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!
I know this feeling so well! I’ve been picky all my life and only in the last couple of years have I started to try a bit more.. I know so well how horrible it is to eat at a private dinner party, and only eating a tiny portion just to be polite.. I was having trouble when I was in Singapore because I am just not a fan of Asian food.. Always nice to know that you’re not alone!
That is tough. It’s such an honor to be invited into someone’s home and so uncomfortable not to be able to stomach what is served. I feel ya!
I am also a picky eater on the road, and find it hard to get a lot of food I love, as I’m also vegetarian! Do you have any tips on how to eat healthy on a budget?
It’s not easy! I find the healthy food I crave the most — yummy salads, for example — are rarely available at locals holes in the wall. While in South America for example, if I wanted to eat cheap and local I ended up with 90% carbs on my plate. If I wanted to eat healthy, I ended up at pricier, Western-run health food restaurants marketed to expats and tourists. Shopping at markets and cooking your own food is probably the way to go, but I’m lazy and not a great cook so that rarely works for me 😛
No mushrooms or coriander please! You are right about the planning ahead, South Am dishes usually have lots of cilantro which is pretty much the same as coriander and I posses that gene. But I survived – bravo for encouraging fussy eaters to still travel!
OK, perhaps this is a dumb question but I thought coriander and cilantro were the same thing?
Bravo indeed 🙂 I think I’m even ready for India!
Me too! Same family apparently, who knows – it’s the work of the devil and should be banned!
They are the same thing – but called different things in different countries. Coriander is the going name around Europe at least. They are all the same plant though – coriander seeds and the green leaves, etc. 🙂
I will join you in the mushroom ban movement 😉
I have had the same thoughts when traveling abroad! When I used to travel to China for work, I was so worried about getting a stomach bug that I would only eat rice and veggies. But I just went to Thailand & Cambodia with my husband and I ate practically everything and loved it!! My favorite is to find a (clean and trustworthy) food market and do a little ‘food crawl’ and get little bites of all local dishes (its super in expensive too!).
Great idea! I never really worry about getting sick, probably to my detriment, ha ha. I know a lot of people avoid fruit and vegetables abroad because they are concerned they’re washed in unfiltered water. I could never!
I am an extremely picky eater but I learned from my prim and proper great aunt how to move food around my plate so that it looks like I have eaten a lot. This only works in certain cultures. I have had to use the allergy excuse a few times.
Yes! That can definitely work if you’re given a ton of rice or potatoes or something else to hide stuff in, ha ha.
As a vegetarian I feel your pain, Alex. I loathe eating out with people, especially now that I live in China – the land where sharing dishes (that are almost all sprinkled with pork) is a way of life among expats and locals. I’m totally one of those people who avoids eating out with people because I always feel so awkward explaining the whole vegetarian thing to others. Clearly I need to work on this 😉 Anyway, your tips are great. I always learn how to convey that I’m a vegetarian in the local language. And I ALWAYS pack snacks wherever I go!
I have a condition known as “snack panic” where I generally overpack snacks because I am so concerned over the possibility of being hungry. I can bring like, a backpack full of snacks for a one hour drive. YOU JUST NEVER KNOW.
Thanks Alex, for this wonderful insight. As a love-all-foods, force-them-on-people, incessant-sharer, it’s so helpful to get a different perspective on this. You mean, not everyone wants to eat off my plate? I feel like i can definitely dial up my awareness of others and their preferences, but what do you say to your insistent friends that you MUST try a bite of this thing? Or if you’re going to dinner at someone’s house, do you wait for THEM to ask you what you like or do you casually mention, by the way, hold the olives? How many times have I forced olives on unsuspecting friends? I cringe to think!
Ha! Well I have to say I am really grateful to the people in my life who have gently introduced me to new foods that I now love. I’d say a successful interaction typically goes like, “hey, I’m ordering X, and I know how much you love Y so you might like this too. You’re welcome to try it!” A non-successful one is more like bullying, and I HAVE been unpleasantly coerced into trying things I REALLY didn’t want to try in the past by very insistent people. They were uncomfortable situations and I can remember a few of them very clearly — they don’t leave great impressions of the people who created them.
If I’m eating at someone’s home, I might offer that I don’t eat seafood IF it seems appropriate, but I frame it as just a heads up not to be offended if I don’t eat something, not as a request to serve something different than they’d planned! Sometimes it just isn’t appropriate so I just do my best. I also generally try to ask if I can bring something, which also means there’s always something I love (and it’s a nice thing to do!)
Overall though, life has gotten a lot easier over the years as my palate has expanded! My current “won’t eat” list doesn’t get as many challenges, as much of it can be justified for environmental reasons (seafood) or health ones (beer, mayonnaise, sour cream, fatty meats, etc.) I just shudder to think how hard everything was six or seven years ago when I first started traveling. Oh, how much processed food I ate! (Yet somehow I was skinnier then? Life is unfair.)
