5 Tips For Holiday Traveling With A Restrictive Diet

‘Tis the season for eating, drinking and making merry.

Sarah Reinbold
PHOTO Sarah Reinbold

‘Tis the season for eating, drinking and making merry. While some of us see the holiday season as an opportunity to down as much alcohol, sugar and fatty foods as possible, for those of us on more restrictive diets (such as dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegetarian/vegan), the festive period often rings in a stressful time of navigating restaurant prix-fixe holiday menus and trying to figure out just how many special menu requests you can make at family/friend/office parties. Add holiday travel to the mix (an unfamiliar cuisine, limited access to a kitchen and cooking utensils, oh my!), and this season of indulgence can turn into an anxiety-ridden exercise in analyzing ingredients lists and resorting to the same-old ‘safe’ foods. If you want to have your cake and eat it too (that is, enjoy your holidays travels and stick to your diet), read on for my top tips for traveling with a restrictive diet.

1. Stay in an apartment with a kitchen.

Preparing your own meals is the easiest way to ensure that they are diet-friendly. If you’re visiting family, this shouldn’t be a problem. Just make sure that you have access to the kitchen and know how to use appliances, etc. If you’re traveling farther afield, having your own kitchen is a lifesaver. Book an apartment through a reputable site like Airbnb and pay special attention to photos of the kitchen, the amenities list and especially people’s reviews. Some kitchens can be quite bare bones, while others could easily accommodate the preparation of a full holiday dinner. Assess what you need, and consider filling any gaps by packing what’s lacking–a to-go mug or thermos, hand blender, tea/coffee, etc.

2. Pack snacks during the day.

I don’t know about you, but I am like the Lamborghini of hunger—I can go from zero to sound-the-alarms hangry in about ten minutes. What makes me even hangrier? When I know I have to wait to be fed. Stave off hunger by carrying a few tried-and-true snacks with you while you’re out exploring. My favorites are fresh fruit or pre-portioned packs of almonds or pistachios. By stifling the hunger for a bit longer, you’ll buy time to find the perfect spot for your next meal. For this, it’s again good to be prepared, which brings me to my next tip.

3. Research dining options in advance.

Realistically, you won’t be cooking all of your own meals because you’ll be busy exploring and you’ll want to relax while somebody else knocks up a meal for you. But, if you’re unfamiliar with the area in which you’re out tourist-ing and suddenly find yourself more than peckish, panic can set in when you realize you don’t know where you’ll be having your next meal. The best way to avoid this situation is just by being prepared with the names and locations of several restaurants/cafes/bars that have items you can (and would like to!) eat. Use TripAdvisor, Yelp, travel blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Happy Cow, etc. (seriously, so many resources) to compile your list before you even leave for vacation. This is actually one of my favorite parts of preparing for a vacation because I LOVE looking at pictures of mouthwatering food, and it gets me excited to try new things in a foreign city. This year my partner and I will be traveling to Portugal for the holidays, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t already have 50% of our meals planned. Eating is the best part of vacation, amirite?

4. Be willing to compromise.

My partner loves burgers and cheese. I don’t eat meat or dairy. Surprisingly, this doesn’t pose as much of a dilemma as you might think, mostly because, when it comes to meal planning and choosing a restaurant, he acquiesces to me 90% of the time. Still, when on vacation, everyone likes to indulge, and everyone should have the opportunity to do so. If you’re traveling with a partner/friend/family member who does not share the same dietary restrictions, try to find restaurants that have something to offer each of you, but also be willing to go somewhere that’s not exactly your cup of tea. The restaurant may be willing to accommodate you, but, if not (and don’t expect it), suck it up and let your travel companion enjoy. (It’s the season of giving after all!) Order a drink and be glad you followed tip #2 and had a snack before! You can always grab a quick bite from a supermarket or cook something for yourself later.

5. Communicate needs to the restaurant.

I live in Spain, where ham is a vegetable and vinaigrettes are cream-based. If you have dietary restrictions, you need to be transparent when communicating them to a restaurant. Don’t assume that something will be prepared in a way that you’re familiar with or even as the menu advertises. Tell your server at the start exactly what you cannot or do not want to eat. Some restaurants may agree to make substitutions to accommodate you, but don’t count on it. This is another reason why it’s helpful to plan ahead.

With some careful planning, traveling with a restrictive diet doesn’t have to get in the way of you living your best (and tastiest) life. Happy holiday travels and happy eating!

Sarah Reinbold


As founder of Fresh to Death Fitness Madrid, Sarah loves to kick back and relax on one of Spain's breathtaking beaches with a craft beer for the ultimate laid-back vacation.

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