A question I am often asked is “how do you handle eating out?” Whether you are a strict vegetarian, nutritarian, determined to get through the threshold of unhealthy food cravings, or simply trying to stay true to healthier eating choices where you’re avoiding less cheese, heavy cream sauces and fried foods, let’s face it eating out can be a struggle; and I can totally relate. Since I’ve been on a strictly plant-based diet, I find restaurant experiences in my community can be hit or miss. But, the exciting thing is many restaurants are offering menus that are sensitive to dietary restrictions and allergies as well as providing lighter fare menus that offer a range of “heart smart” healthier alternatives.
Here are my top five eating out tips:
First, go to the restaurant’s website and look for their menu so you can decide what you want to eat before you leave the house. Many are now listing specialty menus that list charts of ingredients such as milk, fish, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, MSG, etc., as well as Gluten-Free Sections and what they call Lighter Fare Sections with things like specialty kale and roasted vegetable salads.
Next, if you don’t find any obvious meal options on the menu call the restaurant and ask how they can accommodate a vegan diet or any other restrictions you may have. It helps to be very specific about what you would like. Don’t feel you’re being a bother. I’ve done this and find restaurants want to help and accommodate. In fact my daughter did this recently for my upcoming birthday. We’re having a small gathering of friends at BJs Restaurant and Brewhouse in Eugene, OR. They first directed her to their food allergy and food sensitive on-line menu. After checking it out, she still had questions so she called. She wanted to know what options they might have for a birthday treat. First they were comfortable with her bringing in special vegan cupcakes. Then, they got excited to make my birthday special by providing me with something made with fresh fruit. The key is never be afraid to ask.
If you’re not able to check out a restaurant’s menu ahead of time, when you arrive, take your time and check for their vegetarian options. These dishes can easily be made vegan by replacing the butter with oil, leaving off the cheese and not ordering any sour cream. Specialty dishes or salads can be modified to be vegan; by removing the chicken or shrimp and replacing it with black beans, red kidney beans or garbanzo beans. Ask to switch out the cheese for extra tomatoes and some avocado.
Another trick if options on the menu are limited is to order a few side dishes. Asking them to hold any butter, I’ve created a meal of a side order of brown rice, or a plain baked potato, beans and steamed vegetables. Top it off with some chunky salsa and it makes it into a wonderfully delicious and balanced meal.
Lastly, go ethnic! Many cuisines have a lot of naturally vegan options or ones that can be easily modified. I have eaten quite easily at Mexican and Thai restaurants, and my very favorite is Lebanese which offers delicious hummus plates with pita bread, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli salad, vegan pizzas, lentil soup and more.
Remember, just because you are dining out doesn’t mean you have to put your healthy eating habits on the back burner. After all, we all know how good we feel when we eat healthy and don’t over indulge on foods that are deep-fried, or have too much sodium or sugar. When you eat out, you can control your environment.