I remember the days when I could walk into any restaurant and feel certain I could find something on the menu (or off the menu, yeah I was that person).
However, since becoming vegan, dining out has become the bane of my existence. I almost gave up on dinner and movie nights because it was just becoming SO frustrating trying to find vegan-friendly restaurants. Not to mention the MANY times a server assured me the dish was void of any animal product only to find out later that the SALSA was made with a chicken broth base! WTH???
So after many trials and errors, I have come up with some tried-and-true vegan dining rules that I live by now.
If you are newly vegan you will definitely appreciate the tips. However, if you’ve been vegan for a while but still find dining out to be a major pain in the a##, then check out my simple tips below for a little motivation.
Check out the restaurant beforehand. Look up the menu online and quickly look through the items for the “V” symbol indicating the item is either vegan or vegetarian. I have found that restaurants use this symbol differently, so be careful and don’t assume that it means it’s vegan.
Make Yelp your best friend. Look at what others are saying about the restaurant. You can even ask a question such as “Are there vegan options available”? I’ve learned that the vegan community really looks out for each other and I wouldn’t be surprised if several people reach out to give their feedback.
Go ethnic. Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, Thai…these are your best bets. If possible, I pick one of these cuisines over American EVERYTIME. Not only are these cuisines more veggie strong, they most likely include tofu items on the menu.
Just ask. Ask if they can substitute tofu/seitan/tempeh for animal meat. I always ask if I don’t see immediately see “tofu” on the menu. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of servers that have proudly replied “Yes”! But a word of caution here: if serving tofu is not this restaurants forte, you may need to put your expectations in check a little. It’s most likely NOT going to be the best tofu dish you’ve ever had.
Don’t trust the servers! Bless their hearts, they do their best, but they may not be completely informed on what veganism really is. You can explain it to them, however I have still had servers not take it seriously. I have even experienced a snarky server (when I returned my salad with the cream dressing drizzled all over it) retort with “It’s not an allergy, right? So what’s the big deal”? SMH. Anyways, I have learned not to completely trust the server when an item is “iffy”. If you feel so bold to request info from the chef then by all means go for it. But I prefer to stay more low key and simply opt for something else.
It’s important to be aware of the likely pitfalls you’ll encounter when dining out as a vegan. For example, many foods are supplemented with beef or chicken broth (rice, mashed potatoes, quinoa, and apparently even salsa, etc.) Similarly, butter and animal fats may be used in the cooking process as well as in some sauces. If something is labeled “Creamy” you can assume it’s made with dairy, so it’s good practice to ask what’s in it. Furthermore, eggs are used as binding agents in many foods labeled vegetarian such as in veggie burgers or “meat” balls. A menu item may seem benign at first glance, so be mindful of the many ways animal products can sneak into your otherwise healthy dish.
Don’t assume you’ll “just have a salad”. Unfortunately, I have found this to be an ill-fated expectation. Unless a restaurant is known for their brilliant and bountiful salads, the likelihood of finding something substantial is nil. It’s more likely that once you’ve removed the common objectionables (bacon, cheese, creamy dressing, chicken, eggs, etc) you’ll be left with lettuce, tomatoes, and a lemon wedge. Not really worth it in my opinion. This is why Rule #1 is SO important.
Eat beforehand. If you’ve been invited to an occasion and you’re unsure of vegan options it’s best to satiate your hunger before you go. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re starving and being surrounded by people eating foods you don’t eat. Keep marinated tofu and tempeh on hand for a quick wrap or bowl. Add some veggies and you’re golden. Here’s my family’s favorite marinated tofu recipe that we literally eat with everything!
Continue to Rule #8….
Pinpoint places where you can be assured of a vegan friendly meal. If you find yourself short on time and need to eat, know where you can conveniently swing in and grab something. This especially comes in handy when you’re heading somewhere where vegan options are not likely. I have already determined that many of Subway’s breads are vegan and therefore is on my list of potential safety nests when in need of a quick and convenient vegan meal.
Don’t make it a big deal. This is more of a personal motto than a rule, per se. However, I have already pledged not to be that die-hard, self-righteous, and sanctimonious vegan that many people unfairly regard us as. To that end, I try not to make being vegan “a big deal”. So for instance if I find myself in a situation where vegan food is sparse I DO NOT announce to the whole world this fact. Most people who know me are aware of my food and lifestyle choices and are usually very accomodating. But there are times when this isn’t the case. Roll with the punches and deal with it without alienating yourself.
Remember that it’s not the end of the world. Unless you are allergic or severely sensitive to certain foods, you will not die if you unknowingly consume something with animal product in it. It’s disappointing, for sure. If you do your due diligence this rarely is an issue to begin with. But I am the first to admit that I’ve taken a bite here of there of something that I either knew explicitly or implicitly that it had animal product in it (chocolate is my downfall) and guess what…I’m still alive and I’m still a VEGAN.
In conclusion, go easy on yourself. Do your best to reduce harm and destruction. And above all else, enjoy life.