Years ago, I confessed to being a painfully picky eater. More recently, I reflected on how years of travel had opened up not just my mind but also my palate, slowly transforming mealtimes into something I looked forward to rather than feared. Yet my biggest takeaway from sharing that journey is that I’m not and was never alone – for as many food obsessed travelers as there are out there, there’s also a fair number quietly learning to mutter “no mushrooms please” in multiple languages.
If you too are fussy about food and it’s holding you back from or stressing you out about travel, I get it. I remember thinking very distinctly in the past that while I’d like to go to Goa and Kerala someday, I literally didn’t know what I’d eat. I’ll always remember 2015 as the year I realized there is in fact Indian food I adore – the world keeps opening up!
Regardless of what stage of picky eating you’re at, here are a few tips to help you travel fearlessly while remaining well fed.
1. Plan Ahead
Research the local cuisine of your destination before arrival, and identify a few dishes ahead of time that you think you might be able to enjoy. Read the food section of your guidebook. If you have a friend or acquaintance who has traveled to your destination, ask if they have a good suggestion for a “starter” order. If not, crowdsource! I always recommend to Thailand-bound friends to try massaman curry first, the mildest on the menu.
If you’re heading to, say, Greece, try a Greek restaurant at home. You may be able to explain your predicament and get some recommendations while still in familiar territory and with less of a language barrier in the way.
2. Order Carefully
If there are ingredients you loathe, learn how to say them in the local language. I know how to say “no olives please” all around the world! Upon arrival, you may wish to ask a local to write a note for you to show waiters in restaurants.
Don’t be shy about asking questions or for recommendations, assuming there is not a major language barrier. Try ordering two appetizers instead of one entrée to increase the chances you’ll find something you love or like, and so there’s less food waste if you’re not into what you order.
While I do eat meat, I’ve found vegetarian and vegan restaurants to be pretty judgement-free zones when traveling — they are used to customers with a lot of dietary restrictions and preferences, and the food tends to be prepared with a lot of love.
3. Pack Snacks
While I certainly don’t recommend packing a suitcase full of pop tarts, I do think it’s a good idea to pack a comfort staple from home. Even today, I love to travel with a few packets of my favorite oatmeal. Having something you know you love on hand can be great for those long travel days when you arrive in a new city and just don’t have the energy to search for something you can stomach.
But be careful if you’re crossing international borders – things like fresh fruits, cured meats and other popular snack foods may be banned by customs.
4. Don’t Miss Out
Don’t give up the chance to socialize because you’re worried about being able to enjoy the food or drink somewhere. I love eating out though I still cringe when friends want to just “order a bunch of things and share!” or split a bottle of red wine for the table. My biggest advice is to be confident and unapologetic but don’t ask others to make concessions for you – tell them to go on and order the seafood platter, and you’ll be happy with that salad of your own. If you’re really concerned about being able to eat anything on the menu, eat ahead of time and join for drinks.
Most importantly, don’t allow guilt and hunger to rule your trip. I have found that being apologetic about your food preferences invites others to comment, judge, and even lightly mock you. If someone is giving you a hard time about your eating habits, look them in the eye and politely tell them that you’ve tried whatever item they’re pushing on you many times and you don’t enjoy it, and then change the subject. Being self-assured goes a long way.
The situation is a little different if you’re with host who has made something from scratch, or are offered something you’d feel awkward refusing. I can’t tell you how many beers I’ve secretly dumped down the drain or discreetly handed to someone else, knowing I’d offend by saying “no thank you!” Home cooked, sit down dinners are the trickiest situation picky eating travelers will face. I won’t say I’ve never faked an allergy. But honestly, I haven’t found a solution other than to choke down whatever is put in front of me in an effort to stay gracious. If there’s something I really don’t want to eat, like fish, I might try hiding it in something I do, like rice — or worst case scenario, try swallowing whole without chewing. I kind of feel like gagging just thinking about it. If you have a better suggestion, please share in the comments!
5. Try One New Thing
I’m not saying you have to order a local brew if you know you don’t like coffee. But I do challenge myself to try things that I haven’t had before from time to time, or to be a little brave in my market buying. I’m an ambivalent meat eater to begin with, so you certainly won’t find me pushing myself to try exotic animals or insects, for example, but I will often encourage myself to reach for new fruits and vegetables (mushrooms and olives being the obvious exceptions!)
This year, I challenged myself to allow beets on my plate. Now I eat them regularly. Do I love beets and would I ever buy them myself at the store at home? No. But I’ve found I really don’t mind them shredded into a dish. It’s one less order modification I have to make when grabbing a salad on the go.
Do you have any other tips for those affected by both a picky palate and wanderlust? Please, share below… and happy travels!