I feel ya on the olives! Just spent a month in Greece picking my way around them! By the way, I went to Imerovigli on your recommendation and loved it! It was exactly as you described. Thanks for the tip!
Oh, that makes me so happy to hear Sonja, yay! I would go back in a heartbeat. I LOVE IT!
I love this post. I went to Spain in high school and for one week of the trip we stayed with a host family. I hate all seafood but when I was younger I like tuna. Canned tuna. So I told them I liked Tina and they made me some. It was not the tuna I like haha that was tough to choke down by I tried. Even worse they wanted to make me paella. While she was cooking I heard all the shells banging around in the pot and the she served it up. They told me to just eat the rice portion but I couldn’t even manage that I thought I was going to puke. It was so awkward and I felt terrible. After noticing I wasn’t eating they out me out of my misery and offered a sandwich. I’ll never forget that.
Ha ha oh man I cringe reading this because I’ve been through it so many times. Paella and ceviche… they kill me. No thank you. I struggled when I stayed with a host family in high school in Costa Rica too! I saw some of them when I was back in Central America and we laughed at what a pain I had been, ha ha.
One thing I would add is that it can apparently take around 15-20 attempts for your palate to get used to a new/previously disliked food. So one advantage of eating out in a group is to repeatedly sneak a bite of someone else’s dinner and you never know, you might eventually find you love it! But if not, no biggie, you haven’t wasted money.
On the other hand, I once had to eat tripe to be polite on a school exchange to France, and I will not be trying that 15 more times to see if I can learn to love it! It was just a case of swallowing mouthfuls without chewing, glugging water and then abandoning the plate as soon as I politely could.
Oh I heard this over and over again from my dad when I was a kid, he just wouldn’t hear that I didn’t like fish (because we live on an island and it’s so good for you) and I was encouraged to try a mouthful anytime he was eating it. Turns out he had a point and now sushi is one of my favourite foods, taste buds can definitely change!
I’ve heard that too! And so I do try to eat vegetables I don’t think I’m fond of whenever I can… mushrooms are the one exception. I just can’t wrap my head around eating them. They always taste dirty to me!
Ha, I used to bring nutella with me on family vacations. All you need is bread and you’re set for breakfast and lunch. In restaurants I would always only order fries. During my student years I changed completely though, and I can eat (almost) everything now! Cooking dishes you’re not familiar with by downloading recipes really helped me as well, because that way you learn what’s inside a dish 🙂
That’s a great tip — and one I’m definitely more likely to use now that I’m STARTING to enjoy cooking, at least a little 😛
I think food tours are a great low-risk way to sample local cuisine and see what you like. I did food tours in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Siem Reap and tried lots of foods that I would never try on my own. There was never pressure to try anything I didn’t want to (no cockroaches, thanks!) but it’s really great to have someone else ordering for you.
Interesting — at this point, I would agree with you, but a few years ago I was so picky that I would have spent any sort of food tour feeling humiliated. I’m glad I can mostly enjoy them now, because they are super fun!
Great ways to ease into a new cuisine abroad … thanks for the awesome tips!
You’re so welcome Tina — thanks for reading!
In much of Latin America, you can simply say “me hace daño” (it does me harm) and that seems to suffice as an explanation for why you can’t eat something. I’m lactose intolerant so generally use it for dairy, but admit that I occasionally pulled it out for unappetizing offers that would have otherwise been rude to refuse (or might have made me sick) 😉
It did not, however, get me out of trying tripe soup, which led to me declaring “no me gustan los organos” (I don’t like organs, in my head meaning organ meat), which then led to raucous laughter because apparently “organ” can also refer to the, ahem, male sex organ. I still get teased about that.
Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious — and totally something I would do. Ha ha! I’m going to keep “me hace daño” in mind next time for fish!
This is great! I wouldn’t consider myself as a picky eater, but I don’t eat red meat and it has always been a tricky business whenever I eat outside. Though I’ve found some places, like London, are very veggie friendly, others (like my hometown in Mexico) are very judgemental with vegetarians. I must admit that in more than one occasion I’ve been forced to hide the piece of meat or sausage or wherever inside a napkin and then throw it away. You need to be quite sneaky, but it saves you from giving awkward explanations and being judged by people around. In any case, I loved your article!
Not going to say I haven’t done the same tricky napkin move before 😉 It works!
So there’s a farming festival in Dan Chang (I’m pretty sure) that encourages locals to eat local produce with the slogan ‘Eat fish, Eat mushrooms’, you should hit it up sometime…
Ha! Yeah, doesn’t really sound like my kind of festival 😉