Now, I'm not complaining here. I realize how utterly blessed we are to be able to travel as a family and take mini-vacations here and there, whether it's a long weekend at a Smoky Mountain cabin with our best friends or quick trip up to Cleveland to visit family.
The tough thing about traveling as a vegan family is that it can be hard to figure out what your options are going to be. Even if you're headed to a place you know all-too-well, it can still create a boatload of issues depending on the activities you plan on doing, where you're staying and how you're traveling.
Take for example this past weekend. Rather than cozying up in front of our living room fire and enjoying the giant snowflakes falling on Valentine's Day, my husband and I were packing up our bags (and our kids bags and bags of their toys and bags of food) for a small weekend excursion to Cleveland.
Normally when we travel to Cleveland we stay with friends and family. This time, however, we ended up staying in a hotel for two nights due to the nature of our visit.
I was inducted into my college's inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame class. I know, sounds so fancy schmancy, right? Myself and three other athletes were honored to be the first four individuals to be inducted in the Hall of Fame, so this meant being announced during the men's basketball game, in addition to some pictures, some smiling, some cocktail and appetizer hour, some award-receiving and some speech giving.
This also meant my children were going to have to be on their best behavior, and if they weren't (which, by the end of the day of course they weren't), my hubby needed a quick escape route and the hotel a few miles away from school in a swanky neighborhood did the trick. (It didn't hurt that it had an indoor pool, hot tub and all that fun stuff too).
So not only were we not sure if we were going to have a fridge to use during our visit (the hotel website said some rooms had mini-fridges while others did not), we were going to be spending all day Saturday at a privately-catered event.
If there was one huge obstacle to overcome while eating vegan, privately-catered events are at the absolute top of the list. At least there's hope when you have a salad bar as an option, but a privately-catered event usually means already-devised appetizers and meals, a less-than-flexible menu and "no guarantee" that the food didn't end up touching something nonvegan.
It can be a challenge.
What's a vegan to do?
Plan, plan and plan some more.
For starters, I emailed the gentleman in charge of the Hall of Fame reception and ceremony and inquired about my family's dietary restrictions. (Helpful tip: don't just type vegan and assume people know what that means. Often times, this can easily be mistaken for vegetarian, which means you're likely to end up with a dish loaded with dairy, sometimes even fish!). I explained that we didn't eat any meat, eggs, fish, dairy, gelatin or honey, essentially any animal-based product, and then asked if there would be anything accommodating on the menu for us. I also informed him that I completely understood if there wasn't, but figured it was better to ask than assume. I find using this approach, the "we don't expect special treatment, but if there happens to be a dish suitable for us we'd love to know," to be most effective because then people don't feel like you're asking for something special, they think you're a lot less pushy than the people who demand something and they're usually more willing to go out of their way to try and accommodate your diet.
Unfortunately, the menu had been set and the caterer wouldn't guarantee against any cross contamination or possible "allergens" in the food, so we were unable to eat at the reception. Sure, this was a bit of a bummer, but because we knew ahead of time we were able to plan for this. We knew to eat a hearty breakfast before we started the day's events and to eat a late lunch in between the basketball game and the reception so we'd still be filled.
Our must-haves for travel included almond milk for the kiddos, peanut butter and jelly, veggie dogs (one here and there never hurt anyone), strawberries, apples, bananas and some waters. Because we knew the city we were headed to (I went to college in Cleveland and lived there for a year after, my husband grew up near there), we knew there was an incredibly vegan-friendly Whole Foods and a few of our favorite restaurants. So we packed semi-light, knowing the food we needed to have on hand would be snacks the kids would want on the drive and things we wouldn't want to deal with in the hotel room (like cutting up strawberries and such).
The hotel also had a few yummy options on their menu - from warm pita bread and hummus to chips, salsa and guacamole. It's always important to ask about the ingredients. Our "tortilla chips with fiery sauce and guacamole" sounded safe, but ended up actually being a nacho supreme with cheese and sour cream. It's important to never assume a dish is safe and to always clarify what you can and cannot have.
In the event you're taking a family vacation to a new city or location, hop on the internet and start doing some research. Googling "destination name + vegan" can garner plenty of helpful results - from HappyCow listings, personal blogs, to reviews on yelp and sometimes vegan societies within a city. When we're deciding where to go on vacation, I usually do a quick internet search to see if they'll be at least a few viable options for us to dine out while we're on the town.
If you know you'll have access to a fridge and fresh ingredients, you can always opt for the shelf-stable nondairy milks. Sometimes we choose to get the small, personal-sized ones for the kiddos for the car ride if we know we'll be able to get the regular-sized ones once we reach our destination.
If at all possible, stay somewhere with a KITCHEN. When we're planning big vacays with our friends, it's kind of common knowledge that we're going to skip the hotel and opt for a big ole' beach house or cabin, or some kind of rental with a kitchen. (At the very least, try to get an extend-stay hotel, which generally comes equipped with basic kitchen goods). We went to the Smoky Mountains last summer with our best friends and ended up eating our only two or three times. Instead, we cooked veggies on the grill, made pancakes and ate at the table big ole' family dinner style. Having a kitchen is such a huge relief for traveling vegans.
All and all it ended up being a fabulous weekend. It was an incredible honor to be inducted into the first class of my college's Athletic Hall of Fame. The kids had fun swimming and it felt surreal being back on campus. I envied the massive Whole Foods with it's vegan scones and cupcakes and revisited the place my husband and I met.
It's amazing to think how far we've come. And how much further we want to go.
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