vegan, kosher, or have severe allergies, you can probably find a place that will accommodate you and use it as a fallback, even if you don’t always eat there.
5. Research local dishes that meet your needs: Every place you go has a “special” food, and you might be surprised to know that it meets your needs (or doesn’t). Find out what the local dish is and check a list of commonly included ingredients. You might be surprised to know that it’s always made with corn flour, or never includes meat. It’s exciting when you find out that you can actually experience the local flavors, so check out the specialties in advance! You never know what you might find!
6. Don’t make assumptions: It can sometimes seem “easier” to just order a plain potato or some rice and hummus and not even bother trying to explain your issue to the staff, but it’s always worth the effort because places can surprise you! For example, when I was in Oman, I had had a very frustrating few days in Dubai trying to explain my restrictions at various restaurants. When we called down for breakfast at the hotel, my inclination was to tell them I wanted extra eggs instead of bread, but not explain why. My friend Lauren, though, told them I was gluten-free and they shocked us both by saying they made homemade gluten-free bread, and they really did! It was amazing – I never would have thought that I’d find something like that in Muscat, but I did, and it was so exciting (and delicious)! So don’t assume – it’s worth asking!
It might seem like a lot of work up front, but a little preparation can make for a much simpler and less stressful dining experience when you reach your destination! There’s no reason to miss out on the local delicacies if you don’t have to.
How do you handle dining out while traveling?