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Allergy Friendly at NC State: Spain Edition

Jan.27, 2014


As many of you know, either from my past blog posts or your own experience, NC State Dining does an excellent job of accommodating those of us with food allergies and sensitivities. As a student with multiple allergies, I thought it would be incredibly difficult to find enough to eat on campus. With the help of the online menus and ingredient information, iPad and digital menu screens in dining locations, and our awesome on-campus Dietitian, Lisa Eberhart, I have been able to enjoy delicious, allergy-friendly meals every day! However, sometimes being in college means taking the opportunity to expand your horizons and travel abroad. So, how do you manage food allergies in a whole new country?  You take what you’ve learned from dining at NC State with you (at least that’s what I did!).

I recently had the amazing opportunity to travel to Spain with the marching band at the beginning of the month to perform in Madrid’s “Cabalgata de Reyes” and in Toledo! I had an INCREDIBLE time there. Everything was absolutely gorgeous – the architecture, the art, the landscape and the culture. Another great thing in Spain was the food (a super important part of any trip, of course!). One thing I was a little concerned with before embarking on my journey was managing my food allergies in a foreign country, especially one with a different language. It’s pretty easy for me to learn about and find safe options on NC State’s campus, but I didn’t know what to expect in a different country. Luckily, the trip coordinators had a list of students with food allergies, so the meals provided for me on the trip were 100% allergy-friendly, but it was still a little difficult when I had to find meals on my own. Are you thinking about studying or traveling abroad, and worried about your own food allergies? Here are some tips that I recommend based on my experience.

Do your research!

Sadly, not every establishment outlines each of their items with nutrition and dietary information like our on-campus restaurants.  While I’ve become a bit spoiled with this online feature, I did my research before heading abroad and it paid off greatly. Honestly, I probably could have done a better job of this before leaving, but things were a little hectic over Christmas break, before I left. However, one thing I did was look up how to say certain allergens and phrases in Spanish so that I could communicate my needs in a restaurant if need be.  I was even able to find Gluten and Allergy-Free Translation Cards here: http://glutenfreepassport.com/allergy-gluten-free-travel/gf-translation-cards/ to bring on my trip and help me out. Some of the people in Spain spoke English, which was great, but I’m also very glad that I had some basic knowledge of Spanish phrases and vocabulary relating to my food allergies so I could ask. Also, if you are traveling with a group, talk to whomever is coordinating your trip about your allergy needs. That way, any planned meals are likely to be prepared to suit your requirements. I had a special gluten and dairy-free meal at the restaurants we went to as a group, and each one was awesome! Another exciting tip: if you contact the airline you are using for your international trip and let them know you need a gluten-free meal, they are happy to accommodate you! Just make sure you do it at least 24 hours before your flight.

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Salad with delicious gluten-free bread, steak and a dessert of fresh pineapple at Venta de Aire in Toledo (This meal was provided).

Opt for More Options

One great thing about Spanish restaurants was the amount of pictures of menu items displayed across the windows. Even though I couldn’t understand half of the words, the pictures helped me discern some of the ingredients in the dishes – especially when I wanted to know if meat was breaded or grilled, for example. For me, the easiest places to eat were those with the menu image displays and places with lots of options (hooray for tapas bars!). One place I went was set up like a market with different booths serving different items. This was great because I could go up to the counter and see what was being served, so I had some sense of what it was before ordering. I loved the places with lots of options because I was more likely to find something safe there.


A typical breakfast for me from the hotel buffets: Eggs, sausage, fruit, and vegetables!

Stick with what you know

I actually ended up having the same thing (Tortilla Española – a potato omelet, and pretty much one of the tastiest things ever!) at every place I went, because I knew it was safe. That may sound boring but it was so good that I didn’t mind at all – I even made it a personal goal to have it at least once a day! If you can find a traditional (or non-traditional) dish that you know is safe, it doesn’t hurt to keep that as a back-up option (especially if it’s delicious!). Also, if possible, try and stick to basic, plain foods, like meats, fruits and vegetables to make things easier. A lot of my breakfasts were simply made up of eggs, meat, fruits and veggies and they were all super yummy! If you aren’t sure about something, definitely ask. If you can’t understand the answer you get, due to language barriers or something else, it’s best to stay on the safe side and avoid the food. I definitely missed out on some desserts just because I wasn’t 100% sure about the ingredients, which was a little sad, but it was better in the long run. Plus, I always had a chocolate bar in my purse for emergencies like that. 😉


A typical meal out: Tortilla Española and borchetas de vegetal

Have a back-up plan

I feel like this is included in any allergy-friendly dining tips, but it’s an incredibly important one! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Spain, so I was prepared with a huge bag of beef jerky and Larabars to keep in my purse if I couldn’t find something for lunch. As it turned out, Spain is known for its wheat and barley production (who knew?) and it seemed like 95% of the meal options included bread and/or cheese. Not very helpful for someone like me, and there was one meal that I had to make do with my own food. It’s not ideal if, like me, you love trying new foods in new places, but having back-up options is better than being stuck without anything to eat.

I hope that this information has been helpful! If you think ahead and make arrangements, you should be okay. As you know, I love finding out about all of the allergy-friendly options NC State Dining offers on our campus, so it was even more fun to do that in a whole different country! Now that I know a little bit more about what to expect, I’m excited to take on the allergy-friendly foods in Italy this May with the Jefferson Scholars!

Bon Voyage!


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Published by ; posted on Monday, January 27th, 2014 at 11:13 am. Read more posts in the Dining Blog, Nutrition Blog »