As someone who can’t eat dairy, I worried about how this would affect my study abroad experience. I did not know how much control I would have over what I was eating. However, I found that during my my dietary restriction did not hold me back and I want to share some of the ways I coped with it in a different country.
Relax, it’s your body:
I was very worried at first that I would not have control over what I was eating. I thought that I would be left in situations where my only option would be to eat foods that contain dairy. My nerves were alleviated almost immediately upon arrival in New Zealand. IFSA staff members were wonderful about making sure I had options everywhere we were staying and that my meals were kept separate from the regular food. In addition to this, I quickly realized that it was my body and that I was in control of what I put in it.
What to do before you arrive:
The first thing that is important to consider if you have a food restriction is the type of program you will be on. Having your own kitchen is really important for controlling your diet. Also doing some research on your countries of interest is important. Certain countries like New Zealand and Australia have strict allergen regulations but not all countries have the same. Considering these things when choosing a program would definitely enhance your experience.
From my personal experience, going into the grocery store for the first time was definitely overwhelming. I wanted to find the products that would be best suited for my diet while also not spending too much money. There was definitely a period of trial and error, but I found that all ingredients were labeled to the same extent that they are in the United States. Once I found the products that worked best for me, I entered a routine and grocery shopping became one of my favorite weekly activities (after my beach trips of course).
If you are nervous about being responsible for finding food that you can eat; don’t be. Before I went abroad, I decided to familiarize myself with the grocery stores near my flat. Many grocery stores have websites that list their products. You can easily go on and browse through their products. That way you become familiar with different brand names and go in a little less overwhelmed for your first trip to the grocery store.
Also, if you are going abroad with a program, definitely inform your adviser. This can help ensure that on group trips you always have access to food that you can comfortably eat. IFSA was amazing throughout the entire program. They always made sure I had enough to eat and if we were going on a day trip where I would not be able to eat anything, they made sure to warn me well in advance, so I could prepare.
The last thing that I recommend doing before you arrive is coming up with basic recipes that suit your dietary needs which you know you will be comfortable making. Familiar meals really helps at the beginning when you are struggling to figure out a new country and a new grocery store. If you have a recipe in mind, it will make shopping much easier.
Don’t be afraid to speak up:
At first, I was not sure how people would react to my dietary restriction. I did not know how common they are in other countries and was worried about opening up. This made it difficult to go out to eat at first. However, after a while I decided to start eating in restaurants and I realized that people were very receptive. Nearly every restaurant I went to was aware of the ingredients in their meals and very willing to share. This made my experience very easy and comfortable.
Also, don’t be afraid to share with your friends. While I was there I told my friends that I could not eat dairy, and to my surprise they always had options for me whenever we got together. We also had a lot of laughs trying to make dairy free desserts that tasted good.
Tips from my personal experience:
If you are like me and very sensitive to certain foods, make sure you give your dishes a good wash before you use them. This especially applies if you are living with flatmates! You never know what someone is eating before you and it’s always good to be safe. I found that cleaning my dishes before I use them made me a lot more comfortable and I had less problems with maintaining the diet. Additionally, I found that having my own sponge was really helpful, especially if dishes are being hand washed instead of run in a dishwasher.
Always have a snack with you that you can eat. You never know what situation you will find yourself in and if you will have access to food you can eat. I always kept a granola bar with me so if I ever found myself with no dairy-free options, I would always have something.
Don’t be afraid to try new things! At the beginning, I really did not want to branch out as I was worried about how my body would react. However, looking back on my experience, I realize that some of my favorite moments were when I was trying new food.
While I was originally very nervous to study abroad while managing my dairy-free diet, I found that it was much easier than I originally anticipated. I hope that my experience and tips help anybody who is hesitant like I was. Also, if I could share one thing with everyone it would be, don’t ever let your restrictions (of any kind) hold you back from doing something you’ve always dreamed of—you will find a way around any difficulties and it will be worth it. It definitely was for me.
Caroline Lieberman is a Clinical Psychology student at Tufts University and studied abroad with IFSA at The University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in Fall 2018.