I have just returned from a wonderful three-week trip to Spain, France and Italy. The shopping was brilliant, the weather was freezing, the cities were breath-taking, and the food… well, the food was tricky. It can be hard enough eating out at home with a dietary requirement (or multiple); eating in a foreign city with a menu in a different language? More than a little bit harder. Luckily for me, I had visited France before and knew (kind of) what to expect, and my boyfriend speaks both Spanish and Italian. However, every time I travel, I learn more about eating overseas with a dietary requirement, and I thought I should share some of my top tips with you. Some are fairly obvious, but very important, and others I have learnt through my own experiences.
1. Learn Key Phrases
It is vital you can communicate your needs to any waiter/chef you may come across on your travels. Learning key phrases such as ‘which meals contain no gluten?’ Or ‘does this contain eggs?’ in the appropriate language(s), will ensure you will be understood while travelling. It is also a show of courtesy to take the time to learn their language, rather than assuming they will speak English. In some places, like France, it is important to show that you have taken the time to learn their language; in others, they just won’t speak English at all. Having a translation app on hand is great for situations when communication is tricky. I have never really experienced a situation where I wasn’t able to communicate my needs.
2. Research the Country’s Cuisine
It helps a lot to know what to expect when you arrive. If you have a dairy intolerance, it will be easier to find dairy free food in countries such as Spain and Italy (who primarily use oil as a basis for cooking, not butter) and most Asian countries. Countries such as France may prove difficult, as they love their butter! Gluten is found all over Europe, with bread served with every meal. In Asia, where rice is more prevalent, this can be a bit easier. While these should in no way dictate where you travel to, it is good to have an idea of the cuisine you’ll be enjoying, and your options while there.
3. Know of (or Discover) Particular Stores Catering for Your Need
There are emerging stores around Europe that cater specifically for dietary requirements. These little gems are a great way to give your body a break, or indulge in a treat. There are dedicated gluten-free bakeries and cafes in Paris, dairy, allergen-conscious ice creameries in Italy… the list goes on. It is taking a while for these companies to emerge, but they are, and it’s wonderful news for us. We found this gorgeous store in Sicily, and they had a whole range of dairy, egg and gluten free ‘gelato sticks’ all clearly labeled. We verbally confirmed (in Italian) what was dairy free, read the labels and ordered. The gelato was delicious, and the whole process was very stress-free. Knowing of these stores can be very uplifting, and they are perfect for return trips.
4. Have an Open Mind About Your Body/Reactions. Expect Anything.
This one is interesting. I’ll use myself as an example to show you how differently your body may react overseas. In Australia, a very small amount of dairy will result in a migraine, dizziness, nausea and vomiting and nerve issues lasting hours. In Italy, far too much dairy can result in blurred vision while just a little resulted in a painful rash over my stomach. In Paris, I could eat a salmon dish drowned in butter and only get slightly bloated and my mouth would hurt. However, after a few days of butter in meals, just a croissant in the morning could make me anxious for four hours. It can be very hard to predict how your body will react to triggers overseas, so keep an open mind. Your reactions may be more or less severe (hopefully less!) and the actual symptoms may be very different to what you are used to.
5. Monitor What Affects Your Body
If you are in a certain country for an extended period of time (around a week or more) you may start to understand what your body can and can’t cope with there. Especially if the reactions are different to what you experience at home, it is important to notice how your body is behaving. In Spain and France for me, butter was tolerable in moderation, but cheese and custard were not. I could handle some butter in meals and pastries, or cakes, but dairy in a more solid form did not go down well. Understanding these differences may open up more options for you, or help you be more comfortable
6. Take Any Medications (Natural or Non-Natural) That Assist With Your Requirements
It is always good to be prepared, so if you have any medications or tricks that help get you through mild to moderate reactions, bring them along with you. They may be as simple as a packet of Lacteeze if you just can’t resist that éclair and you only have mild reactions, or even green tea, which I find helps with bloating. Anti-nausea tablets can be vital if you are out for a special meal, or a long way from your accommodation. Particularly if your reactions are based in your stomach, there are quite a few methods for reducing the impact of reactions.
7. Occasionally, Your Options Won’t Be Great.
Sometimes, you just won’t be able to find anything delicious that you can safely eat. Particularly in confined zones, such as airports, your options can be limited. Is this the third time in two days I’ve eaten a panini filled with prosciutto? Yes. Does that suck a bit? Yes. Can I ask them to add some salad, carrot and tomatoes to make it a little more interesting? Yes. It can help to be creative, but sometimes you just have to suck it up. I’ll be honest- I had moments when my attitude was not the best in these situations, and it was actually my boyfriend who thought creatively to give me more options. Thank goodness for his patience!
8. Confirm That Your Airline is Catering For Your Dietary Requirements.
This is vital because you do NOT want to be going hungry or having a reaction on a 24 hour transit across the world. Most airlines today are great with this. I’ve encountered one major line that wasn’t and I won’t be flying with them again. Ask your travel agent to register your requirements, and confirm these are being catered for when you check in. Becoming a member of the airline and registering your meal requirements is also another way of ensuring you will get food that you can eat. The actual meals should be clearly labeled so you know what you are eating. Note: some airlines can a ‘vegan’ meal ‘vegetarian’ so don’t panic and think there isn’t a ‘vegan’ option. Just confirm this with your travel agent, or the airline itself.
9. Ensure That Whoever You Are Travelling With Understands Your Dietary Requirements.
Travelling can be hard work. Travelling with dietary restrictions can be even harder work. It is important that whoever you are travelling with understands what your dietary requirements are, their severity, and the consequences if you eat something with a trigger in it. People who don’t suffer from allergies or intolerances might not quite ‘get it’ but do your best to make it clear before you leave. The last thing you want is them rolling their eyes when you reject yet another restaurant because you can’t find any suitable options. What you do want is them trying their hardest to be patient and understanding.
10. Rent an Apartment
This holiday, we rented an apartment in Paris through Airbnb, and it was a fantastic experience. Although we didn’t end up cooking that much, renting an apartment with a kitchen allows you the option of cooking meals while travelling. This gives you much more control over what you are eating, and can be a good chance to give your body a break. It is also cheaper than eating out, which is never a bad thing!
Despite my dietary restrictions, eating is still one of my favourite things about travelling. I love eating new food, experiencing things that I can’t in Australia, and enjoying the incredible produce available. There is not much better than tasting something amazing that you have never tasted before. It is more than possible to eat beautiful food while overseas with a food intolerance, and there is no reason you should miss out on some incredible experiences. Stay positive, have fun, and try new things.