When you head out for dinner with friends or family, the last thing you need is to feel stressed; in a perfect world, the only stressful choice of the night is which dessert to order. But for those following a vegan diet, you know far too well that dinner isn’t always that easy. If you’re new to the vegan lifestyle, you might still be struggling with mastering a stress-free dining out experience. But, trust us, you can enjoy a night out for dinner and leave feeling full and satisfied! We chatted with dietitians and wellness experts to get their best tips for dining out on a vegan diet.
First thing’s first, as much as possible, know where you’re going; this can help give you a game plan when dining out on a vegan diet. Lynne Wadsworth, a board certified holistic health coach and wellness cooking instructor (as well as a vegetarian!) suggests not only taking a peek at the menu ahead of time to see what vegan options are available (many menus have specific vegan options), but to also see what non-vegan plates might be able to be modified.
“Most menus can be adapted in some way,” says Wadsworth. By now, chefs are used to receiving dietary requests, so don’t be afraid to ask their suggestions for menu swaps. Just be sure to double check how they prep food both the vegan and non-vegan eats! “It is also helpful—and often necessary—to ask the server to find out what specific foods are cooking in or, [if] possible, what is added to the food afterward,” Wadsworth adds. “For example, many restaurants, to improve the taste of steamed broccoli will add butter or margarine.”
But, if you’re the one doing the dinner planning, Danielle Stadelman, RDN, suggests utilizing a vegan-friendly app and site like HappyCow.net, which allows diners to search for vegetarian and vegan restaurants in your area. “This site is invaluable and you’ll never be worried again about trying to find a vegan-friendly eatery,” she says.
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
Ask questions to ensure that your meal is prepped just how you want it. “Eating vegan at a restaurant means asking questions about the ingredients, preparation methods, and requesting modifications while keeping in mind the limits of the chef and kitchen,” says Stadelman. “Never be embarrassed to ask questions at a restaurant. This is your body and you have every right to know what you are putting into it!”
Sometimes kitchens have vegan-specific dishes that are off menu, but you have to ask to know about these available options. Your server might be able to make recommendations for dishes that can be made vegan or have easy vegan-friendly swaps!
Double check the small stuff
Unfortunately, you can’t assume that everyone—even your server—knows exactly what a vegan diet means. Some might not know the entirety of the diet’s restrictions, or they simply might not know the intricacies of how the dishes are prepared.
All of our experts caution diners to double check the small stuff, like dips and dressings, when dining out, as many can be yogurt based and you’d never even know by looking at them. The same is often true of sauces. “Many sauces served with dishes incorporate some kind of dairy, fish, or meat,” says Stadelman.
“Even if a dish looks meatless, always inquire about the cooking process,” she adds. Ordered something as simple as rice? Verify that it’s not cooked in chicken stock or vegetable stock, she says. Sides like veggies might be cooked in butter as opposed to olive oil, whereas tomato or vegetable soup might be made with dairy products.
Remember that many baked desserts require eggs and dairy, and even something as simple as honey might be used as a sweetener! Generally, asking for a sorbet and or fruit-based desserts is usually a vegan’s best option.
Ultimately, your best bet? Just ask!
Pile on the sides
Most of the time, vegans will have plenty of options or swaps. For example, you can lose the meat from a salad or switch out a meat dish with other hearty options, like mushrooms or avocados. But, sadly, there might be times when a restaurant’s only viable vegan-friendly options come off the sides menu.
Shaina Simhaee, Holistic Nutritionist and Founder of FastBeets.com, suggests scanning the side dishes portion of the menu as they’re usually where you’ll find a ton of veggie (and bean!) options that you may be able to choose to build your own entree.
“Choose a few of the vegetable side dishes, and ask the waiter to serve them all on one plate,” she says. Of course, from time to time you’ll need to adjust one or two of the sides to make them healthier and vegan, but typically it’s much easier to do than asking a kitchen to change an entire entree. “For example, if a restaurant serves creamed spinach, you can ask for simple steamed or sautéed spinach,” says Simhaee. “If the veggies are loaded with inflammatory canola oil, you can ask that they are steamed or [that] light oil [be used], or replace[d] with olive oil!”
Another super easy way to DIY your own vegan entree: Order steamed vegetables and add a grain (Stadelman suggests brown rice or quinoa). “Now you have a simple stir-fry,” Stadelman adds.
Opt for variety
Variety might be the spice of life, but for a vegan, it’s also the way to ensure that you get a filling, nutritious dinner.
“Since most of a vegan’s diet consists of a carbohydrate-rich diet, vegans need to be mindful of getting enough plant proteins (beans, soy, lentils, quinoa) [into] their daily diet,” explains Yasi Ansari, MS, RD, CSSD. “In addition to being mindful of getting more plant proteins, I always talk to my clients about focusing on portion sizes, when eating out.”
Many carb-heavy dishes, like pasta, bread, and rice, have the green light for a vegan diet. However, Ansari encourages vegans not to just rely on these carbs as your primary source of sustenance. She suggests making sure that a large portion of a vegan dinner plate includes vegetables and fruits. “[Fill] at least half the plate with fruits and veggies deep and rich in color,” she says. And, although most vegans already gravitate toward plant-based protein sources, such as nuts, beans, soy, and lentils, Ansari says to make sure that they’re a quarter of the plate. And, lastly, fill the remainder of your dinner plate with fiber-rich carbs like quinoa, brown rice, and sweet potatoes.
“When eating out, the best advice I can give is choosing meals with a variety of grains, plant-proteins, fruits, and veggies to ensure [that] you’re loading up on all nutrients and not just one food group!” she says.
When in doubt, go Mexican—or Greek or Indian!
Don’t get stuck on the idea that a vegan-friendly dinner is only a plate of veggies and pasta. Plenty of delicious foods and restaurants have vegan options if you think a little outside the box. In fact, most Indian food is naturally vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Just check to make sure that your dish of choice isn’t made with ghee or milk, says Stadelman.
In addition, Mediterranean restaurants are also a vegan’s best friend, she says. “Start off with hummus or baba ganoush with pita bread. Then enjoy vegetable kebabs, rice pilaf, or try any type of vegetable dish, from roasted eggplant to sautéed greens! Just make sure to ask for no yogurt or cheese,” she says.
Lastly, when in doubt, you can never go wrong with Mexican. “Mexican restaurants are a gold mine for vegans,” says Simhaee. “Beans, guac, veggies, chips, and margaritas. Who can ask for more?” she says. With options ranging from rice and beans, vegetable fajitas, veggie burritos, and guac on guac, we’re inclined to agree!