One of the most frequently asked questions I get in the Food for Life classes that I teach is, “How are we going to be able to dine out in restaurants on a plant-based diet?” Rest assured, living a healthy plant-based lifestyle does not mean you need to forgo your social life and give up the pleasures of dining out. Plenty of options are available, and there are a few things you can do to make your restaurant experiences quite enjoyable.
The first step is to plan ahead. Best-case-scenario is when friends and family request input on where the group will dine and you have a say in it. However, when that is not the case, and your friends have already picked the restaurant, look the menu up online. Looking it up ahead and being familiar with the options will save time and make things more comfortable. You can also call ahead to ask questions. Some of my best restaurant experiences have come from calling in advance to find out more details about healthy menu options and how they can be tailored. The attitude in which you ask is a BIG factor, and we will discuss that more below.
On one recent occasion where I called ahead, the manager put me on the phone with the chef who asked a number of questions. By the time we arrived a few hours later, our dinner was ready, and the staff was so excited about it that they were taking pictures of our beautifully colored entrees in the kitchen.
Oftentimes, the chef enjoys a challenge and being able to use some of their under-utilized culinary creativity in the kitchen. They have been known to be inspired to come up with some of the better meals I have ever eaten. When this happens, I immediately go to Yoast and Google to leave great reviews, as well as tipping accordingly.
Recently, I have begun to leave these cards behind as well, hoping to encourage more plant-based options on the menu and to leave positive feedback for the chef and staff.
If it looks like options will be very limited, eat something before you go. This very rarely happens to me, but it is much better not to be ravenous if the only thing healthy on the menu is a salad and maybe bread. Being prepared in these instances can keep you from making bad decisions when you are irritated and hungry (AKA: ‘hangry’–when you are so hungry that your lack of food causes you to become angry, frustrated or both).
Be a little flexible and a lot polite. While it is ideal to eat whole grains like brown rice instead of white rice and whole wheat pasta instead of the more refined, don’t stress about every detail. Aim to select the best options available, and certainly make sure that it is plant-based, but being too uptight and demanding will be counterproductive.
Attitude is everything when dining out, in my experience. When customers are difficult and irritable, servers and staff are much less likely to respond well, and who can blame them? The best attitude is to go in realizing they know their menu much better than you do, so ask for help. Something like, “I am looking for something that is meat and dairy-free, can you suggest what might be most suitable?” will likely be well-received and responded to.
I did this a few years ago at a restaurant that we had received a gift card for, and I knew it would be difficult to find healthier options. When I politely asked the young waitress for assistance, she got so excited that she slid into the booth with us and started telling us all about their menu. She suggested we not order the rice because it came preseasoned with chicken stock, and not to get the lemon sauce with vegetables because it had butter in it. She was able to make suggestions and talk with the chef, and we ended up with an excellent healthy meal. I can’t stress enough that it’s all about the attitude with which we ask.
Finally, and most importantly, learn where and what to order. When you adopt a plant-based lifestyle, it is very important to empower yourself with knowledge about your options within different cuisines. Once you find locations, and even form a relationship with some restaurants that you visit frequently, it gets much easier.
One local Chinese restaurant we order takeout from regularly knows me well. All I have to do is call and say, “This is Terri, the Veggie Lady,” and they know exactly who I am and what to make. People from my Food for Life classes that are local even go in and ask to have what ‘Terri the Veggie Lady’ orders.
To help you get started and comfortable ordering, I have listed some of my family’s favorite plant-based options by cuisine type and even included a few videos and pictures of dishes at some of the restaurants we visit frequently.
There are usually numerous plant-based options on Thai menus. Always ask for dishes to be made without fish sauce. Some menu items that are good choices include:
- Fresh Garden Spring Rolls- also known as rice paper rolls loaded with vegetables and even some fruit like cantaloupe or honey dew melon
- Stir-Fried vegetable dishes
- Tofu and vegetable dishes
- Vegetarian noodle soups
- Steamed rice
This video is at our favorite Thai restaurant in our local area of North Carolina–Rutherford Thia–and how we order there.
Chinese restaurants are one of our favorites, because they offer plenty of vegetable and tofu-based dishes, as well as noodles and rice. It is best to ask for things to be prepared without oil, fish sauce, or oyster sauce. Look for the following options on menus:
- Stir-fried vegetable dishes
- Steamed tofu and vegetable dishes
- Vegetarian noodle soups
- Steamed rice
- Fresh Garden Spring Rolls- also known as rice paper rolls
- Vegetable Pho is a noodle/vegetable dish (just make sure broth is from vegetables or miso)
- Vegetarian noodle soups
- Steamed rice
This is a picture of Vegetable Pho from Monsoon Noodle House in Spartanburg, SC. I have steamed tofu added to mine and love this stuff! Wild Ginger is also a great restaurant chain to order Veggie Pho.
Japanese cuisine normally offers plenty of low-fat vegan options. Some of our favorites include:
- Vegetable sushi- it usually includes cucumber rolls, avocado rolls, and veggie rolls. Make sure no cream cheese is added.
- Miso soup- check that it is made without fish products
- Grilled tofu dishes
- Vegetarian soba noodle dishes
- Vegetarian rice dishes
This is a picture from a restaurant we visit often that has a whole veggie sushi section on their sushi bar. The pink is pickled ginger.
Your best choices at an Italian restaurant include:
- Vegetable pizza without cheese and extra marinara
- Pasta and veggies with marinara
- House salad with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
Most Mexican restaurants have a Vegetarian Menu, and the items can be made completely plant-based by simply removing the cheese and sour cream. The biggest factor we have run into is always needing to ask that our food be made without oil, because it most certainly will have it if you don’t ask. Most of the rices have lots of added oil. Make sure that any beans you order are made without bacon or other animal ingredients. Some of our Mexican favorites include:
- Vegetable Fajitas without cheese or sour cream and no oil
- Avocado tacos (made with avocado slices) with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pico
- Bean and rice burritos loaded with lettuce, tomato, salsa, pico, and more
Cafe / Sandwich Bar / Deli
When we find ourselves at a deli or sandwich bar, we often opt for veggie sandwiches or salads. At Subway we get the veggie sub on whole wheat, without cheese, loaded up with all the vegetables, and seasoned with oregano/vinegar. Options at other restaurants might be:
- Whole wheat bread with tomato, lettuce, cucumber, beets, carrots, avocado, etc. plus mustard, pickles or balsamic vinegar
- Black Bean Burger
- Portobello Burger
- Garden salad
- Baked potato with salad bar toppings
At Jason’s Deli, we get the plain baked potato and load it up with beans and vegetables from their salad bar. See video below!
If you are new to the plant-based lifestyle, these articles will also be very helpful:
- Plant-Based Guide for Beginners
- What is a Plant-Based Whole Food
- Plant-Based Meal Planning 101
- Jeff Novick’s 10 Simple Recipes in Less than 20-Minutes
- What’s in My Plant-Based Medicine Cabinet? I Mean Pantry!
- Beginners Guide to Plant-Based Grocery Shopping
- . Guide to Dining Out on a Plant-Based Diet
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