The past two years I’ve spent more time in airports, airplanes and hotels than in the preceding five years combined. Since I became a vegan, traveling – eating – has become a lot more challenging. Major metropolitan areas usually have many vegetarian and vegan options, but sometimes I find myself some place that isn’t quite so “friendly.” Or I’m going to be with non-vegan family members who – and I say this with all the love and affection in my heart – avoid meat- and cheese-less options like bird flu*. Here’s how I do it and remain mostly well-fed and happy. None of this will be new to vegans, but I share this mostly for the non-vegans out there. They need to know what it’s like, don’t you think? Restaurants and other eating establishments: get with the program! Offer us some creative options!
This is the meal that presents the most difficulties for me while on the road. Looking over a typical restaurant breakfast menu, it’s a veritable barnyard filled with eggs, dairy milk and meat. From omelets to pancakes, waffles, sausage, bacon and ham. Even the oatmeal comes swimming in dairy milk. Often I’m met with a blank stare when I ask if soy milk is available. So I’ve pretty much eliminated eating out for breakfast. Even worse are the “free, continental” breakfasts at hotels. What is an appealing freebie for most is a minefield of bad choices for vegans. Breakfast is confined to refined flour bread and pastries laden (and then coated) with sugar along with scary eggs-from-a-carton and processed meats swimming in grease. I’m sorry – have I spoiled anyone’s appetite??
What I do to arm myself with healthy and portable breakfast options is before I leave on a trip, I fill a sturdy plastic bag with a combination of rolled oats, rolled wheat and barley, triticale and rye flakes. I sprinkle in cinnamon, cardamom, allspice and throw in a few handfuls of mixed dried berries. Usually I have a good stack of Justin Nut Butter Peanut and Almond Butter packs with me. I love that they come packaged this way – saves me from buying a big jar and leaving it behind at the end of the trip.
As soon as I get to my destination, I find the nearest grocery store and pick up some kind of non-dairy, unsweetened milk, along with a loaf of whole grain bread, bananas, apples and a couple of coconut milk yogurts. Before I hit the sack, I take out my trusty plastic travel bowl (see below) put about a 1/4 cup of those mixed grains in, cover with soy/almond/oat/hemp milk and put it in the mini refrigerator (I always try to book a room with one). In the morning the grains are soft and plump. Topped with sliced bananas and accompanied by a yogurt and toast slathered with peanut butter – beats a restaurant breakfast any day of the week. Oh, and I always travel with tea bags and Truvia (crystallized stevia) packets. I’m picky about the kinds of tea I like and a morning without green tea is a sad morning indeed. In a pinch, miso soup from a packet makes a satisfying breakfast – or lunch or dinner for that matter.
It’s true that being vegan can put a slight cramp on socializing when the socializing involves food. I hate, hate, hate being the downer guest who is always asking: are there going to be vegan options? Usually I just keep my mouth shut and do a little research behind the scenes. If it looks as if the venue does not offer something I can eat, I’ll call ahead and talk to someone there and explain that I don’t eat meat or cheese. It’s amazing how accommodating they usually are. And calling ahead saves you from a plate of afterthought “sides.” To throw a further monkey wrench into the works, Kel and I also (mostly…) follow a no-added-fat diet. This means asking the restaurant to go easy or even to eliminate adding cooking oils. I kind of gauge the reception I get when I tell them I’m vegan, then hit them with the no-fat deal. We could play the “doctor’s orders” trump card (which seems to make them more amenable to adjusting their cooking), but that wouldn’t be true in our case and as dumb as it sounds, I like to keep it honest – although we do follow the no-added-fat diet for our health.
When I make the restaurant choice, my heart and stomach really want to select a vegetarian or vegan place, but I almost always pick a place where my meat-eating friends and family can get what they consider a good meal. But – I make sure the place has something delicious for me as well. I’ve only managed once or twice to lure diehard carnivores to vegan places and, well, it’s usually ended badly. I’m not sure if it’s because they truly didn’t like the food or if there is some mental resistance to enjoying a meal free of animal products.
One last comment about restaurants. Often a vegetable soup of some kind will be on the menu, but this doesn’t mean it is vegan or even vegetarian. More often than not, restaurants will use chicken stock to make their soups. And on one occasion, after a long discussion (“What DO you eat?!”) with the proprietor of a cute cafe in Colorado about veganism, Kel and I were generously handed big chunks of cornbread. After biting into them, mouths stuffed, the woman suddenly asked, “You eat cheese, don’t you? The cornbread has cheddar in it.”
Even when I ate meat, airport restaurants depressed the hell out of me. But there are times when I absolutely need to pick up something or the cranky, hungry beast within may escape and I’ll be whisked away into the bowels of TSA purgatory. When I can, I’ll bring a PB & J sangie with me, a cut up apple, mixed nuts and a homemade cookie or two. Perfect airport/airplane travel food. But by the return trip, I’ve got nothing and if I’ll be flying during a meal time, I need food I avoid salads; pizza doesn’t travel well, is made with refined flour and it’s kind of icky at airports. Bagels are all well and good but are uninspired. So what I do (and this is not rocket science) is have a sandwich made with either all of the veggie “fixings” (lettuce, tomato, onion, etc., if that’s all the place can offer) or get a roasted veg minus the cheese and any oily dressing. It gets the job done. And I always, always get a soy mocha to cheer myself.
When traveling – even when just out and about locally – nothing makes me more nervous than the thought of being without food. But a little advance planning, however, assures that I’ve got something delicious and healthy stashed away.
*A brief story: Recently I was in Salt Lake City visiting my brother and as it was nearing time for dinner, I asked him where he’d like to eat. He very generously replied that I should pick the place, “wherever I wanted.” That was just what I wanted to hear and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Ever since having a delicious lunch with Kel at Sage’s (a vegetarian place in downtown SLC), I’d wanted to go back and sample more of their creative cooking. “Sage’s!” I said. His face gathered into a horrible grimace. We went somewhere else. Where my dear brother ordered…a salad. (Incidentally, I did get him finally to go to Sage’s where he and I both ordered their nut burger. Delicious. He, sadly, did not agree.)