Food anxiety when traveling is a common complaint even among the most experienced travelers.
If you’ve landed on this page because you’re worried about the unfamiliar foods you might come across on your trip – maybe you’re even a bit embarrassed, feeling like a five-year old flinging brussel sprouts across the room from a table – I want you to take this in: you are not alone, and you’re not being silly. Unless you’re actually flinging brussel sprouts across the room while reading this, no matter how fun it may be!
Think about it for a moment. Anxiety often occurs when things are suddenly changed, or because a previous experience has caused you to fear something. Well, could there be a more perfect breeding ground for worry than food anxiety when traveling? You’re suddenly plopped into a brand new country, with unfamiliar foods. Preparing your own meals is out of your control. You may have experienced some version of “Delhi Belly” or “Montezuma’s Revenge” before, which makes you totally fearful of trying anything new ever again.
If you’re suffering from pre-travel anxiety because of the food you’ll be eating, you’re not being silly. The good news is that I’m here to tell you how to overcome it!
(and stop flinging those sprouts; you’ll get the carpet mucky.)
My experience of food anxiety when traveling
Believe me, I have a lot of experience in this area!
Getting sick abroad
When I was 12 years old, I went to Malta with my parents. I had an absolutely lovely time – for about a week and a half.
I was going to have my 13th birthday in Malta, and we booked a horse-riding trek for the day itself. I’d never been on a horse, so I was really, really excited about it! The day before, we went to Valletta for the day and all was fine, except that I started to feel a bit unwell later in the day. We traveled back to our hotel, but as we were self-catering, we had to pop into a little local mini-market first.
I was feeling distinctly unwell by this point, so I went outside to get some fresh air. Where I promptly threw up all over the pavement.
The shop’s owner couldn’t have been any kinder: she rushed out with lemon-flavored sweets and lemonade, refused our offers to clean it up, and gave us the lemonade and sweets for free (I still love that lady, wherever she may be). That made me feel better, but it became clear during the night that it wasn’t just a stomach upset. A doctor had to be called to the hotel.
I had gastroenteritis, caused by eating an ice cream on the beach. It was extremely unpleasant, and eating food abroad instantly became connected with sickness.
Thanks to my experience in Malta, I used to have a huge problem with anything that was unfamiliar or different. I freaked out in Amsterdam because I had a hot dog, and it came with a mysterious pink sauce on top of it. I was frantically scraping it all off with a napkin, until my boyfriend sampled a bit and said “it’s just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together”.
Ketchup and mayonnaise. Well, that didn’t sound too bad, actually. I sampled a tiny bit; a blob of pink hovering on a shaking finger… and it was actually really good. A shaft of light descended from the heavens. I ate the whole thing.
Next up was Germany, where I had some sauerkraut on the side of my plate. I stared at it. It stared back at me. I remembered that sauce in Amsterdam and the win I’d had, and tried a bit. It was lovely; I ate the lot. And it had crunchy bits!
Then I went to Prague, where I didn’t know what any of the dishes were going to be like, and I ate and loved every single thing! Since then, food has become one of the things that I most look forward to when traveling – trying out new flavors, getting new favorite foods, and then being inevitably upset when I can’t acquire them back home. I don’t count myself as being a food anxiety sufferer anymore.
How to overcome food anxiety when traveling
As you can see from my story, there’s a common theme – bad experiences make you fearful, but gradual experience helps you overcome it.
This is how we’re going to overcome your food anxiety when traveling. There’s two different ways to tackle it: either you can bite the bullet and simply try new food when you’re abroad (such as I did with the hot dog sauce and the sauerkraut), or you can build up to it slowly.
Even though I overcame my food anxiety with the first method, I think it’s far more advisable to do the second. It significantly reduces your anxiety before you travel, making the whole experience less stressful for you. It’s less of a strain, and it reduces the chances of you experiencing a fail abroad, and making the problem worse. It’s also much better for severe food anxieties, when you really feel like you can’t possibly eat anything while you’re away, and that you’re going to be reduced to a diet of airline crackers.
We’re going to go through this step-by-step, and by the time you’ve followed them all, you’re going to be so much better equipped to deal with food anxiety when traveling! And if there’s still some fears remaining, I’m also going to go through how to best avoid any gastric issues abroad, and what to do if all preparations fail, and you go down with a stomach upset. Trust me, it’s really not that bad at all!
You’re going to overcome your food anxiety, enjoy eating out abroad, maybe even acquire a sophisticated palate and become a total travel gourmet. You can do whatever you want to do!
