Thursday Thoughts: Food and Travel

It's Thursday, so you know what that means...

Thursday Thoughts

If you are new to my blog, or haven't been reading on Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic.  Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses.  Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting.  In general, I hate over-generalizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something. 

This week I wanted to talk about something not so controversial, and more of just my thoughts on the topic of food and travel.  Now that we live overseas, we have the chance to travel more, and as many of you saw, I traveled quite a bit over the summer.  Since I am a vegetarian and I do have certain food preferences, I have had some experience with this topic.  The hardest for me was probably my travel to China, and I was prepared for that situation, plus our tour guides were very helpful.

1) Plan ahead.  This is probably the biggest part and all my other thoughts on this will play into the whole plan ahead topic.  The first thing to do after you decide where you are going, plan where to stay and how to travel, you want to investigate their food habits and traditional dishes.  This way you will know what to expect.  If you have no food dislikes and will eat just about anything, this may not pertain to you.  As a vegetarian, I like to know if there will be fish options (because I have included fish in my diet for several years now) or if they are predominately a meat eating country.  I can learn about the food and the culture and have an idea of what would be expected of me at meal times, and I would also know which meal would be the biggest.  In many European cultures, it is lunch that is the biggest meal of the day.  It is also good to have an idea of the times people dine because this can help you plan your sightseeing and other outings.

2) Learn some of the language.  At least learn some of the words for foods because it will make it easier to navigate a menu if there is not a menu in English available.  Knowing a few words can help you understand what dishes are being offered.  If you have a food allergy or dislike, it is helpful to know these words so you can avoid them.  Learning basic words and phrases related to ordering food and shopping are the most helpful and best places to start, because this can even help when at a sightseeing location.  The next most important I focus on are basic conversational phrases and things to help in areas of travel.  When you know well in advance where you are going, there is more time to focus on learning more of the language.  In Portugal now I have no issues with reading a menu and ordering food.  Many places that are more touristy will have English speaking staff and usually a menu or two in English.

3) If you have a food allergy, food preference (like vegetarian or vegan) or any dietary restrictions, learn how to express these in the native language.  Even better is to have it written on a card and carry this with you.  Google Translate can be helpful, but never rely just on the computer.  I would suggest checking with a dictionary in that language and also checking if you can with someone who does speak that language.  This can prevent any surprises and also prevent allergic reactions.  Always check on foods and never assume that an ingredient may not be present.  Anything is possible when you are not familiar with the food, and if it is for a medical reason, always check.

4) Bring back up food and snacks.  Not only are snacks good if you are traveling and sightseeing all day and are not able to stop and sit down at a typical meal time, but they are helpful if you get stuck in long lines are really just stuck anywhere.  Being a vegetarian, sometimes I have limited options.  I try to carry non-perishable small meal items with me, usually a tuna meal packet (because I do eat fish), or anything that I can easily carry and fix if I have no options.  This came in handy in China because there was a meal or two where I had no options and I knew I would get really hungry.  I have found many places will serve just vegetables, but you can never be sure.  I know it is great to be able to experience the local food, but sometimes it is not conducive to food prefs and specific dietary needs, so carrying something with you is a good idea.

5) My last thought is on bringing home local treats.  I love to explore grocery stores in other countries and I almost always buy more food than I can ever try, so I wind up needing to bring it home.  My advice on this would be that this is a great idea for starters because it prevents over eating on just about everything you wish you could try.  But, my second piece of advice is check with customs before you try traveling with food.  There may be special rules and guidelines and you do not want to get stuck at the airport sorting things out while trying to catch a flight.  I have never really had problems with snack type foods, but as you can imagine, produce is a whole different story, so check ahead.  I know from Hawaii we could bring back one pineapple, but anything more than that one and we needed to claim these and whatever else was the rule.  I like bringing back snacks too because I can let other people sample the yummy treats too.

Overall, there are many reasons to travel and not everyone will travel and dream of the wonderful food experiences they will have, but regardless, everyone will have to eat while on vacation and traveling, so it is important to plan ahead.  This is most important if you have special dietary needs or preferences, and travel can be much less stressful if you do have special needs and actually take the time in advance to learn about the food habits in a foreign country.  Oh, and I will stress again, just learning some basic food related terms will be so helpful and make your dining experiences more enjoyable.

QUESTIONS:  What are your tips for food and travel?  Have you ever had an usual dining experience while traveling?


Beth said...

These are great tips. Since I found out I'm soy intolerant, it can be hard to order at an american restaurant, much less one overseas. I'll have to be careful on my upcoming trip to France.

Kristen (swanky dietitian) said...

Great tips! It must be hard to travel when you have certain food restrictions or preferences.
Although I eat most foods, I still always try to pack a few snack items with me just in case.

Emily said...

I think you gave some really helpful tips regarding food and travel. As someone who hasn't traveled much, I really appreciate that!

I think sometimes it's important to remember that (w/ the exception of a food allergy or vegetarianism, etc), it's fun to try new things in new countries! You might never get the opportunity again!

sophia said...

Ooh I love all your tips, esp the last one. It's always "polite" to bring home back a bit of the goodies you enjoyed! Thank goodness #3 doesn't apply to me, though...I can't imagine the pain of traveling when you have those restrictions. Getting sick in vacation is not fun!

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