Going out to eat in a foreign country is, to someone with food allergies, akin to walking a tightrope.
When learning to tightrope, performers begin with the fundamentals – keeping their weight centered, maintaining balance over their feet, and moving in a fluid motion with their core. They begin low to the ground and slowly work their way up and up, until they are as high off the ground as they wish.
But tightrope walking isn’t all fun and games. The performers accept a level of risk with every motion, they incur yet another level of risk with every inch higher off the ground they go, and let’s not forget that how they secure their tightrope can influence their success or failure.
Learning to manage your food allergies is similar.
You begin with the fundamentals – learning to explain the severity and seriousness of your allergies to others, checking the ingredients of everything you buy at the store, and asking your friends and family what ingredients they used in the dish they are bringing over. You slowly work your way up to eating at one or two “safe” restaurants in your neighborhood, and eventually work up to eating just about anywhere you want – granted you explain yourself to the staff and feel comfortable there.
But just as there is inherent risk in walking a tightrope, there is inherent risk in going out to eat. You’re not watching the chef prepare your dish on a separate cutting board or with a clean knife. You can’t control an accidental misread of a label. And you can’t control a misunderstanding or accident.
This holds especially true while traveling. When traveling there are a million and one things to factor into your restaurant and meal choice so that you can walk that tightrope to the otherside safely, so to speak.
11 Things to Consider When Going Out to Eat in a Foreign Country
There are tons of considerations to take when eating out in a foreign country. Here is what I do.
1. Know Where the Nearest English-Speaking Hospital is Located
As a rule of thumb, I avoid eating food prepared by others when there isn’t a hospital located within a 15 minute drive of where I currently am.
That means when I hiked Acatenango in Guatemala I brought my own food along with me instead of eating the sandwiches and drinking the hot chocolate prepared by our guide. Did it add extra weight to my pack? Yes. Was I annoyed? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It allowed me to camp at the top of an active volcano while watch another one named Fuego erupt and spew lava down its side every 15 minutes.
2. Choose Your Restaurant Based on Location and Clientele
I try to choose restaurants that are centrally located, have English-speaking clientele, and aren’t too busy. While a busy restaurant indicates that the food is probably dynamite, it also means the staff is extremely busy. This leaves greater room for error (such as cross contamination). I also try to avoid restaurants that are “dead” because it might mean that they don’t see foreign guests too often and may not be aware of the severity of allergies, or what they are at all.
3. Read Through the Whole Menu – Front to Back, Back to Front
You might be there to order a mango smoothie and think to yourself, “the ingredients are ice, milk, and mango. It’s pretty tough to screw that up.” And jump to order. But the fact is that if the place serves several dishes containing your allergen, the board or knife they used to cut the mango could have come into contact with said allergen. Or they might have thrown peanuts into the blender before making the smoothie you want without washing it well enough.
I once wanted to eat only french fries. I asked the chef what oil was used for fries and she told me it was vegetable. When I told her that I’m allergic to peanuts she pointed to the fried chicken on the menu and said, “We use peanut oil for that.” When I asked if it was the same fryer she said it was. Needless to say I didn’t eat there.
My point is – you can never be too careful.
4. Bring Along A Food Friend
This friend can be a boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, old friend, or new friend. It doesn’t matter if this person is your travel partner or someone you met 10 minutes ago at a hostel. It only matters that you’ve explained your food allergies to them, have told them what to do if there is a reaction, and – like sitting in the exit row of an airplane – they have confirmed their understanding and ability to help. It’s basically the food allergy version of the buddy system.
5. Always Use Your Allergy Translation (or similar) Card & Mime it
(when in a place where they do not speak much English)
Having a reliable translation is the most important part of ordering. I personally have used Allergy Translation for a number of countries and know for a fact that the translation is correct. I have also used Google Translate and know for a fact that the translation is not always correct.
Having an accurate translation is critical when ordering; but to really emphasize what the translation says, I mime it. It might look silly – dragging my finger across my neck while I roll my eyes back to show a death scene – but it works. It makes the server further understand the severity of my allergy and based on their response, you can gauge whether or not they actually read and are taking seriously what’s written on the card.
I have also been known to pull up a picture of peanuts on my phone, point to it, and mime out that same scene. Same for nuts. That seems to work as well.
