This guide provides tips gleaned from the experiences of several vegetarians and vegans who have traveled and studied abroad. Your experience is likely to include many unique food experiences. If you anticipate some common situations, being vegetarian or vegan abroad doesn't have to be a hassle. Anticipation cannot be stressed enough.
Choosing a Program - Before you apply to study abroad, talk to your OCS Advisor about the possibility of being vegetarian/vegan in your host country. Some cultures accommodate vegetarian/vegan diets better than others.
Before You Go - See if there are vegetarian societies in your host country and contact them early for tips. The International Vegetarian Union is a good resource for this. Many guidebooks today contain information on vegetarian/vegan abroad. Consult them and the web. If possible, contact a vegetarian/vegan who has studied in the same program as you or in the same area. She or he will be able to impart crucial information beyond the scope of these very general guidelines. Knowing the local language will help immensely. Learn at least a few key phrases, including the terms for some vegetarian/vegan products you’d want to eat and animal products you don’t want to eat.
Host Families - Talk to your host family about your diet well ahead of time. Springing your diet on them when you arrive is not polite and invites conflict from the get-go. If the host family does not cook vegetarian/vegan dishes or sees it as impractical, volunteer to cook or to at least help in preparing a meal. Who knows—depending on the meal, they may appreciate the allure of vegetarian/vegan cuisine. If your host family is completely unable to accommodate your diet, talk to your program director about finding another host family. Try to discern your fit with the host family before you arrive by contacting them as early as possible.
Eating Out - Make friends with local people who can help you understand what’s in local dishes. You may want to write down (in the local language) the things that you will not eat and give the list to your server at the restaurants. Be very considerate of local costumes when doing this. Sending back improperly prepared dishes may not be acceptable in your host country. Being explicit with your needs and knowing local customs will go a long way toward avoiding awkward moments or inadvertently insulting your hosts. Check VegGuide.org for veg-friendly restaurants and stores. If you find one that isn’t posted, please add it to help out the next person!
Preparing Your Own Food - Bringing dry mixes from home is tempting for many vegetarian/vegan, but relying on these goods and care packages from home can limit your experience of local culture. Spice availability will vary, so if you plan to prepare “American” dishes, bring small containers of your favorite spices with you. These are light and pack easily, but be sure to familiarize yourself with US customs requirements and those for the country of destination. Invest in a cookbook with recipes that use the local staples. It may not be easy to find cookbooks, depending on your country, so do some research before traveling. Keep your nutritional needs in mind and bring supplements along if you think that it may be difficult to acquire important nutrients, such as vitamins D and B12.
Cultural Issues - Your values may come into conflict with local values regarding diet. Many cultures view meat/dairy/eggs as luxury items and serve them for special recognition. (Think ahead of time about whether you’re willing to eat meat/dairy/eggs/etc. if they’re offered to you as a special gift.) Depending on the country you visit, it may not be reasonable to expect the same kind of attention to vegetarian needs one gets in the USA. Understand that “no meat” may not mean additionally “no lard and no blood” or “no fish.” Be as clear as possible about your desires. Always be courteous and try to anticipate issues before they happen (e.g., if you’re invited to a dinner).
Parting Words - Being vegetarian/vegan in certain areas of the world is easier than others. It’s not worth beating yourself up emotionally or damaging your own health if you can’t maintain a strictly vegetarian/vegan diet while abroad. Don’t be discouraged … anticipate, anticipate, anticipate!