1. Research foods you’re likely to encounter
A large part of food anxiety when traveling is simply a fear of the unknown. You’ve never had this dish before; you don’t know what’s in it. What if you’re allergic to an ingredient? What if it contains something you absolutely hate? Just what is that thing bobbing underneath the surface of the stew, looking much like something from Jaws?
Make the unknown known. There’s a lot of resources online which can take away that mystery, and let you identify what looks like something you might try, and what’s a definite no-no. Many travel blogs branch out into food – including this one! I wrote this guide to traditional Czech food in Prague specifically for anxious travelers, explaining what flavors and ingredients are going on before you even reach the city, and most blogs will at least touch on what meals they had when they were abroad. Or you can check out recipe sites such as BBC Food, which has over 10,000 recipes – heading to India, and no idea what’s in a biryani? Type it in!
2. Expose yourself to something similar before you leave
There’s two ways you can do this.
The first is by interrogating your local supermarket (don’t interrogate the workers; they don’t take kindly to that). Supermarkets love to take your money, and as more people travel these days, you’ll find a much greater variety of meals and ingredients available to you. You may well find a supermarket version of a meal which is popular in the country you’re traveling to, such as ready-made Thai curries, Japanese katsu, or Vietnamese pho (for the Brits reading this, M&S is particularly enthusiastic about producing world foods).
The second method is to peruse the recipes in the BBC Food link above, and create your own dishes, just to try them. This might be a bit more expensive, and your cooking is probably not going to turn out much like the authentic product, but it’s a great way of getting yourself familiarized with the flavors and textures.
With both methods, you might still be nervous about trying them – they’re still unfamiliar, after all. But every bite is a win, a triumph over your anxiety – rest assured, they’re not going to make you sick. If you really dislike it, then you know that’s one to avoid and you won’t waste your money on it abroad; if you like it, then you can look forward to having an even better one on your trip. That’s a win-win situation!
3. Remember that your tastes might’ve changed
When I was young, I hated cheese. Absolutely hated it. I couldn’t stand the smell of it, the texture of it, the taste of it. Pizza never touched my lips, because it had cheese on it.
These days, I will pretty much eat anything cheese-related. I eat pizza all the time, with various varieties of cheese on top. I’ve had fried cheese in Prague (delicious!). I ate a ton of pecorino cheese in Florence, and would’ve brought a load back except for a fear of being that person on the plane with a bag of cheese.
Your tastes change, and you may be completely surprised by what you try, and suddenly love!
4. Don’t expect to be completely over your food anxiety before you travel
Food anxiety when traveling is a sneaky beast, and generally rooted in fears that go back a long way. Don’t put pressure on yourself, and expect to be completely over it before you travel.
Retaining some anxiety is completely normal, and you’ll probably still have a bit of an increased heartbeat as you place your order in a restaurant abroad. But it’s important to remember that you’re not under any pressure – if you’ve been slowly researching and exposing yourself to these new flavors, you’re going to at least partially know what to expect. That’s awesome! That’s so much further than you expected to be! If you still don’t like the dish when you try it, that’s absolutely fine – but the chances are that you know what you’re eating, and you know it’s going to be okay.
Try to divert your remaining anxiety, and channel it into a curiosity for trying something new. Part of the joy of travel is experiencing new locations, new languages, and new customs, and you can make food part of that too!
5. Sample food vicariously
Sometimes, really simple things can be incredibly effective.
For instance, I’ve known someone who was really nervous about trying new foods in Japan, until they simply witnessed someone else eating the same dish. It sounds so easy, but it really can be a mental comfort.
Humans, like most animals, have a built in-fear of foods which they know are dangerous and which can make you sick. For example, if you were walking in the woods and saw a clump of mushrooms, would you be particularly inclined to try them? Probably not, because you know that they can be poisonous. But if you saw someone else eating the mushrooms with no effect, you’d be far more likely to give them a go.
If you’re traveling solo, just watching other people eating and enjoying a dish can help your mind relax, making you far more likely to try it yourself. If you’re traveling with a companion, see if you can try a little of what they’re having – you might like it so much that you order it the next night! (I’ve done this: apologies to my boyfriend, I will attempt to stop stealing your food.)
6. If you feel a panic attack coming on, let it happen
Even with all your preparations, food anxiety when traveling can sometimes get on top of you, and that can lead you into a panic attack. This is made even worse by being in a public place, as visions of everyone in the restaurant looking at you flash through your mind.
As I always say, if you feel a panic attack coming on, let it happen. It’s better to do that than to expend energy fighting it off, leaving you weak and miserable. You’re actually in a perfect place to have a panic attack unnoticed! Firstly, everyone in a restaurant is going to be far too focused on their own food – I don’t notice anyone else when I’m sitting somewhere to eat, unless they’re being incredibly disruptive. Secondly, you can simply make an excuse, head to the toilets, and let it all out. You really will feel better for it.
