Content warning: I’m going to talk about voluntary and involuntary food restrictions or limits.
Conference food is hard to do
Pity the conference organizer! I mean that seriously. They need to get the entirety of the conference fed in a relatively short period of time. They need to make sure food is available for people with dietary diversity – vegetarians, vegans, celiac and gluten-free people. They need to make sure that ingredients are posted for people who have allergies. There needs to be protein for the veggie people. You need to order and manage the food availability so that the omnivores don’t eat all the veggie meals. If you’re offering kosher and halal meals, the caterer needs to be prepared to handle that appropriately. It’s a lot.
Oh, and you have to do it all on a budget. It’s hard, and it’s expensive. I don’t want you to think I’m unaware of that.
Eating on the road is hard to do
This is a part of my high-travel life that I’m still trying to get right. I want to be able to sit around and eat at a conference and not think about it, but it’s not all that easy.
I’m a super-taster, which means that I am effectively a picky eater. In the words of They Might Be Giants, “When he eats a pear, it’s like a million pears”. Also, I have the cilantro mutation, so if something has cilantro in it, it feels like I’m licking a million bars of soap. I also have some food sensitivities, so if I eat too much, say, ham (which I love) I raise my risk of migraine. Basically, the grilled cheese bar is my favorite implementation of buffet food ever.
Being a picky eater is the easy mode. At least I’m unlikely to get sick from something I am actually allergic to. I watched a guy at a nordic conference carefully check to make sure that he didn’t get a fish entree, because he was allergic. No one expected the chicken to have a fish-based cream sauce! And that was the end of his conference-going for the day.
And then there’s timing. You know what’s a rookie move? Flying into Israel on a Friday afternoon. Even in Tel Aviv, it’s hard to find a restaurant or store open, because the Sabbath is so universally observed that people don’t think about it, any more than people with traffic think to tell you what their time modifier is for driving places. I will frequently arrive at a hotel after the time when you can get room service or delivery. It’s not a huge problem in New York or London, but Salt Lake City does not have a lot of late-night delivery options.
Also, even good conference food tastes like conference food, things that can all be delivered simultaneously and held intact, and that’s good, but also predictable. And after my third or fourth conference in a row, all I want in life is something that is not that. This is especially true for places that have heavy appetizers for meals. You can totally eat a meal’s worth of calories off toothpicks, but sometimes I just want a fork!
I don’t spend much if any energy trying to consider my micro or macronutrients while I’m traveling. Learning is hard work, which requires calories. So is peopling, walking or standing in a conference center. I’m aware that I am far more likely to run light on food than to eat so much that I’m uncomfortable. That’s my pattern. If I don’t compensate for that, I will get subtly and then not-so-subtly hangry, and that is no good way to represent myself and my company. Also, at the risk of sounding like a character in a mid-century book, it’s hard to get enough fiber.
One of my very bad habits when I’m on the road is that I’ll de-prioritize feeding myself, or get into a disordered place where I’m “not doing enough to order something expensive”. Or I’ll refuse to get dressed and go get food if I forgot to feed myself after the conference and came straight back to my room. I think that if you’re at all prone to disordered eating, the existing binge nature of 2 big meals a day and the trigger of not being in control of what is easily available could get you in a bad place really quickly.
Given all that, I have some workarounds that may be helpful for other people, too.
- Take food with you! I always have a couple Tonka/Epic bars in my bag for Protein Emergencies. If I’m going someplace I know I’ll have more trouble getting food, I will also pack some dried fruit. If your hotel is someplace central, like midtown Manhattan or Union Square in San Francisco or Belltown in Seattle, then I don’t worry about it, but if I’m in Schaumburg or Wapping or some other semi-suburb, it may be tough to find anything late at night.
- Buy food. Yes, the conference is providing food. That’s a benefit, not an obligation. If you can’t get what you need to feel healthy and happy, you can order delivery to your sponsor booth or hotel room. You can leave the conference during lunch to grab some food that you pick yourself. I think it’s hard for us to do that because it feels wasteful, but probably the organizer or caterer has a plan for the leftovers. The goal of you going to a conference is that you learn and grow and speak and sparkle. It’s ok to expense lunch, or dinner, or both.
- Find other people in your industry or the conference circuit who share dietary needs with you. That way you can take turns looking up the ramen place that can handle gluten-free requests, and you can all go together.
- Expand your understanding of delivery! Can Postmates or Prime Now deliver you a case of Diet Coke for your hotel room? Quite probably. With some hotels, such as the Residence Inns, you can make grocery requests when you book or before you check in, and when you walk into your room, your fridge will already have a gallon of milk or whatever you need. This is so magical to me, because I grew up in a town too small to even have pizza delivery.
- Experiment with new flavors or styles of shelf-stable food when you are not on the road. It’s stressful to have packed something and then realize that you hate it when you reach for it.
- Consider whatever dietary supplements you want to take and pack them as mindfully as you do your other daily meds. You can get almost anything as an adult-dose gummy now. Vitamins, fiber, probiotics, calcium, all of them come in pretty tasty gummies. There’s even one that I buy in airports that’s got a formulation for sleep, with melatonin and some other stuff.
- Do you have one kind of candy or shelf-stable food that you always find comforting? Pack it along. I once called my wife in near-hysterics because I had had a long hard day on an overseas trip, and I’d gotten a package of M&Ms to comfort myself, and of course, they tasted different, and were therefore not comforting. Your pop, your candy, your chips, they will probably all taste subtly different if you buy them in different countries, because they are tuned for that country’s tastes.
To sum up
Eating on the road is difficult for everyone, but is especially likely to affect people who have allergies, dietary restrictions, previous history of eating problems, or chronic pickiness. Feeling food-insecure is not just about people who can’t afford groceries, but about people who have no control over what they can eat in a workplace situation, and don’t know if it will be safe. If someone tells you they need something from their food, just believe them. It’s not your job to decide whether they should need accommodations, it’s your job to treat them as a fellow professional.