For anyone travelling to a different country, a unique set of challenges will surely arise. New surroundings, new customs, new people — you’ll be pushed to reach outside of your comfort zone in trying new things and getting adjusted. However, for some, a line has to be drawn when it comes to trying new things. For me and 7.3 million other Americans, meat won’t be on the menu when I travel across borders, and it doesn’t stop there: whether it be gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan, allergy-conscious or otherwise, some students face an even more unique (ahem, challenging) set of things to keep in mind when sitting down for dinner. Here are some tips on keeping to your dietary restrictions while studying abroad:
Do your research
Some countries have historically veggie-based diets, and some do not. If you’re super concerned about avoiding meat, check out Scotland (don’t be fooled by haggis - it was voted the U.K.’s most vegetarian-friendly country), Southeast Asian countries, or other places that historically have less of a meat- and dairy-based diet. Websites like HappyCow.net and Chowhound.com are good for both preliminary and on-location research.
Be clear about your restrictions
If your heart is set on Spain or France or another meat/cheese/gluten-happy culture, be sure to be clear about what you can and can’t eat. “Vegetarian” or “vegan” in some countries just means no red meat (ask my Abuela and that’s what she’ll tell you, while rolling her eyes), and “yo soy celiaco” might prove just as ambiguous to your server. Be concise about what you can and cannot eat — while keeping an easygoing attitude about it — and there’s a 95% chance they can accommodate you.
Stock up with snacks - and vocabulary
Making sure you know your way around at least the basics of the dietary vernacular. Trying to communicate your restrictions will be all the harder if you’re speaking a completely different language, and could result in something dangerous. The word “allergy” is pretty similar in a lot of languages, but “pine nuts” or “raw fruit” aren’t. If you aren’t completely sure, keep a dictionary or travel guide with a language section on you. And, since better safe than sorry, keep some snacks on hand if you don’t want to risk it.
Cook for yourself
In the 5% chance that the only restaurant available is serving pepperoni pizza and nutella sandwiches (Rome, I’m looking at you), what better way is there to really feel part of the country and cook yourself a meal with produce from a local supermercato? You’ll be able to pick what’s best for you and cook it to your liking, and maybe pretend you’re a chic local while you’re at it.
Not everyone has your diet, or knows about it - be sure to keep a good attitude while explaining your restrictions. In many countries, refusing food is offensive. Be ready to provide an explanation without sounding like you’re on moral high ground, especially for by-choice vegetarians and vegans. Sometimes the best answer is just laughing it off and saying “I don’t like meat” and be ready to smile at the ensuing jokes and confusion.
Enjoy the food!
Just because you’re avoiding a certain type of food, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the cuisine! There are options for everyone in every country, and just because you have to look a bit harder doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it. Whether it be finding the vegetarian empanada or quinoa soup while everyone else is eating beef, you’re still drinking in/eating up the atmosphere around you. Get adventurous!