A couple of the most frequently asked questions I get in the Food for Life classes that I teach are about how to eat healthy when dining out and where to find good vegetarian restaurants.
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. Find out how with this plant-based guide for dining out.
How to eat healthy when dining out / Finding good vegetarian restaurants
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 honeydew melon
Stir-Fried vegetable dishes
Tofu and vegetable dishes
Vegetarian noodle soups
This video is at our favorite Thai restaurant in our local area of North Carolina–Rutherford Thia–and how we order there. Such beautiful and delicious food! YouTube version for sharing available on our channel.
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
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
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
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 the video below!
If you are new to the plant-based lifestyle, these articles will also be very helpful:
Thank you for posting about these restaurants. Usually when restaurants are recommended they're in some far away place. I live in Spartanburg County and will definitely try Monsoon's. We've eaten many times at Jason's Deli but since Covid the salad bar's been closed.
Saturday 24th of April 2021
Hi Cathy- It's awesome that you're so close by. We live in North Carolina just over the state line and visit Spartanburg regularly. Monsoon is a favorite of ours.
Wednesday 27th of May 2020
I had my gallbladder removed a few weeks ago, and was put on a strict low fat diet to retrain my body how to live without it. I have been a bit overwhelmed as to what I would be able to eat, but not long after My surgery I discovered more plant based options and have been so impressed that they taste better than I had imagined. Still I haven't been sure of what I would be able to order when I go out to eat until I read this! It made the idea of going out to eat far less daunting, and especially found your lists of things to order from each type of restaurant, very helpful! Thank you for sharing your knowledge!
Thursday 28th of May 2020
Hi Jessica- I am so glad to hear that this article is helpful. Though we eat most of our meals at home, we do love to eat out occasionally and we have our favorite places to go because we know the menu so well. I hope you find some new healthy options near you, and I'm wishing you the best with your recovery from surgery.
Saturday 5th of January 2019
Thanks for all the great info and tips. I do have a question regarding eating no-oil. This has been the biggest hurdle for us when eating at restaurants. I noticed in the Thai food category you listed stir-fried vegetables. Do you have success in receiving those with no-oil? My husband had by-pass surgery a few years ago, so we are very, very careful about consuming oil, and we would appreciate any specific advice you have on how to avoid being served food containing oil in restaurants. Thanks so much for your help.
Saturday 5th of January 2019
Hi Connie, sometimes it can be challenging to convey to servers that there should be no oil used in preparing meals in restaurants. In your husband's case, I would suggest sharing with wait staff that he is under doctor's orders to consume no oil. Cardiologist, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, even tells his patients to notify the chef that they are deathly allergic to oil. I think the biggest thing is just being very clear and firm.
Wednesday 5th of December 2018
I really appreciate your tip to try and have a good attitude when you are out to eat so the waiters will give you better service. My wife and I have been thinking of getting a new house, and we are concerned that we won't be able to cook at home for a while since we are unpacking. I will be sure to tell my wife that we should try and be nice if we have to go out to eat!
Wednesday 5th of December 2018
So glad the article was helpful. In our experience, it really is all about attitude when getting good service. Just makes sense to be nice. :)
Thursday 6th of September 2018
I really appreciate your tip to try and eat something before you ear when you are concerned about not having anything that you could eat on the menu. My wife and I really like to go out to eat, and we want to make sure that we stay healthy while we do it. I will be sure to tell my wife that we should try and eat something at the house if we know we won't like anything at the restaurant!