If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard, “What food do you miss the most from before you went vegan?” or “If you were going to cheat your vegan diet, what would you eat?” , I might have a million dollars by now. I get these sorts of questions regularly from peers, friends, and anyone genuinely baffled as to how you could go without eating dairy, meat, and eggs and still enjoy food. I laugh because if they only knew how easy it was and the vast number of vegan options out there, they might consider replacing some of their animal-based favorites for some plant-based without sacrificing anything. I love these kinds of questions because it opens the door for me to discuss how easy it is to modify without feeling like you are missing out on anything.
To be honest, I don’t even remember what a piece of steak tastes like or a slab of fish, however, over the past five years I have most definitely rolled some tricks up my sleeve to modify menu items to accommodate my plant-based diet.
Food is a social activity, and this is one of the biggest concerns when people think about going plant-based, or even just incorporating plant-based meals into their diet. Many people are concern over a restaurant not having options and worry, well what if there aren’t options for me?
Let me tell you, there are always options. I want to share with you how to eat vegan at any restaurant without having to order salad (unless you want one).
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
When I first made the switch to a plant-based diet, I dreaded the awkward situation of having to let the server know about my self-imposed dietary restrictions and felt like a burden to them. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find this generally was not the case. When eating out, it is essential to let your server know about your dietary restrictions because they will most likely have accommodations for you. I have found that many chefs love creating vegan options for customers and have had plenty experience cooking without dairy, meat, and eggs because this plant-based revolution is certainly growing. In the rare case that a restaurant claims that they don’t have any vegan entrees, that is when you must become a “clever subber”.
The Clever “subber”
When eating out, it helps to look at the menu ahead of time to make ordering less awkward and tedious. Most menus have vegetarian options which can easily be made vegan. Many times, asking for the dairy or egg to be removed from a dish to make it vegan friendly is an easy ask. Sometimes when you remove an ingredient the dish might need something else to boost it up a notch, so what I like to do is peruse around the menu and see if there is an ingredient in another dish that can be used in place. Looking at the ingredients of the entrees ahead of time gives you the ability to create a plate or entrée that will work for you. A good example of this is if I am ordering a veggie burrito, I would ask for the cheese and sour cream to be removed, and instead replace it with avocado. Saying the word “sub” or “replace” is key because then hopefully they don’t charge you extra! Sometimes if there are no main dishes that are easily made vegan, I will look to the sides. Often there are lots of side dishes that are vegan friendly, or can be adapted, so I will order a big plate of those. An example is a plate of roasted potatoes (cooked in oil and not butter), roasted Brussels sprouts, rice, sauteed vegetables and a side of avocado. Looking at vegetables and grains that are offered in an animal-based entrée and coming up with your own platter often works and most restaurants are accommodating of this sort of “subbing”.
What to Order When Eating Out
Thai & Chinese Restaurants
Many Asian dishes are traditionally plant-based as Asian diets often rely heavily on vegetables and grains. Soy and coconut milk also play a big role in Asian cuisines, making it so easy for vegans to enjoy. Most Thai and Chinese dishes that have meat or fish can be easily modified by subbing for tofu and eliminating meat and eggs. I love a good vegetable pad Thai, vegetable spring rolls, vegetable curry, and vegetable rice dishes. Just make sure to ask for no egg, and no fish sauce.
Like Thai and Chinese food, Japanese restaurants are also very vegan friendly and filled with grains, vegetables, and tofu dishes. My go to orders at my favorite Japanese restaurant include edamame, vegetable sushi rolls, vegetable tempura, miso soup, fried tofu, and noodle soups. Just make sure to ask for no egg.
Italian restaurants have many options for plant-based diners; you won’t go hungry at an Italian restaurant. There are so many choices here but some of my favorite include bruschetta, grilled artichokes, olives, bread with olive oil and balsamic, salads, minestrone soup, pasta with marinara sauce (most pastas don’t contain eggs, so just ask to be sure) and vegetable pizza with no cheese. I also love a simple pasta with olive oil and broccolini. Just double check that there is no cheese or eggs in your dishes and let your server know that you are vegan so that they don’t toss some parmesan on top of your dish.
A Mexican restaurant is also another place where there are lots of options for the vegan palate. Many ingredients and entrees on the Mexican menu can be modified by removing the cheese, dairy, or anything with lard in it. It is important to verify that tortillas, rice, and beans are not cooked in animal fat before ordering. Some of my favorites at a Mexican restaurant include salsa, guacamole (no cheese on top), tortilla chips, vegetable or bean burritos, rice, vegetable tacos, vegetable fajitas and vegetable chimichanga.
You might find this shocking, but steak places are easy for vegan diners as they have many vegan options with modifications. Traditionally, steak restaurants have a lot of potatoes, grains, and vegetables as side dishes to go with their meat entrees; making it very easy to come up with a satisfying plant-based meal. Try deep fried pickles, French fries, sweet potato fries, vegetable chili, grilled vegetables, salads, baked potatoes, roasted potatoes, roasted vegetables and more. Many steak restaurants will offer grilled tofu or a vegetable burger as a vegetarian option. You would be surprised to find that some of my best meals have been at a steak restaurant. Make sure to ask for no cheese, sour cream, butter, mayonnaise and make sure the batters don’t contain buttermilk. I sometimes find it’s easiest to order several sides and ask for them on a plate all together.
Middle Eastern Restaurants
Middle Eastern restaurants also have many vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. Some of my favorites include falafels, couscous, tahini, vegetable samosas, vegetable skewers, pita bread, hummus, tabouleh, and rice. Just make sure to ask for no cheese or yogurt.
Luckily, it’s 2022 and it’s easier than ever for vegans to dine out and enjoy a plant-based meal. There are some great apps and websites that will help you find great vegan-friendly restaurants near you. This can be especially great for travel. My favorites are Happy Cow and Vegman, which find restaurants in your area that are vegan friendly.
My Favorite Modifications at National Restaurant Chains:
Einstein Bagels – Bagel with hummus and tomato, or simply just a bagel with peanut butter.
California Pizza Kitchen – They have a plant-based chicken that is great. I like to order the “Don’t Call Me Chicken” Pizza with no cheese (their cauliflower crust is also amazing) and the Thai Crunch Salad. For the salad I sub the chicken for the plant-based chicken and add avocado. One of my favorite combos!
Panda Express – 3-Entree Plate with chow mien, super greens, eggplant tofu, and vegetable spring rolls.
Mendocino Farms – I highly recommend the Mendo’s Smokehouse Tempeh Sandwich with The Impossible Taco Salad. So delicious.
Luna Grill – Modern Greek Wrap with Falafel and no feta; a Veggie Kabob, side of hummus, and of course some French fries.
Regardless of where you eat, there will likely be a vegan option for you. Do your research ahead if you can, don’t be afraid to ask, modify the menu, get creative and enjoy.
Stay healthy, nourish your body, and take care of yourself.
Until next time,