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Business Travel for Vegetarians

by Virginia Messina, M.P.H., R.D.

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My own first business trip was a memorable food-related experience. As a graduate student I was doing an internship with the health department for the state of Montana. I wasn't paid a cent, but one of the nice perks was that, given the lengthy travel distances between cities in Big Sky country, I was often flown around on commercial airlines to visit different nutrition sites throughout the state. The health department also paid for a hotel if it was an overnight trip, but I was on my own for food. Since restaurants and room service were well out of my student budget, and vegetarian fare was hard to come by at that time, I had to be a little resourceful.

For my very first trip I decked myself out in professional attire and headed for the airport feeling pretty much a woman of the world. But in those days, small airports like the one in Helena, Montana, didn't use electronic scanners to screen for weapons; instead they did a thorough manual search of all luggage. My image as a professional business type quickly wilted as I was forced to watch while the airport security person worked her way through my suitcase, carefully stacking my three-day supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the counter!

Some things have changed since then. I've cut down on my peanut butter intake, along with all the rest of the fat in my diet -- but I admit that I still travel with a stash of food. Any vegetarian who travels -- for business or otherwise -- knows that food is an issue.

No matter where you are, you can usually scout out French fries and salads. But finding healthy, varied, tasty vegetarian fare can be a different story. And it seems the biggest challenge is locating something good to eat on a business trip. Vacationers who can scope out restaurants at their leisure or dash into a grocery store to pack a picnic from the deli have some advantage over business travelers. Traveling on business can really curtail your options since you may be limited for time, or you might be imprisoned at an airport hotel without even a salad bar in sight. And if you are traveling alone in a strange city, you might not feel comfortable heading out after dark to explore restaurants.

Vegans are likely to have the toughest time of it, of course. Granted, lacto-ovo vegetarians may find it to be slim pickin's on restaurant and room service menus, but they can almost always find something to eat. For that reason I've focused on vegan options in exploring alternatives for business dining.

Eat Ethnic

If you are on your own and can eat where you like or if you can suggest restaurant options to your business colleagues, suggest something ethnic. In larger cities, Indian restaurants are a safe bet for getting something vegan. Request that they not cook their food in ghee or butter. Italian restaurants are ubiquitous and almost always offer vegetarian options, though you may have to settle for something as prosaic as spaghetti with tomato sauce. But Italian restaurants can definitely be risky for the staunch vegan. The tomato sauce might be seasoned with cheese. It can even be made with a beef broth base.

For travelers who aren't familiar with the turf, Chinese restaurants can represent salvation. For one thing, outside of places that offer salad bars, they are among the few eateries that provide a good variety of vegetables. Service is usually fast. Almost all Chinese restaurants serve tofu or beancurd; even if it isn't on the menu, they usually have it in the kitchen.

To avoid the fattier, Americanized versions of Chinese dishes, ask if you can have a serving of steamed or lightly braised tofu, broccoli, and snow peas served with rice.

Eating In

If you are traveling alone and are in unfamiliar terri-tory, you might just want to trade in your business suit for a bathrobe, turn on the television, and order up from room service. The problem is that aside from tossed salad with oil and vinegar, there is rarely any-thing on the room service menu that is remotely vegan. There is usually a vegetarian offering, but more often than not, it is loaded with cheese. Don't give up though. Most hotels will be somewhat accommo-dating and will let you pick and choose from the menu or make slight variations in dishes. For example, if the appetizers list mushrooms braised in wine, the side dishes include asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, and the entrees include pasta with shrimp, it is a good bet that you can get them to toss together a dish of pasta, with sauteed asparagus and mushrooms.

Bring Your Own

While most people are loathe dragging their groceries around on a business trip, there are a few items that I consider to be essentials for travel. I never leave home without a three-pack of soymilk in the small aseptic cartons. Without it, I find my breakfast options to include bagels with margarine or bagels with jelly--with black coffee of course. With soymilk -- or any of the non-dairy milks -- I can enjoy hot or cold cereal with milk, have something to put in my coffee, or can just have something filling to drink with breakfast. If you are shy about popping open those little cartons in a restaurant, order cereal from room service. But I bring my soymilk into restaurants all the time and no one has ever appeared to notice or care.

Bringing some staples like fortified soymilk might be especially important for frequent business travelers who eat a lot of meals on the road. For example, it is relatively easy to meet calcium needs on a vegan diet. But many vegans depend on foods like leafy green vegetables, foods flavored with tahini, or blackstrap molasses to meet those needs. These are items that just aren't available in the average restaurant. If you have some fortified soymilk or some snack packs of almonds or figs with you, you can feel a little more confident that your nutrient intake won't suffer too much even in the worst meal circumstances.

