How I managed my dietary restrictions at a recent conference

Having special dining needs can be challenging at events, a columnist discovers

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by Karen Del Vecchio |

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I’m back! I had a fantastic time at my recent work conference and learned so much from the colleagues I met there. Last week, I wrote that I was worried about dining options, as I have food sensitivities from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome as well as alpha-gal syndrome, a tick-borne disease that makes me allergic to all mammalian products and their derivatives.

As I feared, I did indeed encounter a snafu. Thankfully, with a bit of creativity, it all worked out after the first night.

I’ve learned to make sure I have a mini fridge and microwave in my room whenever I’m traveling so that I can bring some food with me. Often it’s simply easier than eating out, although a few restaurants offer foods I can eat, such as Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, and Noodles & Company. I brought breakfast for each day, as well as snacks and a favorite spaghetti recipe that I can eat hot or cold, so that I’d be prepared, regardless of what I encountered.

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The first night of the conference involved a low-key dinner buffet for a group of about 50 people. After hanging out and getting to know one another, we started lining up for dinner. I realized pretty quickly that there wasn’t anything I could eat. It was classic Southern fare, including fried chicken, pork barbecue, baked beans, coleslaw, and mac and cheese.

I discreetly asked if I could talk to the person handling dietary needs, and I soon realized they’d completely missed my allergy information. Once it was clear that there wasn’t a meal easily available, I told them not to worry about it for the night. Because a college was hosting the conference, someone offered to get me food from another part of campus, but I declined. Everyone else would likely already be finished eating by that point.

Instead, I wound up sitting awkwardly at my table while everyone around me ate. I could tell that others at my table felt bad about eating in front of me, though I insisted it wasn’t a big deal. I knew I had food I could eat back at the hotel, and as someone who really hates being the center of attention, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. I was frustrated but not surprised by the situation.

To be clear, I don’t believe this oversight occurred out of malice or even a lack of caring. Many people simply don’t understand what it’s like to have dietary restrictions, and they may not realize that a buffet line doesn’t always provide food options for everyone.

Fortunately, everything worked out for the next two days. I was given tickets to the dining hall, which always offers a vegan option and a full salad and fruit bar, so getting meals there was easy.

In the future, I’ll plan to reach out directly to event organizers ahead of time to make sure they’re aware of what I can and can’t eat. Every opportunity for learning and growth is worthwhile. Thanks to this experience, I know that both the hosting college and the organization sponsoring the conference will be more aware of special dietary needs going forward.

Note: Ehlers-Danlos News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Ehlers-Danlos News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Ehlers-Danlos.


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