Eating out can sometimes be challenging when you are following a whole food, plant-based diet…especially when avoiding oil and other concentrated ingredients or if you need to eat gluten-free. Yet, sometimes popping over for takeout or dine-in is extremely convenient after a long, hectic day where prepping food was simply not on the calendar. Although cooking at home is ideal – as you know every ingredient that has been used and have total control of your meals – it is not always possible to maintain 100% of the time. Further, it is such a treat to have someone else prepare your meals and (most excitingly for me) wash the dishes and clean up afterwards (my least favorite part)! The great news is that you can eat out while staying true to your eating parameters…a win-win situation! Here are my 5 tips for doing so:
- Choose the most user-friendly restaurant. Nowadays veg and veg-friendly restaurants are popping up everywhere. Just use your Happy Cow app or website to find out where those are located (anywhere around the world), ask around, or do a google search for veg-friendly local hubs. Of course, living in a major city makes this easier, as there are more options. But, if you live in a smaller town, don’t fret! There are still plenty of options and the veg dining world is exploding everywhere. Look for restaurants with a specific ethnic theme. Ethiopian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, Indian, and other cuisines from around the world are traditionally whole food, plant-based and it is easiest to find creative, delicious selections there. Even fast food restaurants like Chipotle and Sharky’s are providing and more vegan options. Just ask carefully about the oil, salt, and hidden animal sources.
- Play detective with the menu. All menus include healthy plant foods, be it their appetizers, side dishes, or even main entrees. Scan the menu carefully, seeking these choices out. Even a steak house offers baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, steamed vegetables, rice, and salads. Look around and create your own plate. Unfortunately, most restaurants still charge for substitutions and they will sometimes charge you for something more expensive (like the steak) even though you are only putting together the less expensive side dishes. But, hopefully, if enough of us complain about that and charm the waitstaff and/or managers (see #4), we can make this change. We should all request health options every time we visit a restaurant without them. Supply and demand with loud voices is an effective long-term solution to revolutionizing dining as we know it.
- Specify the prep method. Restaurants typically care mostly about taste. I worked in nice restaurants during my nutrition internship and witnessed the shocking amounts of salt, butter, and sugar that went into essentially everything! The best way to avoid these addictive, health dinging additives is to order carefully. Opt for baked, steamed, grilled (with no oil), and water sauteed, when choosing cooked foods. Try looking for fresh and raw as much as possible and ask for all sauces on the side or just kept in the kitchen. For salad dressings and sauces, ask for vinegar (balsamic, rice, red wine, apple cider, etc.), lemons or limes, salsa, and/or mustard.
- Charm the waitstaff. Nobody likes to be “the difficult customer,” and yet honoring your needs is crucial. Find the happy compromise by being extra polite when specifying your preferences. Explain exactly what you are looking for and offer suggestions on how to make those preferences work within the parameters of the menu. As a gluten-free vegan who tries to avoid oil, sugar, and salt, I have been navigating this challenge for many years, and while dining around the world when traveling, too. I have never found it impossible to find something to eat. Worst case scenario is that you may end up stuck with something tasteless and oversimplified. Not only is this better than being hungry, but it is temporary until you get to a more satisfying eating opportunity. Going out is fun and should not be stressful…enjoy the company and do the best in each situation.
- Plan in advance. Most of the time, it is possible to have a say in the restaurant choice, whereby you can research menus and find a healthy location. If not, plan ahead. Drink a green juice or smoothie, or eat a salad or something more substantial before you head out the door, so you’re not stuck starving and ready to eat dishes you wouldn’t feel comfortable about. You can also bring food with you sometimes and explain the situation to the restaurant staff (I even advocate the overused, yet effective, “I am allergic to [fill-in-the-blank]” when people are stubborn and not understanding). After all, your body is your temple and you are the one that needs to digest, absorb, and become the food choices you make. Honor thyself and keep it simple.What are your favorite strategies or tips for dining out? Please share them below…