THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A restricted diet is no longer such baggage

Email|Print| Text size + By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / May 20, 2007

When the Soviet Union was teetering between Cold War communism and a more open society, my mother and I boarded an Aeroflot flight from East Berlin to Moscow with a suitcase full of tuna fish, peanut butter, hot chocolate mix, dehydrated soup, instant oatmeal, a can opener, hot coil, and ceramic mugs. Glasnost and perestroika were on the way, but kosher restaurants at our planned stops in Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad were not.

To keep kosher while enjoying Red Square, the Hermitage, and the Moscow Circus, we prepared most of our meals in our hotel room. Whenever possible, we ate fresh produce and bread, pickles and preserves.

Traveling with dietary restrictions is never easy, even when more than 11 million Americans are said to suffer from food allergies and an estimated 9 million are vegetarians or vegans. But observing such restrictions , whether for medical or religious reasons or simply personal preference , should not restrict your enjoyment of a trip. With a little planning, flexibility, and sense of adventure, a vegetarian can enjoy meatier Houston as much as greener San Francisco.

I have discovered vegetarian gumbo in New Orleans, bountiful salad bars in Innsbruck, Austria, and a kosher deli at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Still, my meat less meal requests have been met with quizzical looks in Little Rock, Ark., and Venice, underscoring the importance of packing nutrition bars or other snacks in case of emergency.

"When some people [with dietary needs] travel, to some degree they think they're doomed," said Joan Buchbinder , a Brookline-based nutritionist and vegetarian who advises clientele with dietary restrictions. "I remind people that when they're traveling it's not the time to let down their hair and forget about their nutritional goals.

"If you leave town and you're on a low-cholesterol diet or you're on a diabetic diet or you're on a vegan diet, wherever you go you've got to bring that diet with you."

Travelers with special diets should know what to expect when they reach their destination. Are restaurant options plentiful? Does the area tout fresh produce or the secret rub on its barbecue? The more you know, the less you have to be concerned about sticking to a special diet once you arrive. I learned this the hard way on a trip to Arkansas several years ago.

When I could smell the barbecued pork contest around the corner from my Little Rock hotel, I worried. When a room service request for a vegetable salad arrived topped with bacon bits, I knew I was in trouble.

A quick Internet search can provide most of the information you need to plan ahead, and maybe even a good restaurant or two. I usually search for a Whole Foods store, knowing the chain offers a wide selection of healthy prepared foods with the ingredients clearly listed, as well as hot and cold salad bars. Friends are also a resource. One in Milwaukee recommended the vegetarian-friendly Beans & Barley cafe , a true find in a city devoted to beer and bratwurst. A knowledgeable concierge can also be helpful.

Finding a suitable place to eat is just the start. Alerting the chef to dietary needs when making a reservation can ensure a good, even memorable, meal.

"I always thank people when they call me in advance," said Annie Somerville, who presides over the kitchen at the acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco. "If they call us in advance , we have some time to prepare and we can take care of their needs."

Greens offers inventive meals based on seasonally available organic produce that even a meat-eater could love. From Vietnamese yellow curry to the spinach fettuccine with gorgonzola and walnuts to mung dal (mung bean) fritters, meals at Greens allow diners to choose from a wide array of flavors in a dining room that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. The dessert menu always has at least one vegan option. And for those looking to grab a bite, Greens To Go offers salads, sandwiches, chili and curry bowls, and baked goods.

Greens is not alone in its ability to accommodate dietary needs with high-caliber cuisine. Restaurants increasingly go out of their way to serve such customers.

The don't-be-afraid-to-ask approach can also extend to hotels. I have had room service operators check, double check, and change listed entrees to make sure they work for me. More and more hotels can place a mini-refrigerator in rooms, allowing you to stock your own items.

For road trips, Pamela Hori, a chef who specializes in the preparation of vegan entrees at the Whole Foods Market on River Street in Cambridge, recommends taking a cooler when feasible "if only to carry cold drinks and fruit," she said. "Before setting out on a car or train trip , load up on vitamin-enhanced water, synergy drinks, and snacks such as trail mix. On longer trips . . . it's worth getting off the highway to get variety, quality , and fresh fruits."

Sometimes it's not even about getting off the highway, but simply going around the corner: Restaurants and markets catering to customers with restrictive diets often are located in clusters. Around the corner from a Wild Oats supermarket in Miami Beach , I discovered Gourmet Carrot , a kosher restaurant.

Finding food that's right for you can be a challenge, but it can also introduce you to new places. By figuring out what works for you, you can embrace the adventure .

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

If You Go

Got restrictions?

Plan ahead. Look for restaurants that would be better equipped to serve vegetarians, vegans, diabetics, etc. Knowing the location of a good supermarket can help. Don't be afraid to ask. A polite request made to a restaurant chef, a room service operator, or a hotel concierge can go a long way toward finding the food you need. When traveling abroad, make sure you can ask for what you need in the native language. Pack food in case of an emergency. A couple of nutrition bars, a whole wheat bagel, trail mix, a salad-to-go or fruit can get you through the limited food options at airports and when you cannot spare the time to find a snack or meal that fits your needs. Consider restaurant chains and supermarkets as options. Restaurants you might not think are an option often can prepare entrees for special diets. For example, there are vegetarian, low-calorie, and low-carb sandwiches available at Subway. P.F. Chang's has steamed vegetables and other healthy options. Check the neighborhood. Just as fast-food restaurants tend to be found in clusters, it is the same for healthy food options.

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