If you’ve been vegan or vegetarian a long time, you’ve probably mastered the art of scanning an ingredient list for animal derivatives in under a second. You know all the best places to eat and shop for groceries. By now, your lifestyle may be so easy to maintain that you don’t even have to think about it.
All of this can change when you study abroad. Deciphering an ingredient list is suddenly more difficult, and you don’t know where to buy tofu. Keeping up dietary restrictions while abroad can be challenging, but it is doable. Here are some tips based on my time as a vegan in Costa Rica.
- Communicate before your program start date.
Talk to your program coordinator about your dietary needs. If you are staying with a host family, make sure they understand your restrictions. At the same time, remember that veganism can sound very restrictive to many people so be sure to remind them of everything you can eat. For example, I reassured my host mom that I am happy eating lots of fruits, vegetables, rice, and beans, all staples of a Costa Rican diet.
2. Do your research.
What foods are most commonly eaten in your host culture? Are there any national dishes, and if so, do they meet your needs or can they be modified easily to do so? How common is veganism in your host country? What are the social norms around food? These are all important things to know.
3. Find other vegans and vegetarians.
Seek out locals who are vegan or vegetarian. These people can be incredibly helpful, since they understand both your dietary needs and the local culture. They can recommend restaurants, tell you which commonly eaten foods are vegan, and suggest recipes with locally available ingredients. Before coming to Costa Rica I joined the Facebook group “Veganos/Vegetarianos de Costa Rica.”
4. Use HappyCow.
If you don’t use it already, HappyCow is a popular app for finding restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options. It has saved me so much time finding places where I can eat a good, fulfilling meal without having to ask servers a lot of questions or modify my order.
5. Know how to talk about your diet.
Be sure you have the proper vocabulary if you will be speaking another language. Learn to say words like meat, eggs, milk, gelatin, etc. Remember that to many people, “meat” only refers to red meat, so be prepared to elaborate that you don’t eat chicken or fish either. Some people may not know what the word “vegan” means, so be very specific about what you can and cannot eat.
6. Decide on your boundaries.
Ask yourself if you intend on being as strict abroad as you are at home, especially if going to a country where it is more difficult to eat plant-based. For example, maybe you normally avoid cross-contamination, but after straining to ask in your second language whether your meal contains any animal products, you don’t want to ask yet another question about how your food was cooked. Think through whether you are willing to modify your diet while abroad.
Many of the challenges you may face as a vegan or vegetarian abroad are the same as those you’ve dealt with at home, but are amplified by cultural and linguistic barriers. Plenty of vegans and vegetarians, however, have studied abroad, lived with host families, and enjoyed trying new foods. With thoughtful planning, you too can get the full study abroad experience without having to leave your ethics at home.