10 Tips for Eating Out as a Vegan

116 comments

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One of the most requested topics in my Vegan How To series is about eating out at restaurants as
a vegan. I can totally relate to your struggles with eating out. Even to this day, I find restaurant
experiences as a vegan can be very hit or miss depending on the restaurant/chef. The good news is that more and more restaurants are becoming sensitive to dietary restrictions and allergies, opening up new options on menus for those who need them. Plus, the more demand there is for something, the more change there will be in the future. I personally look forward to the day when vegan options on a menu are the norm, rather than scarce or uncommon. Oh yes, it will happen!

I’ve put together some of my tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the past few years. I hope they’re
helpful for you. As always, I’d love to hear your own tips and experiences below!

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1. Happy Cow Website

Searching the Happy Cow website is probably my best tip when you are looking for a veg-friendly restaurant in your area or when traveling. You simply type in your location and a list of veg-
friendly restaurants usually pop up. I use this website almost exclusively when I travel or just looking for new options in my own area (of course, asking you on Facebook is always helpful too!). There are also reviews and ratings, so you can read what others are saying about the restaurants. Many times people will write what dish they modified to be vegan or what the chef prepared for them on the spot.

2. Plan ahead and look up the restaurant menu online

Of course, it’s not always possible to eat somewhere that’s veg-friendly. Whether it’s a family gathering or a friend’s birthday, I attend my fair share of non-vegan restaurants. Before I go to a new restaurant I always scope out the menu online to see if there are any obvious vegan menu items. Hopefully, I can find a couple vegetarian menu items that can be veganized, but vegan options are often non-existent on many restaurant menus. If there are a couple vegetarian options or dishes that might easily modify to be vegan (such as removing chicken from a noodle stir fry), I will make a note of them.

3. Call restaurant for options

If there aren’t any obvious meal options on the menu, I will often call the restaurant and ask whether
they can accommodate a vegan. Don’t feel like you are being a pain in the ass because restaurants actually like to get a heads up whenever possible, or so I’ve been told. I’ve never been turned away (not surprisingly), but I have received my fair share of enthusiastic promises (“Oh yes we can make anything you want!!”) only to get there and find out that the chef thinks a small plate of vegetables qualifies as a satisfying vegan dinner. It helps to be specific about what you would like. If there is a dish you have in mind (for example, a pizza or tofu stir-fry) don’t be afraid to ask if they can make it happen!

4. Ask if they have a vegetarian menu

Did you know that some restaurants have secret menus? What the heck! I discovered this only because my friend Heather told me that a local restaurant (Paradiso in Oakville) has a vegetarian menu. But guess what? They don’t even put the vegetarian menu on the table unless you ask for it. The horrors. I was so thankful that Heather told me about the menu because it has several vegetarian options and a delicious vegan option that I order every time I’m there (kinda obsessed with portobello steaks). I realize this isn’t the norm for restaurants to have separate menus, but it never hurts to ask and let them know that you’d love the option!

5. Get creative with sides

Sometimes vegetarian menu items can be made vegan quite easily by just replacing the butter for oil or
leaving off the cheese. If my options are limited I always ask if these swaps can be made. One thing I’ve done in the past is to order a few side dishes (asking them to hold the butter) to create a meal. A few sides of brown rice, beans, and veggies easily adds up to a balanced meal.

6. If you think options will be severely limited, eat beforehand

When I’ve done my research and suspect my options will be severely limited, I usually have a light meal beforehand to ensure that I don’t feel deprived at the restaurant. No big deal.

7. Seek out ethnic cuisines

Many cuisines have a lot of “naturally” vegan options or they can easily be modified. I absolutely love dining at Indian, Mexican, and Thai restaurants because they have so many options for me. Even dishes with cream can easily be made without impacting the overall flavour too much.

8. Try a fun beverage

Treat yourself to a fun non-alcoholic or alcoholic drink. Even if the food options are limited it will still feel
special to have a fun drink you normally wouldn’t have! [Side note: Barnivore is a good site for looking up vegan alcohol brands. Check out the apps too.]

