Whether you're attending a work function, family event or just grabbing a bite with friends, dining out as a vegan can sometimes seem overwhelming. I know this because I've been there. One question that I am often asked is how to eat in restaurants as a vegan. There is a conception that it is difficult and borderline impossible, but this really has not been my experience. I have figured out how to navigate dining out as a vegan and I want to share my tips with you because I know that the thought can be distressing, especially when you're first starting out on your vegan journey.
1. Research and plan ahead
A little research goes a long way! Get to know your local vegan restaurants and mainstream restaurants in your area that offer a vegan menu / vegan options. Happy Cow is an excellent resource for searching out vegan and vegan friendly restaurants and shops in your area. Yelp is also a simple site to search as you can use the term "vegan" under the "Find" search option to find vegan and vegan friendly restaurants that are close by. I find these sites especially helpful while I'm traveling.
Many restaurants publish their menus online, so if you know where you'll be dining, check out the menu before your visit and make a game plan. If you are visiting a mainstream restaurant don't be afraid to call ahead and ask if there are any vegan options on the menu. In my experience restaurants are generally accommodating and the person you speak with can let the kitchen know ahead of time of any dietary restrictions and see if the chef can make a special dish for you. If you're going to a private function you can let your host know in advance, and perhaps offer to bring a dish to share if it's in an informal setting like someone's home or an office party.
2. "Hold the cheese"
The one thing that separates many vegetarian dishes from being fully vegan is the addition of cheese. One of my simplest tricks when dining out is to order the vegetarian dish and ask the kitchen to hold the cheese. This is easy to do with items like vegetarian pizza, burgers, or pasta. Just double check that the only animal product in the item you're ordering is the cheese. Egg and dairy (butter, cream and milk) are common allergens, so your server should be familiar with whether any of their dishes contain these products.
3. "Hold the meat"
This tip is similar to the previous one in that you can order a dish that would otherwise be vegan, except for the meat product that has been added. A good example would be a noodle dish that is loaded with vegetables, but that also contains meat. Again, just double check that the only animal product in the item you're ordering is the meat. In Asian cuisine there are a number of dishes that are made with fish sauce, Indian vegetarian dishes may be made with cream and be sure to double check when it comes to sauces and dressings, which may contain dairy or sardines. In my experience, you can also ask for more of a particular item that's already in the dish in place of the ingredient they're removing.
4. Make friends with salad (and side dishes)
If the menu where you're dining is very limited, what I like to do is order a few small dishes like appetizers or sides to make a full meal. I usually gravitate towards seasonal vegetable offerings, French fries, baked potato and salads. Again, just make sure you confirm that the item doesn't contain animal products - for instance, certain potato dishes will sometimes contain cream. You can also get creative and ask your server if the kitchen can make you a pasta or salad by adding pizza or sandwich toppings from other menu items.
5. Worst case, eat before
In the rare instance where I know that it might be difficult to eat a full meal when I'm dining out, I always make sure to eat beforehand. Smoothies are always a really easy option to throw together before you head out and you can drink your smoothie while you get ready (the best kind of multi-tasking).
Dining out as a vegan does not have to be stressful. Times are changing and more and more restaurants are adding vegan options to their menus every day. If you only take one tip from this article it would be that you should not be afraid to ask your server to help accommodate you - as long as you are kind and pleasant in how you ask you should not have any trouble. Restaurants want to be accommodating and they want to please you, the paying customer. Above all, enjoy the company you are with and try to focus on why you're there, perhaps it is a special occasion you're celebrating, or maybe you're taking a night off from cooking at home - the food is secondary!