One of the great pleasures of foreign travel is interacting with local people. And a great way to gain an understanding of a culture is to share in the local cuisine. Ordering food is easy. Even if you don’t know the language, you can always point to an item on a restaurant menu or point to the actual food if you’re at a market. But ordering food when you have food allergies or other diet restrictions can be challenging.
Here are some general tips that we’ve gathered from personal experience and from speaking to other travelers.
When ordering or purchasing food, open your wallet or passport and pull out your SelectWisely card. Show both sides of the card. Point to the picture of the food with the international prohibitory sign. Make sure they understand.
The majority of international air carriers provide special meals if you notify them in advance. Some offer an extensive variety of meals and have gone to great lengths to satisfy personal needs in this area. Continental Airlines and EL AL list detailed menu plans on their websites. Air India, JAL and Korean Air have extensive lists of optional meals. Most of the special meals are focused on religious, diabetic, vegetarian or dietary plans like low-fat or low-cholesterol. Some mention lactose-free and gluten-free meals.
However, there are very few references to nuts, peanuts, shellfish or gluten-free, so be sure to ask whether meals include your specific problem food. If you are severely allergic, it is highly recommended that you bring your own food on the plane. Use the SelectWisely Doctor Notes if you need to take your auto-injector on the plane.
The only way to avoid an allergic reaction to food is to avoid that food. This can be done in several ways depending on the situation. Ask the food server what is in the dish, ask the store clerk about the ingredients in the packaged food, read labels, or eat only what you prepare yourself.
For packaged foods, reading food labels is the best method. However even the most faithful label-reader may be inadvertently exposed to their problem food at some point. In addition to different languages, countries have different food labeling laws which can provide more, less or confusing information. Use your SelectWisely card with the market vendor or store clerk to make sure.
Cross-contamination in food preparation facilities and restaurants is not uncommon. It’s easy to understand how similar foods might share the same pot or skillet in a busy restaurant. Cross contamination mainly occurs in three ways: “food-to-food” - touching or dripping, “food-to-hand” - handling by the kitchen staff, waiter or market vendor, “food-to-equipment” – preparing a meal with pots and pans. The best way to address this issue to make sure the person serving you food clearly understands your diet situation.