9. Comment card or online review

As I was writing this, I asked myself…do restaurants even do comment cards these days? And then I realized, well, duh, people do online reviews! Silly me. Well, whether it’s a comment card or an online review, they are great ways to let your voice be heard. Feel free to ask for more vegan options – you can bet that most restaurant owners will be reading and taking note of common requests!

10. Don’t sweat it

I generally have low expectations when it comes to dining out at restaurants that aren’t veg-friendly, so I don’t let a less than stellar experience ruffle my feathers. Instead, I focus on the experience itself – the great company – and know that in the grand scheme of things it’s really not a big deal. Cheers to that.

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Getting caught up on my How-to series? See these posts: Introduction (Why this series), How to make the transition, Replacing Dairy Milk, Homemade Oat Milk, Homemade Almond Milk

What have your experiences been like eating out as a vegan? I’d love to hear any tips you may have below!

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{ 116 comments… read them below or add one }

Anele @ Success Along the Weigh February 6, 2013

Ooh thanks for this! I’m planning a trip for some friends who are vegans and didn’t know what restaurants to recommend without having to scour Yelp. You’ve likely just saved me a whole afternoon! :-) You ROCK!

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Erica {Coffee & Quinoa} February 6, 2013

Love this post. I’ve found eating out as a vegan to be so challenging, and often when I’m on vacation I end up cheating. Love your tip about having a fun drink so the meal is still special!

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Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table February 6, 2013

These are such great tips! WHen I was eating vegan, I found if I called ahead, 80% of the time the chef would prepare something especially for me… and 100% of the the time my friends thought I had the best food at the table! It forces creativity, which is often a beautiful thing. :)

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Ashley February 6, 2013

I love these tips! Though I’m not a vegan, my boyfriend is a vegetarian, so I like to do my research before going out to places. I also like to choose vegetarian options when I’m out to eat as well, so having the research done ahead of time leads to a more enjoyable meal!

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Stacy L. February 6, 2013

Great information Angela!

I’ve found myself becoming more and more comfortable eating out at non-vegan friendly restaurants. This likely comes from realizing that its not really that big of a deal (what you said in #10) – although it can feel like it sometimes, to see it as an opportunity to be creative and think outside of the box with dishes they have on their menu, and to be more open to questions from those I’m eating with as they see me creating my own dish rather than feeling embarassed or defensive. It finally dawned on me that if I love the things I eat so much why wouldn’t I want to tell others about it?! :)

Restaurants seem more than happy to accomodate, especially when asked kindly and with an extra big smile. :)

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Laura February 6, 2013

Hi Angela,
I really love reading this series and I am considering transitioning to a more vegan diet. However, I constantly have this worry about my health. I struggled with low iron as a vegetarian before but I know this was because I was not educated about nutrients and how to get them. I was wondering if you could do a post on how your health changed when you became vegan? Everyone says that they felt absolutely amazing after going vegan but what are the negative effects to look out for and how did you combat them? Would you mind sharing this experience? Thanks!
And thanks for this post :)

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Meghan February 6, 2013

I would love this too. I have been a strict vegan for three years and it took having my nails go brittle and my hair falling out (even though I did have some initial positive side effects) to surrender to the fact that I could not be a french fries and boca burger kind of vegan. It took a while to get there, but I had to find out the hard way that things like seeds, nutritional yeast, and crazy varieties of grains and produce had to be part of the deal – that it wasn’t enough to just not eat meat, dairy and eggs. Now I have my health (and my hair), and all the positive health benefits of being a vegan. It was not – however – easy to get there and I think a post of this kind would be helpful.

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Courtney February 7, 2013

If you click on “My Story” at the top, you will she see she explains this. =)

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 7, 2013

Thanks for the suggestion Laura, I hope to explore this more throughout my series! In the meantime, you can check out resources/guides online (I think vegetarian resource group has a guide, if I recall) and consider speaking with your doc.

