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How to Eat Vegetarian while Traveling

In the past eight years, since I stopped eating meat, I have been keeping a mental list of bad places to be a vegetarian. Montana, Mississippi, and Jordan are top of that list, with Northern Ireland (and much of the UK) not far behind. Much of the standard restaurant fare in these areas is based around meat burgers in Montana, Cajun barbecue in Mississippi, lamb shworma in Jordan, fish and chips in the UK. Nonetheless, it is still possible to visit any of these places, have a good time, eat healthily, and never put something in your mouth that was once alive.

As a general rule, vegetarians have to be more careful about eating a balanced diet. Non-meat foods are not as rich in protein and some vitamins, and this deficiency must be made up. At home, compensation can be made with specialty foods like veggie burgers, powdered protein sources, and peanut butter. But these foods are less available on the road, especially in a foreign country. Travellers are often at the mercy of whatever restaurant happens to be convenient at the end of the day.

The first option for dealing with this problem is carrying your own food on a trip. My father, a very strict vegetarian, always takes several packages of Fig Newtons when he travels. Fig Newtons are relatively healthy, with enough energy to tide him over for half a day or so if he can’t find somewhere to eat. As an advantage, he doesn’t have to carry the Fig Newtons home with him, which leaves extra room in his suitcase for souvenirs. Packing your own food is a viable option for short-term trips (up to a week or so), especially if you are following a strict diet or if you know your schedule will be too packed to spend time looking for somewhere to eat.

As an alternative, you can usually buy specialty foods at a supermarket upon arrival at your destination. Fig Newtons or peanut butter might be a scarcity in Thailand or even in France but there will probably be some other vegetarian foods available. Many people in the world are vegetarian for varied reasons, from religious to economic to ethical, so most grocery stores will stock at least the very basics of meat-free cuisine.

For the same reason, many restaurants have a vegetarian option or two, or are at least willing to make substitutions and create a meat-free meal. If you are eating entirely from restaurants, as most people do while traveling, you will have to be very conscious of your protein intake. In an ideal situation, you would consume protein from several different sources (nuts, dairy, soy, etc.) in a day but this is not always possible on the road. As long as you are not traveling long-term, feel free to bend the rules of nutrition a bit.

I tend to be a much more flexible vegetarian when traveling than I am at home. I am willing to make exceptions to my dietary choices in order to engage in a cultural experience even if that does mean eating a lamb sandwich. Also, if I am a guest in someone else’s house, I will eat at least some of what they serve me, regardless of its meat content. I have found that when traveling long-term in a place especially when staying for several weeks in the same house eating fish is a much less intimidating dietary choice than being completely vegetarian. Many people, especially abroad, get very nervous about cooking vegetarian food, but they know how to cook fish.

In the end, it all comes down to cultural sensitivity. If you are going somewhere on a week-long vacation, you can get away with bringing along your own customs, and even your own food. If you plan to stay a bit longer and get to know the locals, it’s best to be open to new experiences and new challenges. It’s not easy to explain to someone that you’re vegetarian when you only know enough of their language to say “hello” but learning the simple phrase “I don’t eat meat” just might open up a whole new vocabulary for you. You never know until you try.