There is a percentage of the population who, like myself, suffer from some sort of dietary issue. For me, it’s an unfortunate celiac diagnosis that leaves me unable to eat gluten without becoming ill. For others, it might be a dairy or shellfish allergy, an intolerance to soy, or a myriad of other issues. Other people who might experience issues are vegans and vegetarians or others on special diets. As a result of special dietary needs, traveling can sometimes be problematic since it involves venturing out into the unknown where your trusted food sources aren’t readily available and you may not be privy to where your best dining options might be.
That doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself away in your home and never travel anywhere, though. Just because you have dietary issues doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel…it just means you need to do a little extra prep work before you head out.
Since I’m both really into traveling and also suffer from dietary concerns, allow me to share a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to get by while traveling the world.
Never assume you won’t have problems.
I’ve made this mistake more than a few times. Living in Southern California where it’s really easy to find GF food, I can sometimes become a little complacent and I forget that it’s not the same everywhere. When I was preparing for my trip to Seattle, for example, I figured it was another U.S. West Coast city full of people with similar world views to the area I live in, so I should have no problems, right? Not necessarily. Turns out people in Seattle seem to really love bread and deep fried things. That’s not to say that they didn’t have plenty of places that catered to GF diners and GF products available in grocery stores, because they did…it’s just that I wasn’t able to “just walk in” to any place and find something on the menu I could eat like I am used to doing at home. Finding places I could eat involved doing a little research online ahead of time and I wasn’t prepared for that. Even when I did find a place, I sometimes had issues. My husband made the mistake of mentioning the word, “celiac” to the girl behind a sandwich counter at a place that advertised having GF bread available, and she got wide eyed and almost refused to serve me because the non GF bread crumbs might touch the sandwich. This was after wandering all over the neighborhood we were in, searching in vain for something, anything I could eat while I was what I can only describe as “hangry” (so hungry I’m angry). I broke down in tears right there and begged her to just give me a sandwich and that I would be ok. It was embarrassing but I was incredibly frustrated by that point and had finally found a place with food for me and was being refused. Do yourself a favor: plan ahead.
Make your dietary concerns known.
I often hear people complain about “all the people with special dietary concerns going into restaurants” and how “they just shouldn’t eat out”. That’s not really fair and I can assume that those people have never had to live the reality of having dietary issues every single day of their lives. Life happens, and sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you need to eat out. Never mind the fact that eating out is an enjoyable experience that nobody wants to be excluded from. It’s isolating, not to mention difficult. The reality of it is that you just have to make your dietary concerns known when you’re looking for food somewhere. You may encounter people who sneer at you and tell you to eat elsewhere, but you may also encounter super helpful people who will be happy to assist you in finding something on the menu that you can eat. Some places even have special menus or will be willing to modify items to assist people with dietary concerns. You’ll never know unless you ask.
On that note, when you’re making your travel plans, make sure you make your dietary issues known where applicable at the time of booking. I’m talking about airline meals, bed and breakfasts, advance dinner reservations, etc. A lot of these places will be happy to accommodate you if they are given proper notice ahead of time.
If you’re venturing out into uncharted territory, you should always be prepared. I like to carry non-perishable snacks with me when I travel. I bring bars, packets of nuts, dried fruit, and other snacks I can eat. These have saved me on many occasions when the airline doesn’t have a special meal for me, the small town I’m visiting actually has nothing I can eat, the mountain lodge only serves sandwiches on sourdough bread and nothing else…you get the picture. I always look for foods I can eat whenever I go, but I also always have a few emergency rations packed away in case I arrive somewhere to find there is actually nothing I can eat. It’s a lifesaver.
Go grocery shopping.
I always go grocery shopping when I travel. Always. Not only does it save money, but it’s also a lifesaver for me when I’m traveling and can’t always find foods I can eat. Plus, it’s kind of fun to go grocery shopping while traveling. You get to explore and look at all the items they have that you don’t have at home.
Book a place with a kitchen if you can.
I’m a big fan of Airbnb. It allows me to stay in places that often have a kitchen where I can cook and prepare my own meals and it makes life so much easier. Still, I’m not always able to stay in a place with a kitchen. When I find myself in a hotel room, I still go grocery shopping. I just buy things that I know I can keep and prepare in my hotel room. If the hotel room has a refrigerator, I can buy things like yogurt, cheese, juices, etc. Even if the room doesn’t have a refrigerator, I can still keep GF bread, corn tortillas, nuts, fruits, and other foods that don’t need to be refrigerated. Work with your situation and keep and prepare the meals you’re able to.
Do some research before you travel.
I find it helps to look online before I travel and find out about a few restaurants that will cater to me before I travel. That way, I know I can go to those places when I get there. It also helps to find out which of the commonly found regional specialties you can eat. For instance, if you’re coming to San Diego and you need to eat GF, you can get grilled fish tacos on corn tortillas almost anywhere. They are inexpensive, delicious, and something you should probably eat when you come to San Diego, anyway. Find out what you can easily get in your destination and look for it when you’re traveling around.
Be prepared for language barriers.
If you have a dietary concern and you’re going to be traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language, it can help to download and print some travel cards ahead of time. GF travelers can find some at http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/. If your dietary concern is something other than GF, just do a quick Google search and something should come up for you. I find it’s helpful to print a lot of them in case you lose one or if you hand it to somebody and they don’t give it back.
Don’t be afraid to eat “boring stuff” sometimes.
I know, it sucks to sit at a cafe in France munching on a green salad while all your friends around you devour butter croissants. You may be tempted to just say, “screw it! I’m going to eat one!”
Remember how bad you are going to feel if you eat that butter croissant. I know, it looks tasty. It is tasty. However, do you really want to spend the next couple days stuck in your hotel room feeling bad, or do you want to go out and explore and soak in the place you’re in? It can be really tough sometimes and it’s hard, for sure. But don’t be afraid to eat boring things if that’s all that’s available for you.
Seek out special treats.
Chances are, there is something available in your destination that will be amazingly delicious. So, you can’t eat the butter croissant because it’s full of gluten. I know, I feel your pain. However, you can eat macarons, meringues, and creme brulee. Rejoice!
The bottom line.
Don’t let your dietary issues stop you from traveling. There is a big, beautiful world out there just waiting to be discovered. It might not always be easy traveling with dietary issues, but it is always worthwhile.