Tips for traveling on a special diet

People are always astounded when I tell them I can’t eat a carrot or broccoli or spinach. “But,” they say in amazement, “those are healthy foods.” They may be in theory, but not for me. You may wonder how I know this; I’ve been tested.  When I say I have food allergies, people ask me what I can’t eat. The better question is what I can eat. It’s all on a list. It makes the challenge of traveling on a special diet much easier.

special diet

Chef Charles Dale created this scallop dish from my food list, photo/Steve Collins

It seems that as more people than ever have dietary preferences and restrictions, restaurants have become more sensitive to them. Gluten intolerance is wide spread, many people don’t eat dairy either due to sensitivities or dietary preference and there are wide-spread individual dietary issues, too.  As a result, many are starting to cater more to special dietary needs.

Here are five things I learned about dining out on a special diet that may help you for dining and when traveling.

1) Choose your destination with your dietary program in mind. If you need special foods, big cities often have a larger selection of dining options. If you need to know what’s in your food, travel to areas where they speak your language or you speak theirs. Trying to explain what you can and can’t eat can be challenging in your native tongue. The more difficult communication is, the more difficult getting your food needs met will be.

When traveling out of the U.S., some foods that you take for granted here may not be readily available. Do advance research and bring what you need if necessary. As food imports have guidelines, check with the customs office for your destination country and see what you are allowed to bring in. There’s nothing worse than taking up valuable luggage space with foods that get confiscated at the point of entry.

special diet

Shopping at local sources like farmers markets is a great special diet tool, photo/Steve Collins

2) Make an alphabetized list of the foods that you can eat or can’t eat by category; meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains and starches, seasoning etc. Get it to the restaurant before you make plans to dine there and have them consult with the chef. If you get an enthusiastic response, put it on your restaurant itinerary, if it’s a bit lukewarm, move on.

A local restaurant we used to dine in told me the chef would prepare a meal with the foods I could eat. The really uninteresting results at a place known for its food led me to believe that while someone said they could accommodate me, it wasn’t the chef. It was an expensive and highly unsatisfactory meal. I have not been back since.

Sometimes, it’s easier to dine at more upscale restaurants that may have a more established customer service culture than the local dive, but that can quickly become expensive. Many small mom and pop places will be more than willing to work with you. Ask them.

Always carry your food list with you. If you dine somewhere spontaneously, you can give it to the server who can give it to the chef.

3) Pick your restaurant carefully. When dining out on most special diets, you’re probably going to fare better in a locally owned one. While a few chain restaurants may actually prepare their food on-site, a lot of what comes into the kitchen may have been seasoned, marinated or prepared at central kitchens and shipped to them. They may not have a clue what’s in the food. Did you ever go into a Chinese restaurant and ask if there’s MSG in the food? You may get a quick no and eat the food and then get an MSG reaction. They didn’t necessarily lie to you; they just don’t read the labels. We’ve spent a lot of time reading labels at Asian markets in the US. Lots of products have MSG and other things added.  You can ask the server to read the ingredients and see if they contain any foods you can’t eat.

Food glitches can happen at local restaurants, too. One day while traveling, we went into a restaurant that someone at a hotel had recommended to us.  Because it  was a chicken day on my elimination diet, I asked if they could grill a plain chicken breast. The server came back and said that all of their chicken had been marinated. We thanked him and were on our way out the door when he stopped us. They’d found one that hadn’t hit the marinade. Great! We sat back down and ordered. Not so great. I got really ill. I was so allergic to my lunch, I thought I’d have to go to the emergency room. The only thing I could figure out was they’d washed the marinade off the chicken. But, marinade permeates, that’s the point of it, to infuse flavor. Their desire to be helpful or not to lose a sale put me in a dangerous situation.

Another issue I’ve run into is people feel sorry for me and want to make my food taste better and so they add something not on my list. I’ve learned to tell people, firmly, that if it isn’t on the list, not to use it, that it could make me deathly ill. The word “death” seems to make an impression.

special diet

All-inclusive resorts offer lots of buffet options; Secrets, The Vine Cancun, photo/courtesy Travel Designed

4) Explore all-inclusive options. There are all-inclusive resorts that will welcome people who are on special diets and others who will not. Have an extensive conversation with someone in food management at the property or use a travel agent who knows the property well and can act as your dietary intermediary before you book your trip. Some places may say, “Yes,” just to get your business and not deliver once you arrive. Giving them your dietary requirements in writing and requesting a written response back puts it in black and white and will give them a greater level of accountability as well as the ability to do any advance preparation needed.