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Whit G February 6, 2013

Thanks! These tips are exactly the way I approach dining out! It is actually pretty neat how many chefs are willing to try their hand at something vegan, just to get a chance to do something different and express their creativity.
Also, I was very pleasantly surprised that all the restaurants at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas have vegan options, as Steve Wynn is now a vegan. I had a wonderful lunch there with absolutely no stress about conveying how my food needed to be prepared–they knew just what to do and did a wonderful job. :)

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 6, 2013

I had a great meal at one of his restaurants too. :) A very pleasant surprise!

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Vegan Radhika Sarohia February 7, 2013

I’ve heard about this Wynn Hotels vegan options thing, that is so great!
I don’t think I’ve ever been to Las Vegas, good to know for future though

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Kathryn February 7, 2013

Oh the Wynn….such amazing vegan food!

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Joan November 2, 2013

Las Vegas has multiple vegan options. In the Mandalay Place between the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Luxor you will find Slice of Vegas (pizza and pasta) and Hussongs (Mexican) which are both run by the same company and they have vegan and gluten free menus.

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Shannon February 6, 2013

Any words of wisdom for assuring the friends you celebrate with that no, you’re not “on” a diet, no, you’re not miserable, or yes, you really did eat before hand? Or more importantly, that they should not feel guilty about not accommodating your preferences?

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Angela February 6, 2013

I gave up trying to please everyone a long time ago. You really just have to do what’s best for you. If you are happy and healthy, they will hopefully see that!

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Ariel February 7, 2013

I agree with Angela – the more you act like you are having a good time, the more people will believe you. Those that don’t – well, that is there problem. My boss, for example, loves steak, and nearly every client dinner/lunch ends up at a steak place. I order whatever I like/come up with that is not meat related, and it almost always works out that no one cares what I’m eating. Having a canned response on hand if anyone asks helps, too.

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Sarah @ Yogi in Action February 6, 2013

This is a great post! I use to be vegetarian, but have added chicken back into my diet, mostly for ease of other people. I got so tired of being unable to eat anything on the menu, or to not be able to eat anything at dinner parties. I am amazed with the dedication it takes to eat a vegan diet! Good for you.

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Lindsay {life and kitchen} February 6, 2013

This is definitely helpful! I was surprised to learn that Chili’s has a menu with a list of foods that are vegetarian (they are from the normal menu, but it makes the whole process easier). You can find it on their website.

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Andrea February 6, 2013

Thanks for this Angela! I was just trying to figure out how, as the only vegan, I was going to manage brunch with the girls this upcoming weekend. I find lunch or dinner at any restaurant can be pretty easily accommodated to a vegan meal. I typically order a plain baked potato, a large salad (no dressing) and salsa on the side to pour over both the potato and the salad. However, I have found breakfast/brunch to be a bit more challenging, because I also have a gluten sensitivity. Last time I simply ordered two of the side fruit bowls and it was very satisfying. But I think I’ll take your advice and call ahead to ask for something specific.
I’ve also found that a lot of chain restaurants have allergy menus, where they list every ingredient in each meal, making it easier to identify any animal products.
Thanks so much for such a great series!

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Jessica @ Dairy Free Betty February 6, 2013

Happy Cow has an app too. I find it useful when I’m out and about – because it let’s you know what’s close to you – and has reviews! Also urban spoon app is awesome too – it has a vegetarian option in the search!!

Great round up!

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Angela February 6, 2013

Thanks for the tip, I can’t believe I don’t have that app yet… must download!

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Angie Hewitt February 6, 2013

I recently found an iphone/ipad app called HealthyOut that shows restaurants, dishes, and maps the location of veg-friendly restaurants. LOVE it! Just used it yesterday while traveling with my hubby. You can set your diet on the app so it will find friendly restaurants for you. Not just for veg-friendly – also has paleo, diabetic, gluten-free, high protein, and many other options. :)

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Katie Anne February 6, 2013

I have had such poor service at restaurants here in Scotland as a vegan and it makes me furious, I really have to remember that you eat out for the company not (always) for the food. Will have to remember that next time!

