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As a Vegetarian Tourist, Here's How to Plan Meals

04/03/2015 01:10 EDT | Updated 06/03/2015 05:59 EDT
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Since childhood, I have encountered people of all ages who are shocked to hear that I have never eaten meat. That's right, I said never.

Recently, since becoming a bit of an adventurous traveler, I have been receiving the same puzzled expressions and critical remarks, but not just from strangers. When my husband and I announced our travel plans to visit Argentina and Brazil this past winter, friends and family did not exactly give me votes of confidence.

The common assumption, it seemed, among those who have never been to South America, is that only carnivores can enjoy the cuisine. Vegetarians, let alone picky ones like myself, could be up for a challenge.

After experiencing Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro as a hungry tourist, I can now admit that I was naïve to believe I would starve. In fact, I am more than happy to report that the food I ate in South America was hands-down more gratifying than a lot of what I've been served in the North.

By spending time in Argentina and Brazil, I learned that each country is heavily influenced by Italian culture (it's actually a tradition in Argentina to eat pizza for dinner on Fridays and pasta for lunch on Sundays), and that sushi is popular no matter how far you are from home.

Healthy living is quite trendy in these places (which should be expected considering the focus on physical beauty), so smoothie bars are easy to find and acai bowls are the snack of choice. Even the steak houses have endless options for vegetarians, including hearty pastas, cheese plates and fresh salads.

While my success as a traveling vegetarian is notable, I must confess that it was not purely by luck. As someone who thrives on organization, in order to minimize potential frustration, I did put effort into my meal planning before and during our vacation.

I figured I would share some of my best tips in hopes of encouraging more people with dietary restrictions to journey to places other than all-inclusive resorts or cruise ships with endless buffets.

Research, research, research. Take full advantage of websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp. Read tons of reviews about reputable and popular restaurants in your destination of choice. Don't just look for places that are strictly vegetarian, as your meat-eating companion(s) will not approve. Find restaurants that have been rated highly and then jot them down. Once you have a solid list, look up the menus online and see which options best suit your needs and wants. Then discuss with your travel partner(s).

Make reservations and communicate with the staff. If you'll be visiting a city during its high season, chances are that your preferred restaurants will book up fairly quickly. Do not expect to get a good table at a hot spot by just walking in the door. Make reservations a few weeks in advance, if possible, so you know you'll be guaranteed a good dining experience. Now, some websites may not feature menus, so be sure to email the restaurant and ask about their vegetarian options. One of the best meals we ate in Buenos Aires was at Don Julio, a steak house I had contacted beforehand. The staff assured me (in English) that I would have lots to choose from, and they did not disappoint.

Don't be afraid to ask. If you do go to restaurants where you haven't made reservations, such as random spots with menus in a foreign language, you may become intimidated. Trust me, I experienced this on several occasions in Argentina and Brazil when I was already "hangry" (hungry/angry). In situations like these, where even the servers don't speak English, you may be surprised at how helpful fellow diners can be. When we came across a lively restaurant in the Palermo area of Buenos Aires, we figured it had to be decent. I ended up asking a complete stranger beside me (a local who was bilingual) to translate the menu. Lesson learned: being social can get you a delicious entrée. Worst case scenario: Just say "no carne" to the waitress and hope she recommends something edible.

Appear clueless and people will come to your rescue. I think acting like a helpless tourist did the trick when I was trying to decipher a menu in Rio de Janeiro at a take-out place. I was pretty ravenous after flying to Brazil and not eating breakfast, so at lunch time I was on a mission. This take-out place was busy, and I was starting to get anxious, as it was almost my turn to order and I didn't understand the list of choices written in Portuguese. I figured out this place sold crepes, but when I asked the woman behind the counter if she could make me something without meat she gave me that WTF look. Fortunately, a customer in line behind me could sense my vulnerability, and somehow convinced this woman to show me all of the possible crepe ingredients (she pulled out container after container of fillings). I chose my favourites -- mission accomplished -- but I'm sure I came off as very annoying.

Do not wander endlessly, especially in the heat. If you're in an area of a city where no restaurants look appealing, do not walk in circles for two hours straight in an attempt to find a needle in a haystack. Your travel partner will want to throw you in the river (or at least mine did). Sometimes you just need to accept the fact that you may have to settle for mediocre food when all of the menus are identically bad. In order to minimize drama, order anything slightly appealing as your main course and wait for your next snack or meal to be fully satisfied. Not everything you eat on vacation will be your first preference, but at least you won't be called "a difficult vegetarian".

Even with the greatest plans in place, traveling to a foreign country with dietary restrictions can be tough and unpredictable. Hopefully these tips will give you a head start and make your trip a little bit smoother. My final advice to my fellow veggies: Embrace the challenge with an open mind and an open mouth.

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