Tips and Advice: A Guide to Eating Abroad

Student Audrey Riddell created this brochure to explain the ins and outs of managing dietary restrictions while traveling.

Audrey Riddell

Audrey traveled to Sabah, Malaysia in the summer of 2017. There, she learned how to maintain her vegan lifestyle while in a culture where veganism is rare. Here, she shares some tricks and advice for fellow students who may have similar dietary restrictions.

Is it possible to study abroad with dietary restrictions?

After returning from a trip abroad, many students list discovering new cuisines as one of their favorite experiences of exploring a new country. However, for individuals with voluntary, religious, or medical food restrictions, the thought of navigating unfamiliar cuisines can be intimidating. Even at home, grocery shopping and eating out at restaurants can be challenging for some individuals.

The intent behind each restriction can also limit or increase the ability to be flexible in one’s food choices. Students who follow a kosher or halal diet, vegans, and other individuals with a spiritual or ethical dietary restriction may find it more difficult to navigate a menu of unfamiliar dishes than a flexitarian or an individual trying to limit sugar intake.

While this guide can help answer some questions about what to expect when travelling with such a restriction, food choices are highly personal. Some individuals are more comfortable making short-term compromises or adjustments to their diets than others. These preferences can almost always be accommodated, but will strongly shape the ease of access and range of foods available.

General tips

Eating in a new country can be exciting for any diet or palate. All study abroad programs will introduce cuisines with rich histories, unique staple ingredients, and interesting spices and seasonings.

Be adventurous.

The best way to fully experience the cuisine of your host country is to keep an open mind and be curious. This doesn’t have to mean compromising your beliefs or principles. Many cultures incorporate local produce, herbs, and spices that cannot be found in the U.S.,and may seem unusual compared to everyday meals at home. It can be incredibly fun to experience new tastes, textures, fragrances, and preparations of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

Look for familiar staples.

On the other side of the coin, if you have good reason to avoid unfamiliar foods, such as allergies, looking for simple staples, such as rice, beans, lentils, or tofu will help keep you full. For example, many countries in Asia will provide plain rice with meals. While it isn’t advisable to simply eat white rice for every meal, if all other dishes contain a restricted ingredient, rice is filling and plentiful.

Know your flexibility.

As previously mentioned, diets can be very personal. For some, making an exception to a normal restriction in order to experience a once-in-a-lifetime meal is acceptable. For example, someone following a plant-based diet might rationalize consuming an animal product if they donate to an animal sanctuary when they come back home.For others, this is not a decision they feel comfortable making. It might be helpful to consider your comfort level with such “trade-offs” before you leave.

Plan ahead.

If you follow a special diet, you are likely familiar with the need to plan for certain situations where finding a suitable meal may be difficult or impossible. You may find yourself in a situation where the main course is, for example, meat and/or dairy heavy, the rice is cooked in chicken broth, and the bread is laden with butter. Tough situations like these can arise, and it helps to have a backup plan in place so that you are not left hungry.

Take advantage of shopping breaks to load up on snacks to keep on hand for such occasions. It might be a good idea to bring calorie-dense snacks from home if you have the space. Items like power bars, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, whole grain crackers, dried fruits or jerkies will help bridge the gap between full meals in a pinch, and will give you some peace of mind when thinking about your next meal, especially when you cannot control the timing.

Be kind to yourself.

Speaking as a vegan, sometimes I can get sidetracked by “purity” in my decision-making. For me, veganism is about causing the least harm possible as I make choices about the food and materials I consume. Sometimes, it truly is impossible to go a full day without consuming an animal product due to factors outside of my control.

When I travelled to Sabah, Malaysia, there were times that the most “vegan” choice available was to eat a meal containing eggs. At home, I could easily avoid making such a choice, but in my study abroad group, I did not want to risk insulting our hosts by requesting too many special accommodations. This did not negate my veganism, it simply allowed space for complexity in an unfamiliar environment, and helped me think about the greater impact of my decision-making. If you have a voluntary restriction like I do, try not to judge yourself too harshly if you need to make a compromise under special circumstances. Often, the philosophy behind such life choices is about harm reduction, not perfection.

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