Other easy-to-transport food items that can make your trip easier are instant cups of soup, like the Fan-tastic Foods line of nonfat soups. With a small hot pot to heat up water in your room (or order hot tea from room service, using half the water to make tea and half to make soup), these soups can make a good stand-in meal when it's just impossible to find anything else.

Instant hummus (chickpea spread) is another terri-fic convenience item for travel. It can be mixed up fast with water from the tap and eaten with crackers or pita. It's also another good source of calcium.

If you enjoy finishing off a meal with something sweet, bring a bag of cookies or muffins. Excepting fruit, vegan desserts are among the hardest thing to find in restaurants.

In the Air

Almost all airlines offer a vegetarian meal -- though not all offer a reliably vegan option. Quality varies from airline to airline, but some of the meals are surprisingly good! Of course, you have to order a vegetarian meal ahead of time -- though usually you can do so right up to the day before departure.

If you forget to order your vegetarian meal, or more rarely, if the airline makes a mistake and your special meal doesn't make it onto the same flight as you, all may not be lost. If the flight isn't completely booked, or if some passengers don't want their meal, there may be a few extra regular meals on board. Ask the flight attendent if he or she could toss out the meat from two of the meals and give you two servings of rice, vege-tables, and salad. More often than not, the meal is some type of gravy-based entree, so that the rice is pretty much ruined for a vegetarian. Even then, you might be able to stave off starvation with a couple of salads and vegetables and three or four packages of peanuts.

Even if the airline is at fault for not delivering your meal, give the flight attendant a break and offer to wait until everyone else is served and then eat whatever vegetarian meal components they can come up with. Airline travelers are a notoriously cranky bunch -- it must be those cramped spaces -- and so, if you are pleasant and patient, you'll probably be rewarded with all the little packets of peanuts you want if nothing else.

Business Banquets

At catered events, even if you didn't order a special vegetarian meal ahead of time, you aren't necessarily stuck with salad and rolls. Most caterers can and will accommodate your vegetarian needs even after serving has begun. Just corner one of the servers before you sit down and quietly ask if they can leave the breast of chicken off your plate and fill the empty space with extra plain steamed rice and vegetables. They'll rarely refuse.

In fact, it may actually be better to wait until the last minute to ask for a vegetarian platter. A lot of caterers haven't gotten the hang of vegetarian meals. If you order yours ahead of time, nine times out of ten you will end up with a plate filled with sauteed vegetables -- and nothing else. If you don't give them any advance notice, you can usually depend on getting some rice or a potato with it.

Some Menu Ideas

Your meal options are going to vary a lot depending on the type of business trip you are taking. If you are in a lively section of an urban area and are on your own for meals, you might find that it is easy enough to find great-tasting vegan meals three times a day. If you are dining at banquets or are in a remote airport hotel, things will be trickier. I've outlined possible menus below that might be typical possibilities for the frequent business traveler.

Menu 1

Breakfast (in hotel coffee shop) Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal

Fortified soymilk (from home)
Fresh fruit cocktail
Bagel with margarine and jelly

Lunch (at banquet)

Tossed salad with oil and vinegar
Rice pilaf with almonds
(Check to see if vegetable broth is being used and not beef or chicken broth.)
Green beans
(Check to see if they contain animal products.)

Dinner (at Chinese restaurant)

Braised tofu and vegetables (broccoli, snow peas, carrots, bok choy)

Snack (in room)

Fig cookies (brought from home)
Chamomile tea

Menu 2

Breakfast (from room service)

Oatmeal Fortified soymilk (from home)
Orange wedges
Toast with strawberry jam

Lunch (at restaurant)

Roasted red peppers (appetizer)
Pasta tossed with herbs and steamed broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, and sun-dried tomatoes
(Tell the waiter to hold the Parmesan cheese.)
(Check to see if they contain animal products.)
Baked pear
(You may be lucky enough to find this or baked apples on the menu.)

Dinner (from room service and your own food stash)

Baked potato
Instant black bean soup
Tossed salad with vinegar and oil dressing
Dinner roll
(Check for animal ingredients.)



Virginia Messina is a registered dietitian from Maryland.
This article was originally published in the May/June 1994 issue of the Vegetarian Journal, published by:
The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463, Dept. IN
Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-VEGE

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August 31, 2000

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