How To Order Plant Based Food In A Restaurant

Eating out can seem like a daunting task if you’re vegan or plant based.  At first it is overwhelming. Eating at home is easy – you are in charge of what you buy.  But eating out requires a little more thought, foresight, and the right questions.

Vegan and vegetarian restaurants are great choices, but they are few and far between, especially if you are not in a major metropolitan area.  If you are dining with a group, there will be other opinions on where to eat.

Next time  you find yourself with friends, dining out, don’t just order water or a side salad.  Here are some tips to help you navigate eating out:

Call ahead

Call ahead or message on Facebook. Ask what options are available. See what they can do to accommodate your request. Generally if the chef knows beforehand he/she will make something delicious! Ask if there is a special menu for vegans or vegetarians.

Ask your server

Let your server know you are plant based and ask what options are available.  Be specific in your request. Not everyone knows the definition of vegan or plant based.  Be specific. Try something such as, “I don’t eat meat, fish or dairy.” BE NICE!  Ask what others have done.  Ask if they chef might have some ideas.  It pays to be less picky about other ingredients for this to work well.  If you are open to anything as long as it didn’t come from an animal, you may find yourself with a very special dish.  Chef’s enjoy being creative. The nicer the restaurant, the more apt they will be to prepare something special.

If there is a dish that is prepared for you and you really enjoyed it, let the manager know!  Tell them why you enjoyed it and ask them to make it permanent on the menu. If you really like it, others may as well.  It never hurts to let them know how many plant based friends you have! And, let your other plant based friends know where to go!

Creatively swap

Look for ingredients that you can eat within other dishes on the menu.  Make a meal out of side dishes. Substitute avocado for cheese on salads.  Look for ingredients that can be combined. Be creative! For example, if a restaurant serves a Philly Steak, they probably have grilled onions and peppers; you can combine this with other fresh vegetables and create your own sandwich.

Apps

Use an app such as Happy Cow, or search comments in Yelp for vegetarian or vegan.  Try to search Yelp for vegetarian food instead of restaurant. It will provide more options.

Dining at an ethnic restaurant?
Here are easy substitutions and what to be cautious of:

Thai food

Order spring rolls, papaya salad, curries, pad thai, any vegetable rice noodle dish, pineapple rice, substitute tofu for meat/fish, mango sticky rice

Watch out for fish sauce, eggs, oyster sauce, shrimp sauce, stock

Vietnamese food

Order fresh spring rolls, vegan pho, 

Look out for fish sauce, chicken or pork broth

Vegan Pho

Chinese food

Order vegetable dumplings, bean curd, substitute tofu for meat/fish, vegetable stir fry, noodles with vegetables, add soy sauce or chili sauce to spice up the flavour.

Beware of fish sauce, eggs, oyster sauce, shrimp sauce

Mexican food

Order vegetable fajitas, taco salad with salsa and guacamole, vegetable tacos, vegetable chimichanga

Look out for lard (in beans), chicken broth in rice, cheese, sour cream.  Also some restaurants add mayonnaise to guacamole. You can always ask for sliced avocado and lime to make your own.

Breakfast Burrito

Japanese

Order vegetable sushi, edamame, noodle soup, vegetable tempura

Be cautious of bonito flakes, fish sauce, miso soup, eggs

Steakhouse

Order sides, create a dish with grains and veggies, baked potatoes (add salsa, grilled vegetables, avocado)

Beware of butter, stock, cheese, buns (eggs), mayo, sour cream, buttermilk

Italian

Order marinara sauce, bruschetta, polenta, grilled vegetables, pasta (ask about eggs), minestrone soup (ask about stock), pizza or flatbread (without cheese), sorbet

Watch out for cheese, parmesan cheese, eggs, ricotta, cream, stock, butter

Indian

Order chana masala, samosas, pakoras, dosas, roti, puri, vegetable tandoori, papadum, dal.

Beware of ghee, cheese (paneer), yogurt, cream.  Note that pure veg does not mean vegan. These dishes may contain dairy.

Mediterranean

This is probably the easiest!  Falafel, hummus, tabouli, baba ganoush, vegan paella, stuffed peppers/eggplant

Look out for yogurt, feta cheese, cream, chicken/pork stock

Vegan Paella

Other tips

Usually it is easy to make a vegetarian option vegan.

Even if something sounds vegan, it may not be.  I have had a lot of servers look at me like I am completely insane when I ask them to check if the vegetable soup is vegan only to come back and say it was made with chicken broth.  Smile and invite them to go along with your insanity! It is always good to have them double check with the chef. But remember …BE NICE.

Never say that you are allergic to something unless you really are.  This can cause confusion and creates a bad situation for others who are actually allergic and may have life threatening reactions.

At the end of the day, you can only do your best in implementing your lifestyle choices outside of your kitchen.  You may consume animal products. You may find out after the fact. Will this gross you out? Yes, probably. But use this experience to learn how you can order different next time and what to look out for.  This is how I learned about always asking about the broth used in soup.

The more popular plant based diets become the more options that will be available.  If you liked your dish always send compliments to the chef and let the manager know.  Education, demand for more nutritious dishes and creative combinations are the key to creating more options.