Eating Vegan On the Road

20140204-carrot-flying-thumb-1500xauto-381978

Let me start out by saying that if I did not allow myself to occasionally eat fish or eggs I would have gone hungry on our trip to Colorado. It was a real eye-opener for what it must be like for full-time vegans, or others who have dietary restrictions for whatever reason, to arrive in a new place and try to find something to eat. Long-time vegans most likely have a lot of tricks up their sleeves, but for a newby like me, it was a genuine challenge to find healthy and satisfying options.

To begin with, airlines have very limited choices, if any, in vegan offerings (not that anyone should count on an airline feeding you these days). We flew Alaska Air on our trip to Colorado Springs last week, and they had exactly one snack box for sale that was suitable for vegans (with crackers, nuts, hummus), but at least they had something. United Airlines, which we flew on our way home, had nothing vegan unless you threw out the cheese spreads that came in their snack options. Hawaiian Airlines, the only domestic carrier that still offers free meal service, does not have a vegan meal choice. Actually, they don’t offer any meal choices at all – you eat what is served or you don’t eat.

Vegan choices within the airports themselves didn’t seem to be much better, although I know they exist. WenYu and I wandered through our Los Angeles airport terminal (one of seven at LAX) during our layover, looking for a restaurant or snack bar that offered something vegan. We ended up ordering fish and chips (which were actually very affordable and good) because we could not find anything vegan other than french fries, onion rings or salad.

Salads are of course a vegan’s friend, but what if you can’t eat them? I have a food intolerance to many types of lettuce (they give me a terrifically upset stomach), so I unfortunately have to avoid most salads. Looking at the menu options on just this last trip, many if not most of the “meal-size” salads came anyway with additional meat, or cheese, or creamy dressings. Even at Colorado College, where we figured there would be a decent-sized vegan cohort to feed, all I found to eat was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some coconut milk yogurt (the PB&J was actually quite delicious). Every other vegetarian option there contained cheese. We thankfully found a restaurant near our hotel that had vegan options on the menu, and there were vegan options at the breakfast the hotel provided.

So what’s an almost-vegan like me to do? I know now that before I travel again I need to do my research, and look for vegan restaurant recommendations. I need to read restaurant menus ahead of time, if possible, along with reviews and always check the side menu. I need to pack my own items (granola bars, nuts, etc.) that can tide me over if I can’t find something to eat. I also need to find a source for fresh fruit and vegetables, or for smoothies that don’t contain dairy. And, I need to accept that menu choices will most likely be limited, and not feel sorry for myself if everyone else is having a juicy burger or pizza and I’m not.

The most difficult ingredient to avoid seems to be dairy. Meat is pretty obvious, but dairy products can be hidden in so many ways, or added at the last moment. I found that out when we were at the Grand Canyon, when an otherwise vegan soup was garnished with sour cream, or the vegan chili I ordered was topped with grated cheese. I could have avoided both if I had been clear about “no dairy” with my server. I learned I need to speak up when I give my order. This is actually a good rule all around: ask if something is really vegan, or if it’s not, ask if there’s a way to make it vegan (can the cheese be left out, for example). Many restaurants are more than willing to accommodate vegans and/or vegetarians and adjust or adapt a menu item.

Eating vegan when you’re traveling is not impossible, but it can be a challenge. There are options out there, but you need to know before you go what those options are, or if you are willing to make changes, if necessary. One of the reasons I allow myself to occasionally eat fish is not just because we live in Hawai’i, but because fish is nearly impossible to avoid altogether in Japan. Maintaining a vegan diet in Japan can be very difficult, especially if you have to or want to eat out. Dashi, or fish stock, is ubiquitous in Japanese cooking, and can be there even if the rest of a dish is vegetarian or vegan.

Most of all though, I need to remember why I am eating a near-vegan diet these days. I need to remind myself that I feel much, much better without dairy or meat in my diet. No matter how good a burger or ice cream looks, I know I am going to pay for it later if I decide to eat it now. “I’m on vacation” no longer counts as a worthy excuse for giving up my eating parameters.