Your Guide to Dining Out on a Plant-Based or Vegan Diet
Just because you're switching to a plant-based or vegan diet doesn't mean you've said goodbye to dining out with friends and family. No matter where you're headed, whether it's to your favorite Italian place or that neighborhood Chinese place you go every Sunday, or a Sushi spot near work, don't be afraid to dine out in style. First move: Always ask what plant-based options are available when you get handed a menu. You'd be surprised by the 'secret' vegan dishes that most restaurants have to offer. Often, there is a whole list of options that are not on the menu -- but more and more, we are seeing them show up fully and proudly as an option under mains, with codes like GF for gluten-free, Veg for vegetarian and V for vegan. It's about time!
You may have not even have noticed that your favorite restaurants already have vegan options listed on the menu! If you don't see a 'V' next to dishes that sound vegan but with a small cheese topping, then ask if that can be made vegan by holding the cheese. Alternatively, minestrone soup or another veg-sounding dish could have hidden meat or poultry ingredients, so ask if it's made with a ham hock or a base of chicken stock. If so, move on to another choice. If you see vegetarian dishes on the menu, ask for no egg or dairy, if they can accommodate, to make it plant-based.
It's inevitable that you will find yourself at a restaurant that doesn't have vegan options, but don't stress. An important part about dining out on a plant-based diet is being flexible with the menu that is in front of you. Look at the veggie sides, or the pasta dishes and ask for them to hold the cheese. Getting creative with the menu is the easiest way to make sure you enjoy your time dining out. We hacked popular the menus of popular cuisines to take out any stress you may be having about eating out.
Classic American Fare
You may associate American food with burgers and steaks, but those aren't the only things on the menu. The sides are where the plant-based glory happens. Mix and match all the different sides such as steamed spinach, brussel sprouts, kale salad, mushrooms, baked potato with olive oil drizzled on it -- these are enough to fill yourself up. Look for steamed broccoli, or grilled asparagus, a veggie medley or any other vegetable sides they have. Keep in mind that your evening meal does not have to be the biggest one of the day, and eating light will make you sleep better, according to Dr. George Gurthie, author of Eat Plants, Feel Whole, who we interviewed about how to eat plant-based to be healthier.
Your Big Fat Greek Diner
Greek restaurants or diners have everything -- and much of it is plant-based -- from hummus to grilled veggies, to baba ganoush, making it one of the healthiest restaurants to choose when eating plant-based. For a light starter, order hummus with pita bread, olives, or vegetable dolmades (grape leaves).
You can often get a plate full of dips -- baba ganoush is made of eggplants and tahini, a sesame seed spread, and that plus hummus and olive spread can fill you up and provide you with plenty of protein. If you're feeling full after these starters order a greek salad without the feta cheese. A traditional Greek salad is loaded with tomatoes, onions, olives, peppers, and cucumber so you will be more than satisfied with this. For a larger dinner portion order a grilled veggie wrap, roasted eggplant or grilled veggies with a side of rice. And remember that the Greeks were some of the original plant-based eaters, with a wide variety of their diet choices based on what they grew on the fertile land.
Let's Go Out for Mexican
Mexican food may just be the easiest cuisine to eat vegan without trying too hard. You can alter many of the classic options like tacos, burritos, and fajitas to fit your plant-based diet. And of course, you can still order your guacamole and salsa with chips as starters. As a main dish, order any veggie based taco like a mushroom taco or even one filled with sauteed cauliflower. For a filling and larger portion, order a veggie fajita without the cheese or sour cream. Bean and vegetable burritos will satisfy your hunger as will a side order of rice and beans (watch everyone dive in or follow suit) Mexican food incorporates tons of veggies and beans into their dishes, so don't be afraid to ask what dishes they can "veganize" for you. Mostly that just means hold the cheese and sour cream. But keep all the taste!
Thai One On
Thai food is another easy cuisine to enjoy when you are plant-based. Many Thai restaurants have naturally vegan options like curry with chickpeas and tofu, or the kitchen can easily make a dish over as plant-based. Any veggie dish will typically be vegan, of course, but make sure to double-check with the restaurant whether some vegan sounding ones use chicken stock for cooking or animal fat in the frying. Some personal plant-based favorites are the vegetable spring roll, vegetable curry and vegetable pad thai. Make sure that your Thai dishes don't have egg or dairy hidden in the sauces, so ask for those to be held, just to be safe.
Classic Italian Food
Start off dinner on a healthy note with a house salad. It will fill you up more than you think. and give you a minute to consider your next move. (Make sure to order oil and vinegar or a dressing that isn't dairy-based or non-vegan.) You may then decide to go for the calamari -- hold the octopus and shrimp and keep the fried zucchini and other veggies, or the pizza, hold the cheese. Of course, your friends might make fun of you but when they try the pizza with veggies, mushrooms, peppers and tomato sauce, and no cheese they will agree that they barely miss it!
Another great choice is a whole-wheat pasta dish with red sauce or the puttanesca olive sauce, which is salty and can satisfy any yearning you may have for parmesan. As hard as it is, say "no thank you" to the waiter when he brings the grated parm. Tell him you're allergic to dairy. It quells any peer pressure and makes everyone back off.
You may be surprised by how easy it is to eat plant-based at a Japanese restaurant. Take your pick of plant-based appetizers including edamame, miso soup, seaweed salad, and avocado salad. Japanese restaurants have veggie sushi options such as asparagus rolls, cucumber rolls, avocado rolls, sweet potato rolls, and mixed veggie rolls. Some even add peanuts to give the rolls a little crunch. Ask what vegan options they have and usually there is a whole list of them on the menu. Veggie tempura is another favorite, just ask if they use vegetable oil.
Chinese food is another cuisine that offers loads of plant-based options. Chinese food is veggie-centric, especially if you want to order your favorite dish with tofu or as they often have listed "bean curd." If you aren't in the mood for a big meal, order the veggie spring rolls or veggie dumplings (steamed or fried) with a side of brown rice (which is so much better for you than the white starchy variety). Fried rice is trickier since eggs are often mixed in, but you can often ask for that or MooShu veggies without the egg -- just explain you are vegan so that they don't inadvertently leave in the egg.
Most restaurants will accommodate your needs if you say "I am dairy-free and meat-free" and ask them to steer you to dishes that are veggie-based. Main dishes that are great for sharing or for yourself are tofu with mixed vegetables, steamed vegetables, or eggplant and rice.
Bottom Line: Eating out isn't off-limits on a plant-based or vegan diet. You don't need to go to vegan-only restaurants to eat delicious plant-based food -- but if you do want to Find Vegan Near Me, check out The Beet's handy restaurant locator, powered by Happy Cow. We have every state covered, and most of Europe too. Meanwhile our Beet City Guides are written by local experts who can give you the 411 on every major metropolis from Brooklyn to LA, Austin and Boston, and counting. (We are growing this feature, so there are many more too come!)
Wherever you call home, make sure to get familiar with the restaurant menus at your favorite spots, and most importantly, be flexible and know that you can find things that are healthy and plant-based everywhere you go. In the first few weeks, it may seem weird ordering your favorite pizza sans cheese or making your go-to order the veggie sides served on one plate, but after a few times dining like this, you'll have new favorites and they'ill be plant-based.