Studying Abroad with Food Allergies: An Experience Not To Be Missed
Imagine being in the Chateau De Sers in the south of France nestled in rolling hills, with sunrises and sunsets that take your breath away, and eating incredible food with 13 of your closest friends.
This was the background to my Thanksgiving celebration while I was studying abroad. It was like a fairy tale come true: I was able to enjoy it all, even with life threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish and shellfish.
The 17th century chateau with my friends was the highlight of my time abroad which took me to a total of nine countries across Europe and the U.K. It took a lot of preparation and vigilance to be able to enjoy the entire trip, but it was so worth it. It was a trip of a lifetime.
Here’s some of what I learned that can make studying abroad enjoyable for you and your child with food allergies:
Before You Go
Planning is the key to everything. Good preparation allows study abroad to be a seamless experience, whether it’s getting through border control or setting up your temporary home abroad. Putting in the groundwork up front is what makes study abroad work. Some important planning areas are:
- Choose whether you’re comfortable studying in a country where English isn’t the official language. Do you speak a second language? Are the classes taught in English?
- Check with your college’s office of international education (or the equivalent to that) to see what programs are offered in your major across the world. Make sure to have the paperwork required to carry medications you will need.
- Determine what housing situation will be the safest for you: a homestay, in a dorm with a shared kitchen, or in a single room with your own kitchen. Check whether these options are available in your chosen program.
- Know how you will communicate with your parents and family: do you need a SIM card or an international calling plan? Or will you use Wi-Fi to communicate through Skype? Make sure to have an agreement about the frequency of your check-ins.
- Know how to call emergency services in the countries you are visiting (911 does not work everywhere).
- Get your passport and secure all of your immigration paperwork (your university may be able to help with this).
- Prepare for your parents (especially mom) to shed some tears at the airport as you depart. Yep, it’s embarrassing, but it lets you know how much they love you.
While You Are There
Before my school quarter started at the University of Lancaster in Lancashire, England, I traveled with two friends through Iceland, Spain, France, Italy and Greece for a month. I also went to Copenhagen, Denmark, for another month to do research on a policy brief that I wrote once I was in England. These added more adventures to my trip abroad and gave me more experience with managing my food allergies. Some other lessons include:
- At restaurants and food markets, use apps to help you translate if you’re not fluent in the official language. I used Google Translate and Allergy Smartz during my trip. You can also have translate cards made for restaurants, but I preferred asking for a waiter/waitress who spoke English to help me choose a safe menu item. Some restaurants will have menus in English, but it varies.
- Plan your day trips and determine as much about food, transportation (airlines, trains, buses) and restaurants as you can online prior to setting out for the day. I used TripAdvisor to help find the best places.
- Trust your intuition. If a restaurant doesn’t feel right, don’t eat there.
- If traveling with friends, make sure they are trained on your allergies, how to recognize an allergic reaction, and how to administer your epinephrine auto-injector. A side note: my friends were great travel companions, especially in Italy, where many restaurants are closed the month of August. They were willing to not eat at a restaurant that wasn’t safe for me, even though we were all starving, and there were few open restaurants to be found.
Studying abroad was one of the most rewarding experiences. I learned so much about myself and other cultures and I gained a new perspective on the American lifestyle. Because of my planning and preparation, most everything went seamlessly. Nonetheless, there are still some of very important lessons I learned:
- Ask about food at any restaurant like you would at home. Waiters and waitresses in other countries are usually quite amiable in answering these questions. If they don’t fully understand, that’s where translate apps come in. Make sure to prioritize your safety while you’re traveling and eating.
- Check in with your parents any time you’re traveling to a new location. There’s a lot going on in the world today, and parents appreciate knowing where you are when you’re traveling without them.
- Always carry your epinephrine auto-injector. Hopefully you’ve already learned this long before studying abroad, but if you haven’t, this is imperative for your safety. It also does not hurt to know where the nearest hospital is located in the city you’re traveling.
- Know how to make three easy recipes. You won’t have access to all the same food brands, so try and identify simple dishes with generic ingredients. Knowing three good recipes you can make for lunch or dinner allows you to easily buy those groceries and cook different meals while abroad (whether you’re at a homestay or in a solo kitchen studio). You can branch out from there.
Study abroad is absolutely possible with food allergies. It simply takes a fair amount of preparation, planning, and vigilance. Bon voyage!