Have a read of my guide to panic attacks when traveling for in-depth discussion of how to deal with them!
Tips to avoid stomach problems when traveling
As you can see, there’s lots of ways to deal with food anxiety when traveling caused by unfamiliar foods! However, you might still have concerns about getting ill – after all, nobody wants to spend their trip laid up in a hotel room, dashing to the toilet every five minutes (been there, done that).
Here’s the best ways to avoid picking up stomach issues!
1. Be careful with water
Yes, the locals drink it. But that doesn’t mean that you should.
Your gut is a temperamental beast, and when it comes to water, it’s a total diva. It wants only the finest tap water (i.e. the stuff you get where you come from), and if it has anything which has a massively different composition of minerals to what its used to, it’ll throw a complete temper tantrum.
Fortunately, there’s ways to keep your diva stomach content. Treat it to nothing but bottled water, and avoid drinks with ice in them. Be wary of washed salads (remember the adage of “if you can’t cook it, boil it, or peel it, don’t eat it”, and you can even brush your teeth in bottled water.
If you’re going somewhere with poor water quality, or you suspect that finding bottled water might be tricky, consider investing in a water filter such as this Sawyer water bottle, which filters out all the nasties. This one comes highly recommended!
2. Avoid seafood if you’re far away from the sea
Let’s say that you’re enjoying a trip in the north-west of China, and you suddenly get a hankering for seafood. You may not know it, but you’re in the part of the world which is furthest away from the sea, in any direction. Now ask yourself: how long has it been since my dinner has been in the sea, and how has it got here?
Obviously this is an extreme example, but the theory behind it is solid. If you’re far inland, then seafood is not going to be terribly fresh, and therefore is more likely to give you an upset stomach. Don’t risk it.
3. Street food can be your friend
A lot of people can be wary of street food stalls. They’re awesomely authentic, and you’ll find plenty of locals enjoying them, but how good are the hygiene standards?
Well, as long as you’re eating something which is absolutely piping hot, street food stalls can be one of your best choices! Just observe them first, and make sure that nothing has been sitting around for too long; you want food which has come fresh off the grill. If you nail that, then you’re having something which has far less chance of causing you any problems!
Similarly, avoid buffets, and only go to busy restaurants. Going to quiet places is tempting, but a busy restaurant means that your food has been freshly cooked, and hasn’t been sitting on a hot plate.
4. Take hand sanitizer and wipes
So many problems can be avoided just by using these!
It’s obvious, but thoroughly wash your hands after using toilets, and give them an extra clean before you eat anything with your hands. Both items are a must-have on your packing list, and make a huge difference in combating food anxiety when traveling.
What if I get sick abroad?
Sometimes, the best laid plans of mice and men get totally screwed up, to paraphrase Robert Burns. You can slip up just once, and allow a stomach bug through the net.
The main thing is that you don’t become discouraged – it happens. Don’t let it get to you, and let your food anxiety when traveling creep back in. Yes, you might be off-color or laid up in bed for a few days, but the chances are that it’ll be just that: a few days. Most stomach upsets will clear themselves up by then, and you can help yourself by self-medicating with products like Imodium (buying it online saves blushes, am I right?), or Jianas Brothers Rehydration Salts.
If your symptoms aren’t improving after a few days, then you might need to call a doctor. And that’s where travel insurance comes in.
Personally I NEVER travel without insurance, because when you really need it, you’re sure going to be glad that you’ve got it. And like a lot of travel bloggers, I recommend World Nomads. I’ll be honest – yes, I’m affiliated to them. But that’s because I really believe in what they offer: solid insurance that’ll cover you for any activity you might get up to, any theft that might occur, or any illness or injury you may suffer. They’re a company that was founded by travelers, rather than some corporation that saw a gap in the market, so you really can be assured that they understand, and that they’ve got your back.
Use the box below, and see how it works out for you:
I hope this has helped with your food anxiety when traveling! I know it seems impossible, that you’ll gag or your food, or just waste money. But you really can do it. Follow the steps, prepare, don’t put pressure on yourself, and replace bad experiences with good ones. You’re going to do it!
If this has indeed helped, feel free to share it using the buttons below, or pin it to Pinterest – every share helps someone going through the same thing! Or you can comment below if you want to let me know about your travel food anxieties, or how you conquered them!
By the way! There may be affiliate links in this article. These incur zero extra cost to you, and really help me out as I’ll get a little money towards the running of this site! Plus I need more Imodium.