6. Get a Local to Record a Voice Note for You
One of the first things I did when I got to Vietnam was find a local that spoke excellent English and had her record a voice note to my phone that said exactly what I wanted in Vietnamese. “This girl is deathly allergic to peanuts and all nuts. That includes oil. It is extremely important that you do not serve her anything with peanuts or any nuts. If she eats them, she will die. This is very important. Please tell her ok if you understand.”
You might be thinking, “but how will I find someone to do that for me? I don’t have friends in x country I am headed to go visit.” Well, I’m assuming that you will begin your journey at an airport in a major city. The flight attendant on your flight might be a good place to start. Or perhaps someone at the airport. If those options aren’t feasible, I’d suggest walking into an upscale hotel in the city and asking the concierge to help you. More often than not they will speak english and their native language, and be more than willing to help.
Now that you have the voice note – use it along with your allergy translation card.
7. Find Out What Foods Generally Contain Your Allergen
My most severe allergies are to peanuts, and nuts. So I asked the same person who recorded onto my phone to send me a list of foods that usually have peanuts and nuts in them. I suggest you do the same. It will let you know what foods you should always stay away from.
It will also give you insight into the local cuisine. In Vietnam it helped me learn that peanuts and nuts are scarce in the north, but very common in the south. That meant that I could eat one dish without incident in the north but in the south they might throw peanuts into it (which is exactly what happened in Hoi An). It helped me prepare myself better with point number 8.
8. Order Food You Already Know the General Ingredients Of
Having a plate set down in front of you is not a good time to discuss the ingredient list. While you should always confirm during your order that there aren’t any of your allergens included in the dish you are ordering, it helps to already know the general outline of ingredients.
Additionally, though you might know that (for example) pancakes definitely do not contain shellfish, when they bring your pancake out, you should double check that they understood your allergy translation card/ voice note/ miming and didn’t include any fish sauce in your pancake or on the same surface it was prepared on.
9. Buy Yourself a SIM card or Use An International Phone Plan
This one isn’t as directly related to going out to eat in a foreign country as you might think, but I beg to differ. The number of times I have used google mid-order to find a photo or needed to get a last minute translation is more than I can count on two hands. Having a working phone is paramount not only for that reason, but for finding a hospital or ordering an ambulance/taxi to take you there (let’s hope you don’t need it for that reason).
You can almost always buy a SIM card at the airport, and if not you can usually get them at convenience stores. In today’s world it is so easy and normal to stay connected that to forgoe a cell phone while traveling is (in general – in my opinion) totally unnecessary. Especially if you have a food allergy.
10. If it Feels Wrong – it is! There’s No Shame in Walking Away
If you go through the whole process and still look at your dish and feel uneasy – go with that feeling. It’s ok to say thanks, no thanks; get up and leave. You might lose a few dollars but you might win your life. Safety is absolutely the most important thing while traveling and for you – food safety is included in that.
And even if you haven’t gone through with the order and you feel like the server doesn’t quite understand your needs, it’s ok to walk away then, too. I have done it quite a few times.
There is no shame in walking away.
11. Always Carry Your EpiPens (Two)
I should really say, “always carry all of the meds you might need in case of an emergency.” For me that’s 2 EpiPens, Benadryl, and an inhaler. Regardless of the mini-pharmacy you should be carrying around, the most important thing is that you always carry two EpiPens on you. It can be EpiPen, Auvi-Q, or whatever other name your epinephrine goes by.
You should always carry two on you (pack a few extra in your suitcase) and be ready to inject yourself like a knee-jerk reaction without hesitation if necessary.
Get Out There And Travel
These 11 points to consider when going out to eat in a foreign country are not fail-safe. There will always be room for human mistake and it will always be safer to prepare your own food while traveling (as I did throughout most of my time in India). However, that doesn’t mean that 100% of the time you need to. It just means that you need to take as many precautions as you can and do your best to protect yourself.
I have enjoyed countless meals out while traveling through 15 different countries. My considerations have evolved as I’ve gone from country to country, and I’m sure it will continue to.
Traveling is a gift and I believe that food allergies shouldn’t stop us from enjoying it. By using these 11 tips, I’ve been able to navigate going out to eat in a foreign country and I hope you will too.