Got milk? I don’t! I can’t do dairy at all because of lactose intolerance. Not the sort that means you can only have one piece of pizza either. Mine is sufficiently severe that even a pat of butter stirred into sauteed spinach can leave me curled up in a ball for hours. Food restrictions are no fun at all.
It’s bad enough when this happens close to home. When it happens on the road it makes me furious. Let’s face it, when I’m traveling I’m either there for fun or for work. Either way, if you put me out of commission for the better part of a day you’ve screwed up my plans.
This post is for all of those of you out there with dietary restrictions of some kind. I am not differentiating here between medical restrictions (allergies, intolerances, IBS diet, etc.), religious restrictions (kosher, halal), or voluntary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, paleo, etc.). If you have some foods that you cannot eat for whatever reason it can be a real pain in the ass when traveling, and that is good enough for me.
Tips for managing food restrictions away from home
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and please bear in mind that what works for me may not necessarily work for you – so be sure to listen to your body and your doctor before taking advice from the internet.
- Figure out your “safe core foods.” Even in the most restrictive diets, there are usually a few foods that are readily available and that are prepared simply (if at all) so you usually know what you are getting. Come up with a list of at least ten of these that you know you tolerate well and don’t react to. The simpler and less-prepared the better for this – think of it as a list of meal building blocks that you can eat on their own if need be. My current list: rice, apples, citrus fruits, boiled chicken, tomatoes, most veggies if raw/steamed/boiled, white fish if poached/broiled without butter, shrimp, oatmeal, raisins, lean red meat if broiled without butter. Looks very thin but I can usually find something to eat most places if I start from this list and stress no dairy.
- Don’t be afraid to be a pest – ask more than once about anything that is medical, and remind your server (politely) before each new item is brought out. More than once I’ve specified “no dairy, it makes me REALLY sick” only to have a server bring me nondairy goods at the start but then follow up with dairy for a second course or a refill for coffee. They are always sorry, but when I don’t find out until after I’ve had a few bites and flagged them down and asked, it’s too late. Pushy is fine when it is your health.
- If you are headed somewhere far enough from home that the food is different (regional difference, or international), do some checking on common foods for that area and see what you might be able to safely try.
- Are there ethnic foods that work well with your restrictions? I find that if I can wander until I find a Chinese or Japanese restaurant pretty much anywhere in the world, I’ll be able to at the very least avoid dairy. Be specific though with this one! It isn’t enough to think “Asian food” or “Latin food.” Chinese and Japanese places are safe for me but I have to be very careful if I go for Thai or Indian food – much more use of dairy there.
- Find a few safe fast food options as emergency go-to’s. Fast food gets a bad rap, but it has its place. One of the best things about chain fast food is that the items on the menu are usually similar if not identical across franchises. If you order McDonald’s fries in San Francisco, they are going to be the same fries in Columbus, Ohio. Caveat: This doesn’t work as well for overseas travel, chain restaurants have country-specific tweaks they do and you might be in for a surprise that won’t work for you if you don’t check ahead of time.
- Bring digestive meds – a lot of them. I’m always convinced that I am careful and will be fine on trips, and usually I am. But that one time out of ten I’m not? I am insanely glad that I have Immodium and Pepto chewables along. The last thing I would want is to have to hobble around sick as a dog looking for a drugstore.
- If dairy makes you miserable like it does me? Go vegan on the road as needed. One way to know for sure that your food doesn’t contain dairy is if you eat vegan. Even if you normally eat meat but not dairy, going temporarily vegan will make sure that ‘hidden dairy’ like casein doesn’t sneak in and cause trouble. (I react not just to lactose, but to other components in milk. YMMV.)
Resources for managing dietary restrictions while traveling
Why remake the wheel when these good folks already have the information we need?
- The information and search site is fantastic. If I were allergic rather than merely intolerant, I would head here first. From the site: “1) Click on U.S. Travel 2) Select your State 3) Select Your City 4) On the next page, you’ll find a listing of hotels with kitchens, health food stores, restaurants, and medical facilities.” Drawback here is that only US travel is covered, but hooray for all of us road trippers! Site also has a page covering airline policies of the major US carriers.
- The blog Young Adventuress is written by a veteran traveler with a serious peanut allergy. She doesn’t let it stop her, and she explains why you shouldn’t let food allergies prevent you from traveling the world. Great for a pep talk if you are the skittish type.
- Another world traveler with serious allergies, Robert Haru Fisher, explains how he stays safe and sees the world. I especially love the idea of printed translated allergen alert cards to give to servers. Great suggestions.
- Found on the same site (IAMAT), a sourcebook of English-speaking doctors around the world. Membership looks to be free and gives you immediate access to the information. I wish I’d had this when I got desperately sick in Finland – to this day most of that trip is a blur but I know how to say “pharmacy” in Finnish. (It’s roughly pronounced “AP tek EE”. Now you know.)
- If you aren’t handy or don’t trust your own skills at translation and printing, you can go here to get pre-printed allergen translation cards for where you are headed.
- The Allergy Eats mobile app would work for allergies, sensitivities, celiac disease, etc. I may download this myself. Free.
- Diabetics can check the American Diabetes Association’s website for a slew of information on travel safety and airport security policies, especially for traveling with syringes.
- Tracey Neithercott has compiled a master list of 35 top tips for traveling with diabetes. I especially like that she covers various modes of travel, not just air travel, and tackles issues like what happens if you are in the middle of the ocean on a cruise and you have an emergency event? Or how do you keep your insulin cool when you are on a wilderness trek campout miles from electricity?
- There is also a diabetes travel calculator site that is managed by the William Sansum Diabetes Center. Plug in your treatment, your travel details, and hit search – the site will give you specific advice based on your plans and medical needs.
- Vegetarian or vegan? Try the Veg Out app to find plant-based restaurants and resources while traveling. Vegan Express also seems to get great reviews, and includes grocery store purchases (great for traveling on a budget when you are sick of bananas and granola) and even alcohol.
- For international travelers who are vegetarian or vegan, the Veg News travel section is full of country-specific tips.
- Maya Shlayen at Gentle World gives us a beginner’s guide to traveling vegan. I especially like her tips on small packable products to bring that can make the sometimes-meager vegan fare more palatable.
- Celiac, or gluten-sensitive? The search site Find Me Gluten Free has you covered. Also largely US-based.
- Another search site, Healthy Dining Finder, lets you personalize a search for restaurants meeting your specific needs regarding things like sodium, fats, carbohydrates, protein, and calories. I can see this being great for travelers with cardiac conditions especially, since salt tends to sneak into many restaurant dishes.
- Keep kosher on the road with Kosher Restaurants GPS. This app requires users to subscribe for a one-time cost of $18.
- Kosher travelers may also find Totally Jewish Travel and Kosher Travel Info to be useful websites. Both allow searches, and both cover more than just food on the road.
- Halal travelers also have helpful sites – Have Halal Will Travel is a comprehensive site that has both a halal food guide and a general halal travel guide. Halal Booking lets you plan and book a fully halal trip in one step. Halal Trip functions similarly but also includes some tools to help travelers meet their religious obligations as well.
Do you see anything I forgot? Did I leave you and your situation out of this post accidentally? Please let me know! Head on over to my “Contact Me” page and send me an email, and I’ll see about doing some updating.