“A special note to vegetarians: vegetarians are poorly understood in Latin America, and they are often undernourished.” After reading this sentence in the IFSA-Butler housing application, I began to worry. As someone who has been mostly vegetarian all my life and fully vegetarian for over 5 years, I couldn’t help it as thoughts started running through my head – would I not be able to enjoy my study abroad experience because of my food situation?
Luckily for me, my worries were swept away upon arrival – I was accommodated by my program during orientation and immediately asked by my host family what I was and was not comfortable eating. Every program, every person and every experience is different, but here are five general tips for vegetarians studying abroad.
Before leaving, make sure you understand what foods are popular and how prevalent vegetarianism is in your study abroad country or region. In my case, although vegetarianism is fairly uncommon in Chile as a whole, in Santiago, a large, cosmopolitan city, it is growing in popularity, and there are vegetarian and vegan options all around. Furthermore, fresh produce and bread are two important staples here, providing me with reliable options for most every meal. Researching what options you will have will help you plan for your study abroad experience and ensure you know how to stay properly nourished while abroad.
2.) Communicate With Your Host Family
Make sure your host family understands your situation, and let them know what you will and will not eat. Most families will be accommodating as long as they understand. Your host family is one of the most essential parts of your study abroad experience, and ensuring everyone is on the same page is better for all.
Lindsey Hoskins is a third year student studying abroad with the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program, Santiago. Her experience eating at home has turned out much better than she anticipated.
“Since I heard that Chileans eat a lot of meat, I was nervous about how well my host family would be able to accommodate my vegetarianism,” Hoskins said. “However, my host mom consistently finds creative ways to cook vegetarian meals that are also delicious, even for the meat-eaters in the family.”
For me personally, even when my family is eating something like hamburgers for dinner, my host mom will prepare me a veggie burger and always make sure I’m good to go.
3.) Find Staple Foods
Every country and region has its staples, and if you can find one that you enjoy, you’ll be set. For example, most Chilean meals include bread and avocado, so I know, at the very least, I will be able to eat that at most meals, whether I top the bread with eggs or peanut butter or use the avocado as an extra condiment on, well, anything. As most vegetarians already know, key nutrients to watch for include protein and iron, so stay on the lookout for foods that will help keep you fully nourished. The presence of many vegetarian staples helps give students more flexibility when choosing their meals abroad, including at restaurants, according to Hoskins.
“Eating in restaurants has been slightly more difficult, as there are often no vegetarian meals on a menu,” Hoskins said. “Luckily, waiters are very willing to ask chefs to create a vegetarian meal using ingredients they already have.”
4.) Talk to Other Vegetarians
Especially in larger cities, there are bound to be other vegetarians. Talk to them to see what tips they have in their experience living (and eating) in your study abroad location. Even within your IFSA program, you could have other students going through the same experience as you. Just like with the host family, communication is one of the biggest keys to success, and in addition to learning helpful tips, you can also make new friends. On a recent night out with my host sister and her friends, I started conversing with a Chilean psychology student sitting near me. I quickly learned that he was vegetarian too, and he gave me a plethora of helpful tips and advice for living vegetarian in Santiago. After friending each other on Facebook, he told me to reach out if I ever had any questions or wanted advice.
5.) Be Open
Lastly, be open to new things! Even if it hasn’t included meat, I’ve tried many foods I have never eaten before here in Chile, from carne vegetal (soy meat) to the sweetest pastries I could’ve ever imagined. Study abroad offers opportunities everywhere you look, and it’s important to stay open. Whether it’s kelp salad bought from the local farmer’s market or marmalade made from apricots plucked off the tree in the yard, my experience has been eye-opening (and mouth-watering) in many ways. Rather than being my biggest worry while abroad, staying vegetarian has allowed me to enjoy my experience to the fullest.
All-in-all, my experience being vegetarian in Chile has been far less challenging than I anticipated. With an accepting and caring host family, I haven’t had to spend a dime more than my carnivorous companions and have been able to enjoy my time abroad just the same. So, for vegetarians preparing to study abroad: keep calm, research, communicate and above all else, have fun!
David Gleisner is a Journalism and International Studies major at Northwestern University and studied abroad with the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program, Santiago in fall 2017. He served as an International Correspondent with IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.