There’s a common misperception that eating out as a vegetarian makes it tough on others. Eating out as a vegetarian absolutely DOES NOT mean you can’t eat anywhere. In fact, you can find options almost anywhere anybody else can.
I’ve put together some tips that will help make eating out as a vegetarian easier. They’re also helpful if you’re dating, married to or related to a vegetarian. When it’s your turn to pick out the restaurant, it’ll be easier to pick something that fits everyone.
You Get to Make Your Own Choices
This first tip is about putting things into perspective. It’s actually a lot easier to eat out than you would think because you are in control. Unlike a potluck or a planned menu dinner where you might not have choices, at a restaurant, you get to order whatever you want. You have the power to decide what you want, and that definitely makes it easier.
It may be frustrating at first, but once you put some of these tips into play, it’ll be easy peasy. In most cases, you made the choice to eat this way (unless a doctor told you to), and approaching it with “I can’t eat this” or “I can’t eat that” does you no favors. Approaching your lifestyle with “I choose to eat this way” and reminding yourself why you chose it gives you a positive outlook. It also makes finding new ways to navigate the food world much more enjoyable. Plus if you approach eating out as vegetarian negatively, you’re not only stressing yourself out, others around you become stressed too. Nobody wants to go out to eat with a Debbie Downer.
Do Some Research Beforehand
The next thing is you can eat almost almost anywhere. The beauty is that today, almost all menus are online. If the restaurant doesn’t have a menu of its website or Facebook page, check sites like Yelp or Menupix. Even if an official menu isn’t available online from the restaurant itself, there are helpful people that upload pictures of menus to these sites. Another way to find these is to google image search the restaurant name then “menu.” (For example, search for “the velvet cactus menu”)
If all else fails, you can also call ahead. I hate talking on the phone, so I never do this. Also, because I’ve been doing it for so long, I know I’m going to be able to find vegetarian options. However, if you’re really nervous that that you’re going somewhere you’re unfamiliar with, it may be calming to just call and ask.
Another resource for looking up menus online is Happy Cow. Although it mainly focuses on finding vegan menu options, there is a filter to search for vegetarian food.
Watch out for Sneaky Foods
There are a few things that might seem like they’d be really safe, might not always be safe. The first thing is soups, because a lot of times they’ll use beef or chicken broth, even when you don’t expect it. I tried to order tomato basil soup at Applebee’s one time, but a friend who worked there told me there was beef broth in it. In tomato soup!
So if you’re ordering a soup, ask what the base is. Ask if there’s any animal broth in it. If you’re not that strict of a vegetarian and that doesn’t matter to you, then you’re good.
Store-bought soups also often use animal products in soups you’d think would be vegetarian. Luckily, Progresso has started labeling which of theirs are vegetarian, which is very helpful. A lot of other brands don’t label their soups this way, so you have to look through the ingredients and just check.
The next one that can be a little tricky is salad. Even if the menu offers a simple side salad or a house salad, a lot of times it will be topped with bacon or egg. If the menu doesn’t specifically tell you exactly what’s on the salad, ask if they include bacon or eggs (if you’re a vegetarian like me that doesn’t do eggs.) If you’re vegan, be sure to ask about cheese too. Every restaurant has a very different definition of how their basic, house or side salad is made. Save yourself the time of sending back to be remade by asking. Also, if you do have to send it back, don’t feel bad! You’re a paying customer.
Mix and Match Menu Items
This next trick always surprises people when I break it out at a restaurant. I’ve heard so many people say, “It never even occurred to me, Liz.” Here it is: you can put ingredients where they’re not supposed to go.
I went to a Mexican restaurant a while ago with some co-workers and I said, “They don’t have a side salad.” (Yes, we’re back to side salads.) And my coworker said, “Well, do Mexican restaurants normally have side salads?” I replied, “Well, they have a taco salad, so if they can make a big salad, why can’t they make a little salad?”
I’ve actually done this a lot. For example, if I see black means on the menu in one dish, I’ll ask them to add it to a pasta or salad. This works either on its own or in place of the meat.
I’ve rarely ever had a server say no to a request like this, because clearly if it’s on the menu in other dishes, they have it in the kitchen. So why can’t they substitute it into the dish that you want and make it vegetarian? The one exception to this is restaurants where things are frozen premixed and they can’t alter it. It’s often chain restaurants where you find this.
When making these substitution requests, being nice goes such a long way. If you are demanding, saying things like “you can’t put this in my food” or “you need to replace this for me,” you’re probably not gonna get a very good reception. I think that’s why I rarely get a no, because I state my request politely and clearly.
In most cases, you can get most of the menu items made without the meat. However, if you’re trying to eat healthy, it’s sometimes hard to get high protein low fat options. The best choice for this is Asian and Mexican restaurants, because you can do a lot with tofu or beans.
Get Your Money’s Worth
This one’s gonna sound a little bit counterintuitive, but there is a reason for it. A lot of times, I will get the meat on the side. Some of you don’t want me anywhere near you, and that’s fine. But for me, I do it because they charge you the same price anyway. If I’m paying $12 for a pasta dish or $15 for a salad, and I get it without the meat, it often costs exactly the same. Plus, a lot of times they’ll charge you extra for substituting something else, even if you’re not getting the meat.
Occasionally, you’ll get a server who’s really nice and can ring it in so you don’t pay a ton, but it’s rare. Meat costs a lot, so it seems silly to pay so much for a dish without it. So what I usually do get the meat on a side plate or to go container and give it to friends. (I used to give it to my dogs but the vet banned one of them from table food after a gastritis bout.) At this point, all my friends know if I get meat on the side, it’s open season for them. I’m paying for it anyway, I might as well get it and give it to someone.
Ask About Vegetarian Options
“Just ask” may sound obvious, but there are a few things I’ve learned over the years by doing just that. First, menus change quite a bit, so sometimes they may be able to make things you don’t see on the menu. This could be a secret menu or former menu items that they are still willing to make. After Buffalo Wild Wings got rid of a veggie burger (years ago), I was still able to order it long after because they still had them in the kitchen.
Another reason to ask if they may have a vegetarian or an allergy menu available. I’ve generally found this in more upscale restaurants, like steakhouses, or seafood or sushi restaurants. will have an allergy menu or a separate vegetarian menu. Sometimes the regular menu will indicate that these are available, but not always, so it’s worth asking.
The final reason to ask is because your server may have an idea you haven’t even thought about. Most people know at least someone that doesn’t eat meat and if you’re working in a restaurant, you’ve probably had customers who don’t. It never hurts to ask. I’ve had several servers suggest things that I greatly appreciated.
I hope these tips help you for eating out as a vegetarian, especially if you’re a new vegetarian. I know that it can be difficult at first. When you’re a brand new vegetarian, there’s a lot to navigate. These tips will help make it easier, whether you’re a new vegetarian, longtime vegan or vegetarian, trying to eat less meat, or going out to eat with a vegetarian.