I have to admit also that a secret part of me almost enjoys receiving a plate of plain veggies, I love knowing that I can make easily make something better, and am therefore better at cooking than most chefs ;)

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Angela February 6, 2013

hah that’s too funny!

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Casandra February 8, 2013

I got served steamed vegetables regularly when I was in France. I had high expectations from Michelin chefs, but apparently they’re not interested in being creative!

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Abby @ The Frosted Vegan February 6, 2013

Love this post! I am pretty good about looking beforehand, but I’ve found one of the best things to do is be nice to the waitstaff! If they find a friend in you, they will be more likely to advocate for you in the back of the house : )

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Angela February 6, 2013

Yes, I’ve found the same thing too!

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jodye @ chocolate & chou fleur February 6, 2013

Secret menus!? That is a good thing to know. I don’t eat out very often, but there are 2 or 3 places that I can go to without any worries every time. If I’m traveling, happycow is always my best friend, and I’ve yet to find a restaurant where I could eat absolutely nothing.

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Brittany February 6, 2013

I’ve worked as a server in several restaurants (one vegetarian, currently work at a local family-style Italian restaurant). Calling ahead is always, always a good idea. At least so they can let us (the servers) now that we should anticipate a special order.

On the flip side, don’t be disappointed if you go to a place that doesn’t advertise as vegan/vegetarian and all we can offer is a salad. I was yelled at (full on screaming from the customer) in college when the only vegan/vegetarian dish we could offer was a larger portion of the side salad. It was a seafood restaurant. All our sides had seafood/bacon in them and even the warm prepared vegetables were cooked using seafood stock/broth. It was an unfortunate situation that could have been prevented had the customer called ahead.

Most of the time a dish may appear to be meat/dairy free but some sort of chicken/veal/seafood stock was used in the cooking process. As a server it’s our job to let you know that so please ask about how the food was prepared if you’re unsure.

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Nina February 6, 2013

Great list Angela! I agree about calling ahead. Lots of menus online have wonderful mouth watering veg that come with the steak or chicken or fish entree. I call ahead to find out if those specifically mentioned that I am interested in are without butter/cheese/milk/stock, etc. (I find people don’t always know what vegan means but I am in TX too:). Still not a complete guarantee but have had good experiences. Thanks Angela for the inspiration!

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Fit Missy February 6, 2013

Great post!

I love ethnic cuisines. Eat at them all the time. =)

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Em @ Love A Latte February 6, 2013

This is a great post! Eating out can definitely be tough being vegan, but I think a lot of restaurants are becoming much more understanding. Ethnic cuisines definitely do the trick! :)

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Jessica February 6, 2013

I just found out that every single restaurant inside of the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas has Vegan menus available…..all you have to do is ask!! I have been meat-free for over a year, and my hubby just turned Vegan recently too, so we want to plan a trip to Vegas to eat at all the restaurants, LOL.

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Angela February 6, 2013

Ahhh yes they do….someone told me that when we were there last time and I was over the moon. The buffets also had a lot of vegan options. very expensive, but a fun treat!

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Lili February 6, 2013

Many chain restaurants also have an ‘allergies’ guide that can help you figure out what things contain things like dairy. When travelling in the USA, we usually head to Ruby Tuesday or the Olive Garden because they have those guides available.

I’ve also noticed that many waiters don’t know that the allergies guide even exists, I usually have to ask the hostess or manager.

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Angela February 6, 2013

Oh wow I haven’t seen anything like that around here…what a great idea.

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Audra February 6, 2013

Urbanspoon also has a main category for vegetarian restaurants, and if you pull one up it will tell you if it’s vegan friendly and list neighboring vegan friendly places. Sometimes easier to use as an app than Happy Cow, although I love the Happy Cow website.

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 6, 2013

Another great tip…man Im going to have to incorporate these websites at the bottom of my post!

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Casandra February 6, 2013

I definitely pre-eat when I’m not going to vegan-friendly restaurant. I don’t want to be forced to eat unhealthy food such as french fries because of a lack of options!

Three other great restaurants with separate veg menus in Toronto are Khao San Road, Woodlot, and the Windsor Arms.

