Restaurants. Conference lunches. Continental Breakfasts. Those words are enough to strike terror in the hearts of anyone on a restricted diet, let alone the autoimmune protocol (AIP).
In the past six months I’ve traveled twice for work to conferences/trainings – the first to Disney and the second to St. Louis. I managed to remain 100% committed to the AIP on both occasions. Here are a few tips and tricks I learned along the way:
- Be assertive. With my first trip, I felt a little ridiculous sending the list of my food restrictions to the organizers at Disney, which is where the conference was held. Little did I know that Disney prides itself on accommodating food restrictions. They assured me that it was not a problem, and even had the chef who would be working our conference call me ahead of time. I ended up getting steak and some amazing sweet potato fries every day for breakfast. So despite my fear of sounding like a high-maintenance food snob, simply asserting my needs paid off and most importantly, no one made me feel bad for doing so. So when the second conference rolled around, I didn’t feel the same fear of expressing my needs. I contacted who I needed to, and the catering staff was happy to make me a “special” lunch each day.
- Plan ahead. By asking through various email channels, I was able to see the menu for the meals included in the price of the conference. Right away, I saw that the conference venue’s breakfast was not going to cut it – pastries and fruit every day. I checked the breakfast menu of the hotel we’d be staying at, and found a source of non-egg protein I could eat – bacon. So every day I got up a little earlier and ordered breakfast up to my hotel room.
- Just Ask. Speaking of that room service breakfast, I got creative and asked for a bowl of avocado, which was not on the menu. The kitchen was happy to comply, making up a price and bringing me a full bowl of avocado every day. I broke up the bacon and mixed it in with the avocado and bon appetit!
- Pack snacks. I brought along Trader Joe’s plantain chips, two cans of salmon, and a bag of my Paleo Cheezits. I never had to use the salmon, and used the other two for mid-afternoon snacks.
- Embrace fruit. Normally I try not to eat a bunch of fruit (even though I might want to, too much fructose is not recommended on AIP), but at the two conferences, both offered fruit in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, along with pastries. So for a week I embraced bananas, waxy looking apples, and sliced melons. You can also usually find bananas and apples in the airport once past security, so this was a good way to keep up my energy during travel.
- Look at menus ahead of time. Before even boarding the plane to Disney, I wrote down one or two restaurants near the resort where we were staying that I knew would fit my restrictions (with a few modifications to the menu items, of course!) and then casually suggested them while walking around Epcot with my coworkers. At the French restaurant, the French chef even came out of the kitchen in his tall white hat to discuss my meal with me. He made me duck confit and a special side of sweet potato. It was delicious!
- Be adaptable, but stick to your guns. In St. Louis, every night a huge group of colleagues would walk down the street near our hotel and choose somewhere that looked good. I didn’t want to miss out on being part of the group, so I went along even though the spontaneity freaked me out a little. One night, they chose a Spanish tapas restaurant. The menu was divine, but there were unlisted tomatoes hiding everywhere. I got an order of saffron roasted cauliflower that ended up having little tomato chunks all over it. I was tempted just to eat it to avoid a fuss, but when the server came back, I asked for a replacement with no tomatoes. They were happy to do so. While eating out, I understood it was likely that I consumed oils I normally wouldn’t, but I decided not to stress about it. I did the absolute best I could.
-Learn how to paraphrase. This ended up being the most important lesson I learned. In a busy restaurant setting, at first I felt completely self conscious about disrupting the flow by asking the server to ask a bunch of questions and listing off what I couldn’t have. After a little practice, I had it down pat. This is what worked for me:
- I asked for a gluten free menu. Many places had one. If not, no biggie.
- I picked out a few possibilities on the menu that I could modify to fit my restrictions. That often ended up being an entrée of fish or steak. I’d look for a veggie side to sub for white potatoes, and be ready when the server got to me.
- When they did, I’d say, “I have some food restrictions. First of all, I need to be completely gluten and dairy free. I’m looking at the (insert entrée title here) – would this be safe for those restrictions?” After we got that determined, I would add “No spices except salt, sub the potatoes for a side of green beans, and add a lemon wedge” (because let’s be honest plain restaurant white fish is not the most flavorful of all).
- Embrace questions. This final point is necessary because it is inevitable that if you’re traveling with people, they’re going to notice that you eat differently. Imagine no one noticing that I was eating a plate of steak every morning at Disney while they were having pastries! When asked, I found simply saying, “I eat a special diet for health reasons,” usually did the trick. Those who were interested would press further and then I’d tell them a little more. By being open to those who asked, I connected with another conference goer with Crohn’s Disease who was interested in the Paleo diet. Another time, I got into a great conversation with a colleague in which I learned that her husband has myasthena gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease. So, even though it was at times disconcerting to have unwanted attention due to my dietary choices, it also allowed me to make these connections.
Those are my experiences so far. What have been yours traveling while on a special diet? Do you have any tips and tricks?