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Staying at a condo allowed us to have control over the food while traveling, photo Steve Collins

5) Rent a place with a kitchen. This works well if you’re planning to stay in one place for a week or more. It allows you to shop for and prepare your own food. It’s a great way to explore local markets and eat fresh foods. We like to travel like this anyway, but in fill disclosure, I have a husband who loves to cook and is energized by the prospect. It’s a great way to save money and eat well and on your dietary program. For a change, find a few restaurants that are able to work with you and have a few meals out. We’ve saved money on trips packing a daily lunch from our fridge. Besides the economic benefits, we can eat anywhere and get back to our explorations.

Whatever your dining challenges are, know that you can travel and eat well. It just takes a bit more planning, but it’s worth it.

What are your special diet dining tips or experiences? We’d love to hear about them.

What are your special diet dining tips or experiences? We’d love to hear about them.

Author’s note: I owe  Chef Charles Dale a big debt. Had I not run into him when I first started my elimination diet, I wouldn’t have even attempted to dine out on it. He suggested getting my food list to chefs in advance. He saved this foodies life.

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10 Responses to “Tips for traveling on a special diet”

  1. Kathy Knorr
    January 21, 2019 at 3:33 pm #

    By choice, fortunate for me, I have opted for primarily a plant based healthy menu. Sometimes having fish is an option. Funny, just on vacation — I had a question for our server. “What the the origin of the salmon?” -“hun?” I asked if it was wild and what was the country of harvest?

    His reply was that it was a free range fish. I had ravoli.

    I agree with you — when it is important be sure to read the menu on line and call ahead. Assures everyone has a good dinner, no long delay in food prep! Thanks for these tips!

    • Billie Frank
      January 21, 2019 at 4:17 pm #

      At least it wasn’t farmed-lol. We had a similar convo about salmon recently. I hope it wasn’t a high-end place. For vegetarians, often Asian restaurants are a good solution when you’re on the road- though that can get old after a while unless you’re traveling in Asia.

      Believe it or not- some restaurants still don’t have their menus online. I suspect, unless you’re the most popular dining spot in town, this effects business.

    • Just One Boomer (Suzanne)
      January 28, 2019 at 12:01 am #

      So, if I travel out west, can I get me some of those “free range fish”? Love it.
      Just One Boomer (Suzanne) recently posted..Travel Down Memory LaneMy Profile

  2. Donna Hull
    January 22, 2019 at 7:45 pm #

    I never realized how difficult it can be to travel on a special diet, especially when one wrong bite sends you to the hospital. You give great tips here. I like the “make an alphabetized list of what you can (or cannot) eat.
    Donna Hull recently posted..Saturday’s scene: meeting a mountain goat in MontanaMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      January 22, 2019 at 8:06 pm #

      Thanks, Donna- and by category. It makes it easier for any chef working with the list.

  3. Vera Marie Badertscher
    January 26, 2019 at 8:08 pm #

    Billie: And I thought I had it bad-the only things I can’t eat are those in the onion family. I so relate to getting a plain chicken breast when the chef has no imagination!

    But I wanted you and your readers to know about a terrific aid that allows you to safely travel to foreign countries. An online company creates laminated cards that explain your food needs in any language you choose. You can find them at Select and here’s an article I wrote praising their product:
    They are really a wonderful company to work with, and the waiters and chefs I used the cards with in Italy and France were very receptive and even excited to have instructions in their own language to keep me safe.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..WIN Harry Potter Poster BooksMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      January 26, 2019 at 10:52 pm #

      That’s good to know. Sadly, my food list wouldn’t fit on a card and be readable. It’s challenging on an 81/2 by 11 sheet of paper.

  4. Just One Boomer (Suzanne)
    January 28, 2019 at 12:03 am #

    The scallop dish they prepared especially for you looks delicious. How was it?
    Just One Boomer (Suzanne) recently posted..Travel Down Memory LaneMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      January 28, 2019 at 12:09 am #

      It was wonderful. Charles Dale, who is opening his own restaurant, hopefully next month, is an incredible chef and he went above and beyond for my dinner that night.

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