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 6, 2013

Thanks for the tips…I’ve been meaning to get to WA! Have you been? Havent heard of the others so I will look them up too.

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Casandra February 6, 2013

I haven’t been to WA either but I’m dying to go for brunch! I love both Woodlot and Khao San Road, though!

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Claire February 6, 2013

There’s an Italian chain called Bertuccis that has a GREAT roasted veggie side plus seasonal dishes like roasted butternut squash with candies walnuts, roasted beets (hold the blue cheese), roasted mushrooms. Two sides for only $8 makes a great meal. That’s now our go-to restaurant. Look for it! Super yummy.

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Katie McCullough February 6, 2013

Hey everyone! If you’re in Guelph, Einstein’s Cafe will veganize anything on the menu! I was unsure that they would but they will replace any cheese with avocado, for example.

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Angela February 6, 2013

I miss Guelph :) Thanks for the tip!

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Julie Boyer February 6, 2013

Many restaurants also now have gluten-free menus if you ask!

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Angela February 6, 2013

Really? That is fun…do you know of any specifically that do? I’ll have to let my GF friend know.

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Julie Boyer February 6, 2013

Interestingly, Paradiso’s in Burlington (I just ate there on Friday) and although not gluten-free menu but great salad that is gluten-free and vegan at Spencer’s on the Waterfront in Burlington too. And of course Kind Food is gluten-free and I just got the newsletter – they expanded their seating!! Sunday brunch anyone?

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 6, 2013

Thanks Julie! Yes, brunch sounds like a great idea. :) I will need to celebrate once I have my manuscript handed in!

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Herbivore Triathlete February 6, 2013

I’ve used both Happy Cow and Barnivore a lot since transitioning to a vegan diet. I also like to look up menus online ahead of time and having a plan on what I will order. Building your own meal using sides is a great idea as well. I have found that restaurants will accommodate if you just ask. The best advice I think though is to just relax, it’s not a big deal, enjoy the company.

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Michael February 6, 2013

Great tips, although it seems like eating before you go to the restaurant would be kind of disappointing! But you’re right – it should be all about the company!

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Rebecca February 6, 2013

great post! I’m a vegetarian who is flirting with veganism so this was very helpful :)
tr[i]b[e]cca

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Shannan February 6, 2013

I am only a vegetarian and find eating out pretty difficult sometimes. I really wish restaurants would be very specific about what’s in their food. For instance, I ordered a house salad the other day and it came with a few slabs of pepperoni on top. Uh, not what I ordered, guys! It’s sad that I usually have to ask “Does this salad have any meat on it?” when just ordering a basic salad. Some restaurants are moving in the right direction, though!

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Kel February 6, 2013

Also, when traveling be sure to check out Veg Dining .com. It has helped me MANY times. Best thing…if you go to PETA business friends Veg Dining’s ad is under there and they give PETA a small donation for using them through PETA business friends. You just put in the town where you are and it tells you where the veg friendly places are.

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 6, 2013

Thanks for the tip, I’ve never heard of that site before but I’m off to look it up!

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Sarah @ Making Thyme for Health February 6, 2013

This is such a helpful post! I have used HappyCow for quite a while and find it to be very useful. I also like Tripadvisor as it allows you to select vegetarian in the search options. I found the.best.vegan restaurant in Paris on HappyCow.

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Angela February 6, 2013

Oh I didn’t know that about Tripadvisor, thanks for the tip :)

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Margaret February 6, 2013

The biggest thing I’ve learned when dining out as a vegan is that you have to advocate for yourself. I’ve always been a soft-spoken person who wants to please others but in this instance, its not worth putting yourself in a situation at, say, a chain restaurant with only meat and cheese dishes. Whenever my friends are discussing where to go I make sure I suggest veg-friendly places instead of going with the flow and figuring out if I can eat anything when I get there.

