Being vegan on placement can be challenging and adopting a flexible approach is often your best bet. Of course, you want to keep to your principles as much as possible, but don’t forget to balance this with the fact that staying healthy on placement is really important. Here are some tips and tricks from my volunteer experience to help you stay healthy, happy and principled.
Take some staples with you:
Before you begin your placement, while you’re still in the UK, think about how you make your diet balanced here. Maybe you eat a lot of nuts and seeds, or maybe you always have lots of green veg in your fridge. If you know these contribute to your healthiness, think about how you can take this goodness with you. Packing bags of nuts is simple and will help with snacking if your host home’s meals aren’t quite as filling as they might be when you’re in charge of cooking for yourself.
You might also want to take vitamin supplements with you (iron was what I was most concerned about as green veg can be hard to have in the quantity you might be used to). I didn’t take supplements (and was totally healthy when checked at the GP on my return) but you might like to as a precaution.
No stress about dairy.
It’s pretty easy to avoid dairy foods in Africa. Keeping cows is an expensive business so there is not a big dairy industry on the continent. Lots of people rely on powdered milk (where Nestle is definitely king!) and cheese isn’t found very commonly. Yoghurt drinks are fairly popular but also pretty easy to just avoid! The more common challenges you’ll face as a vegan are:
– meat as the default in the majority of meals
– fish offered as the only alternative
– hard boiled eggs (so many in Ghanaian meals in particular!)
Consider a flexible approach.
Be aware that we are very privileged in the UK to have access to a huge variety of foods. You’re highly unlikely to have such variety during your placement. With this in mind, are there certain non-vegan foods you’d be okay with eating occasionally to make sure you’re getting everything you need to stay healthy? For example in many of our placement sites, fish is a staple. I was okay with compromising and ate fish once a week to ensure I was getting the protein I needed. Because I compromised here, I didn’t have to compromise on dairy which I knew would have been a bigger deal for me.
Be honest at the beginning.
Definitely, make good use of the introductory household meeting with your host parents. Be honest about your dietary preferences and be prepared to explain what vegan actually is – it will likely literally be a foreign concept to many people in your host country. Come prepared with a list in mind of any items you might be willing to compromise on (e.g. Fish once a week) or ways you know to help make typically non-vegan meals vegan friendly (but be aware that this might require knowledge of typical local meals – you probably won’t know this until you get there!).
Write a handy go-to list of what food items aren’t vegan.
As is the case in the UK too, many people have never thought about what food items have required the use of an animal to get them onto our plates. This may also be true of your host homes. During your introductory meeting, come with some helpful suggestions to make their life easier when catering for you. This might include writing a list of everyday items that aren’t vegan e.g. Butter, milk, fish sauce, eggs etc. It might sound obvious, but this kind of simple step could help build (and maintain) healthy host home relationships from the beginning.
Offer to cook for the family.
Not only is it a lovely way to bring the family together and share a bit of your culture with your host parents, cooking for them will allow you to take control of what’s in at least one of your meals! Source your ingredients locally and ask your host parents’ advice if you’re not sure where to get ingredients from. Better still, join a parent on their food shopping trip and you can show them what items are vegan-friendly for future meals too.
Eat big meals at lunchtime.
If you’re finding it difficult to get your host family on board or maybe they just don’t have access to the kind of foods that keep you full and healthy as a vegan in the UK, take the opportunity to fill up at lunchtime. You’ll likely be out and about at that point in the afternoon and buying your lunch food from a street-side vendor. Suss out what the good veggie options are and fill up here. However, if this means you then need less dinner, do explain to your host parents so they don’t think you’re being rude by leaving lots of food they’ve cooked for you.
Get good at asking for ‘the meat on the side’.
When out and about getting food, asking to remove components from meals can be met with confusion and, more often than not, is unsuccessful. However, asking them to simply put the meat (/egg/mayo etc) on the side will likely be better understood and, I found, had a better success rate. Of course, this isn’t ideal because you’re not reducing the amount of meat the vendor is using, but you’ll definitely find someone in the group who’ll take it off your hands so it won’t actually be going to waste.
Don’t worry about what people at home will think.
Being vegan in the UK is often worn as a badge of honour, with a real sense of pride and, if you’re anything like me, it can seem like all your non-vegan friends are just waiting for you to ‘slip up’ so they can say ‘we told you so!’ Firstly, they’re probably not anyway. But secondly, the main thing your friends and family care about is your health and happiness, especially whilst on placement. My best advice: make decisions about your diet with only those things in mind while you’re away and don’t worry about the pressures to be perfect that you might feel back here in the UK.
Written by Rosie Coleman: Volunteer in Ghana, September – December 2016 and Team Leader in Rwanda, June – September 2017