While I love cooking (and blogging about it), I do enjoy dining out with friends and family on occasion. And thanks to growing demand from consumers, more and more restaurants are catering to us veg-heads. Even the most meat-centric of restaurants can be plant-based friendly if you know what to look for. You may not be able to completely avoid oil while eating out, but you can still get a plant strong meal that will leave you feeling powered up.
Here are some general tips for eating out on a plant-based diet:
Check the Web: While most chain restaurants don’t have a dedicated “vegan” menu, many do offer nutritional and allergen information on their websites. If you have the option, check out the menu online before you head out to the restaurant. Look for key words like “dairy free” or “egg free.” You can also check happycow.net to see if there are any veg-friendly restaurants in your area.
Call Ahead: Call earlier in the day and talk to the manager or the chef about your needs and ask them if they can be accommodating. Most upscale restaurants will happily cater to your needs if you give them a heads up.
Look at the Sides: Look at the menu to see what items are offered as “side dishes” or “a la cart.” You can combine several sides to make a pretty filling meal. Also look at what the main dishes serve with the “proteins.” There may be “fish served on a bed of rice pilaf with steamed veggies.” Ask if the rice and veggies can be ordered separately even if they aren’t in the “a la cart” selection.
Check the Kids Menu: Many places will offer at least some plain noodles or peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit on the kids menu. Ask if you may order off the kids menu due to dietary restrictions. Understand that some restaurants have a policy which may not allow this, but if you kindly speak with the server and/or manager you might be able to swing it.
Speak Up: Talk with your server about your dietary needs. Ask for their suggestions or ways that you can get creative with the menu. Ask to speak to a manager, if necessary. You are paying for a meal out with your hard earned dollars, so it’s ok to ask for what you want. This is not the time to prattle on about your personal eating philosophy, just explain very kindly and briefly that you need to avoid animal products.
Be NICE: On that same note, make sure to be nice! Those manners that your parents drilled into you during childhood will go a long way toward getting you what you want. Smile, be polite, be happy! I have spent many years as a server myself and trust me, the quickest way to get awful service is to be mean to your server!
Now that you understand the basic premise, here are some ideas on how to manipulate the menu at different types of casual dining restaurants:
Pizza: As longs as you confirm that the sauce and crust are dairy/egg free, load that pie high with every veggie that they have!
Italian: Order whole-grain pasta if it is available with marinara. Ask for all of the grilled or steamed vegetables that are available to be added to the dish. Tell them to hold the butter and cheese, please!
Mexican and Casual Mexican (You know, Chipotle, Free Birds, Nom Noms, Rubio’s, Baja Fresh, etc): Rice, beans, fajita veggies, corn tortillas, various salsas, and guac! Just make sure the rice is not cooked in chicken stock and the beans don’t contain lard. You can have this combo as a bowl, a burrito, or as tacos.
Asian: Brown rice, steamed veggies, edamame, and low sodium soy sauce. What more could you ask for?
Sushi: Cucumber rolls and avocado rolls are always fish-free. Some sushi restaurants will have other various veggies and will happily make them into a sushi roll if you ask politely.
Steak House: Yes! You can eat plant-based at steak houses! Browse the “sides” and see what you can combine into a meal. Most have some type of baked potato or sweet potato, rice, corn on the cob (no butter), green beans, and other various vegetables. Round it out with a salad (if you’d like) with balsamic vinegar and you’re good to go!
What about fast food? I really try hard to limit the amount of fast food I feed my family. However there are times where it is just unavoidable. Again, with fast food you are not going to be able to have an oil free meal, or the most healthful meal, but you can still get something decent. If you’re armed with the right information, you can navigate most fast food menus without doing too much damage.
Sandwich Shops (Subway, Which-Which, etc): Ask which breads are dairy/egg free and then go to town with the veggies. Load that sandwich high with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions, and avocado.
Taco Places (Taco Bell, Taco Bueno, etc): The most satisfying route I have found at the taco drive thru is the classic bean burrito. If you’re at Taco Bell, you can say the word “fresco” and they will take out any cheese or sour cream and add in pico de gallo. I also like to add rice (and sometimes potatoes) to my burritos to make them more filling so I don’t have to order multiple items. Some drive-thru taco joints also have a “taco salad,” typically served in a fried tortilla bowl. You can ask to sub beans for the beef/chicken, add rice, pico de gallo, guacamole, and leave off the cheese and sour cream. If you’re trying to avoid oil (or at least overtly fried things), just don’t eat the shell.
Chick-fil-A: This one gets it’s own special shout out because, let’s face it, it is play date-central for stay at home moms. Anywhere that has clean bathrooms, a play land, and free wifi has my vote. When it comes to food, ask for a “veggie wrap.” It is not on the menu, but what they will do (with a “my pleasure,” of course) is make the Grilled Chicken Wrap minus the cheese/chicken mixture. Ask if they have any other veggies that you can add in (some locations have corn and tomatoes). Since the wrap is dry, you may want to ask for some salad dressing. The Lite Italian, Lite Balsamic, and Chili Lime dressings are all dairy/egg free (though full of oil and preservatives). Get a side of fruit to complete your meal.
American/Burgers: Here’s where the pickin’s get slim, y’all. You’ll need to check if the buns are dairy/egg free and then ask them to load it with lettuce, tomato, and avocado (if they have it). Fries are cooked in oil (duh) and we don’t need any more of that. Honestly, a salad might be your only reliable option here, folks.
Juices/Smoothies: This is more for a snack, but freshly pressed juices and smoothies are a great way to get more veggies in on the go. Fresh juices should always be just plants, but smoothie places often use milk and whey based protein powders. Ask if they can make you a smoothie using lots of fresh fruit, greens if they have them, and water instead of milk. Stay away from “boosts,” even if they are vegan. It’s a shame to ruin a beautiful smoothie with processed chemicals.
Bonus tip! Movie Theaters: If you have a movie theater that serves food, check out the online menus! We have a few franchises in our area such as iPic and Studio Movie Grill that serve a full dinner to you in recliner chairs while you watch your movie. I was able to order a HUGE bowl of crudité to munch on while we watched Leo DiCaprio eat bison liver in The Revenant (gross scene, btw).
So there you have it! How to eat out, the plant-based way. Do you have any other tips on navigating restaurant menus for a healthy, plant-strong meal? Share it below!