Also, I honestly feel like you have to lower your expectations of what your meal will be. When I was vegetarian I was usually satisfied or excited with restaurant meals but now being vegan I’m usually disappointed because most things I order are so simple and I could make myself! Although I do think that Thai, Indian and Japanese meals out are always worth it because the spices and ingredients are so unique and interesting.

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Averie @ Averie Cooks February 6, 2013

When I was strictly vegan, eating beforehand, and not sweating it were the two best things I could do and did. I realized that there may not always be a ton of options for me at a certain restaurant, but I was happy to be in the company of friends/family and out at the restaurant enjoying the atmosphere and their time and company. I could always eat a snack before or after if that one meal wasn’t perfect and left me not quite satisfied. It’s nice if there are great options, but sometimes there aren’t, so you just move on, work around it, and have a snack :)

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J.C. February 6, 2013

When we moved to Texas last year & I’d ask what vegetarian options they have at restaurants, I got a lot of enthusiatic responses like “sure, we have plenty of chicken & fish!” Ummm–not exactly what I was looking for. I swear, they must think I have a third eye or something, judging by the way they look at me sometimes!

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Angela February 6, 2013

hah oh my gosh thank you for the laugh. I’ve had a similar comment before too. Are you near Dallas at all? I heard they have a lot of vegan restaurants.

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J.C. February 6, 2013

No, but I’ll keep that in mind if I ever go there!

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Katie February 6, 2013

This is a great summary! Nobody ever believes me when I say that eating out isn’t a big deal and I can always find something on a menu – it just may be a salad :) With minimal fuss and attention drawn to myself, I am often satisfied and pleasantly surprised!

I do have some more tips:

1) In Indian restaurants, watch out for ghee. 95% of the time the curries are made with oil, but there’s the odd restaurant that uses ghee instead. Also, na’an bread is not vegan, but chapati is.

2) In Asian restaurants, make sure to specify that you do not want fish sauce or oyster sauce. Often these are used as a seasoning base, and the chef may not even think about it. But with this clarification I have enjoyed the most amazing curries, noodle dishes, and pho!

3) I have yet to find less than 5 options at a Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Lebanese, or Ethiopian restaurant. In fact, I am often overwhelmed with delicious choices!

4) If no vegetarian menu is available, check out the gluten free menu. “Gluten free” is the current fad, and while the general population don’t recognize the difference between gluten free and celiac, these same people often associate gluten free with vegetarian. The gluten free menu often has healthier sides as well – “fancy” rice, baked potatoes, crudités and beet hummus (vs. pita in butter), etc.

And I agree wholeheartedly – when in doubt, eat beforehand! Stashing granola bars and dried fruit in your purse are a good stopgap if you forget. But at the end of the day, enjoy the company that the meal comes with. And cook yourself a decadent five-course meal the next day to “recover” if required ;)

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Angela February 6, 2013

Amazing collection of tips Katie! Thanks for sharing.

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Liz @ Tip Top Shape February 6, 2013

Really great post!

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Julie T. February 6, 2013

I had a similar “secret menu” experience at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub in Las Vegas. I was trying to assemble a meal out of sides, and mentioned to the waitress that they didn’t have any vegetarian entrees. She says, Oh, we have a nightly vegetarian chef’s special, and goes on to describe it to me. It involved potatoes and brussels sprouts, polenta and fried thyme, it was awesome! I was a teensy bit irritated that I had to ask, but I guess it does pay!

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Angela (Oh She Glows) February 6, 2013

Wow that sounds lovely! I always feel so special when I get the secret menu. hah

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Andrea February 6, 2013

Although I’m not vegan (I don’t eat dairy, but do eat lean meat) I found this post very helpful. I often order a vegan or vegetarian meal when I’m eating out simply because I enjoy trying something new, and it is usually healthier than most items on the menu. It’s also shocking how many things have cheese on them! Even if it doesn’t say cheese in the description, always ask!

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allison February 6, 2013

we can usually find something at every restaurant we eat at. I find going to asian food places the best for options. Also italian…most of them will make anything without cheese! and if we have to hit a subway or booster juice after…so be it. haha

i have noticed no negative effects to being vegan. All positive.

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