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If you’re new to veganism, eating outside the comfort of your own home be challenging as it can bring up feelings of being ‘different’ or ‘a hassle’. There’s still a lingering stereotype that eating out as a vegan is boring, bland, expensive and difficult.
Finding a fully-vegan café or restaurant is ideal but, depending on where you live, you’ll likely be heading somewhere that serves meat and dairy if your family or main circle of friends aren’t vegan.
The good news is that vegans are relatively well catered for in 2021. You’ll be surprised at how many plant-based options you actually have when dining out.
Being prepared and having questions ready (plus the confidence to ask them) can be the difference between a disappointing appetizer and a gourmet meal your friends will be jealous of.
How to eat out as a vegan (and not order salad)
Check out the menu beforehand
Look at the restaurant or cafes menu online before you go. Scope out the vegan options or take note of any dishes that could potentially be veganized. For example, you could ask for vegetarian pizza without the cheese, vegetarian pasta with no parmesan, avocado instead of cheese in a burger, or ask to swap out dairy salad dressings.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to eat somewhere that is 100% veg-friendly so having an idea before you go means you won’t get overwhelmed or feel under the pump when it comes time to order.
If you can’t see any obvious options on the menu, call the restaurant or café and ask if they can accommodate a vegan. Restaurants like getting a heads up, and I’ve had some chefs say they actually enjoyed having the chance to experiment with their menu. Of course, some think an extra large bowl of steamed veggies counts as a vegan dish, so if you have any particular meal of theirs in mind, like a pizza or pasta, ask if they can modify one of those. Don’t feel like you’re being annoying – giving them the heads up means you won’t be putting them on the spot.
Know your codes
A lot of menus now have dietary codes or symbols next to meals to indicate allergies or dietary preferences. Vegan meals are often identified with a “V”, “Ve” or a leaf symbol, so it’s best to check the key at the bottom or back of the menu to be sure. Note, “V” could easily mean vegetarian and could contain dairy.
These codes are important because sometimes what you presume would be vegan, isn’t. For example, some veggie burgers could have cheese or egg in them, mushrooms or spuds might be cooked in butter, chips may be fried in the same oil as meat, or something marked as “dairy-free” may have egg in it. If you’re not sure, ask!
Get creative with sides
On more than one occasion, especially at brunch, I’ve combined 4-5 vegan-friendly sides or “extras” together for a pretty satisfying meal. This can be hit and miss – sometimes the sides are huge and sometimes you get about four mouthfuls but it’s worth experimenting. For example, if a café can’t provide a vegan-friendly main, you could combine tomato, spinach, toast, avocado and baked beans from the sides or extras menu.
be clear and specific
I used to hate using the word “vegan” when eating out – I had vision of the wait staff rolling their eyes at each other and the chef saying “oh no, not another one”. But in reality they would much rather you be clear about your preferences so they can get it right the first time. If you’re not sure about a certain meal or ingredient, just ask. For example “If I take the cheese off the veggie pizza, will that make it vegan?”
If for some reason you don’t feel confident the staff will take your request seriously, I have also used the words “severe allergy” to get my point across!
Not everyone understands what veganism is, so when you’re asking about options or modifications, just be nice and do it with a smile. Yes, sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating when they leave the haloumi on because they forget it’s actually cheese, or wait staff reply with “yes we have lots of gluten free options!”. But do your best to be patient. If you’re polite, then others will be polite back. When staff go out of their way to accommodate you, let them know you appreciate their efforts.
check local vegan facebook groups
What I often call the “brain’s trust”, local vegan groups on Facebook are a great resource for sussing out a restaurant before you go. Search the name of the restaurant in the group to see if anyone has been there before and shared their experience or recommendations. Or, if it doesn’t look like anyone’s been there yet, feel to ask! Afterwards, share your experiences and photos with the group so others can read your feedback.
Ask if you can choose the place
Take any opportunity you can to take your friends to your favourite vegan café, or somewhere you know has plenty of options for you. It will also be a great chance to impress them!
If you really think your options will be limited, eat a small meal beforehand so you’re not starving when you get there. At least this way you can have something you like! I’ve done this a few times, it’s really no big deal and you’ll save money on food anyway.
Use Happy Cow
Want to find vegan options near you? Use Happy Cow. Simply type in your location and it will being up a list of veg-friendly place near you, plus plenty of reviews. I use this handy app all the time when I am travelling – it’s saved me in cities across Australia, Europe, New Zealand and the US!
Here are some easy go-to options across difference cuisines…
Japanese – There are SO many vegan sushi fillings like avocado, cucumber, pumpkin, seaweed, tofu, tempura veg, carrot, and any other veggies. Just watch out for mayo. Vegan entrees include miso soup, edamame, seaweed salad or inari.
Mexican – Dig in to dishes like bean/veggie burritos, tacos, fajitas, bean soup, and chips with salsa and guacamole. Don’t forget Mexican chocolate cake and churros for dessert! Just check with the server about eggs and if the wraps are made in lard (animal fat).
Indian – Reliably vegan meals include Chana masala, kitchari, samosas and most rice. Vegetable dahl and curries are often a safe bet as they can be made with coconut milk – just check before ordering.
Italian – Go-tos include pasta in marinara sauce, or the “house” veggie pasta without cheese. A couple of times I’ve asked the chef to throw a vegetable pasta together if there wasn’t one on the menu. Veggie pizzas are often vegan if you hold the cheese. Most dry pasta is vegan, but some homemade pasta can contain egg, so it’s best to check.
Greek – Options include hummus, tahini, olives, pita bread, vegetable dolmades, pan-fried potatoes, roasted eggplant, grilled veggies, Greek salad without feta, and grilled veggie wrap. Just make sure to ask for no cheese or yoghurt.
Thai – Try vegetable cold rolls, green mango salad, lemon grass or coconut soup, vegetable curries, and vegetable rice dishes. Check if there are any vegetable curries made with coconut milk. Some places also offer vegan-friendly pad thai.
eating out as a vegan doesn’t have to be stressful
Eating out as a vegan can be easy with all the options available today. If a restaurant or café doesn’t have it’s staple vegan menu item, then 99% of the time you can inquire about a vegan friendly swap.
Yes, there will be times when you’re disappointed (cherry tomato salad at a wedding anyone?) but people are let down by their meals every day, whether they’re vegan or not!
If you accidentally eat something that wasn’t vegan, don’t be hard on yourself. You can only do the best you can with the information you had in the moment. Eating out as a vegan will get easier over time and you’ll be a menu-reading pro in no time!
Do you struggle eating out as a vegan? Leave your questions below!