Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to Eat Out on a Plant-Based Diet

You know what's interesting? I've noticed that many omnivores seem to think it's nearly impossible for people who follow a plant-based diet to eat at a restaurant that doesn't cater to their lifestyle. I think this notion might stem from the common idea of a plant-based diet as "restrictive" or difficult to follow. (It all comes back to the question, "What do vegans eat?") Well, fear not! I have compiled a handy little guide for you to refer to in case you're not sure how to trust a complete stranger with the preparation of your food.

Because there are so many restaurants in the world, it would be a daunting task for me to simply list veg*n-friendly menu items for every diner and cafe I come across (that's what Happy Cow is for -- it's a wonderful resource if you haven't checked it out yet). Therefore, this list primarily features suggestions for ordering at various restaurants, some easy (and easy to find) joints with veg options readily available, and popular chains you may need to stop at when you're in a pinch and need some food before you pass out. I wouldn't recommend picking up McDonald's on your way home from work every day, but every now and then, it's necessary and/or nice to splurge a bit. Some of these suggestions might be especially helpful if you're just starting a transition to a plant-based diet and aren't completely comfortable cooking whole, healthy foods at home for every meal yet. Let me know if you have any questions or additional suggestions I may have missed!

1. Don't be afraid to customize. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say "I can't order it like that, because that's not how it's listed on the menu." You're paying for it, aren't you? You can order it however way you want it! I would recommend at least being nice about it, but if you see a "Grilled Chicken Penne with Basil Pesto and Artichoke Hearts" that sounds really good to you, but you don't want the chicken or the parmesan they sprinkle on top, just say so. Most of the time, the waiter or waitress will be more than happy to help you out. And if they give you a weird look (like the time I ordered a chicken wrap with no chicken at Buffalo Wild Wings), just tell them you're allergic, which brings me to my next point...

2. Even if you don't have an allergy, fake one. I've noticed that restaurants take your special orders much more seriously if you tell them you're allergic to one of the ingredients. It's unfortunate that it takes an allergy for some people to want to please their customers (or avoid a lawsuit), but if I ask for no cheese because I'm allergic to dairy (even though I'm not), I can almost assure you it will come without cheese. If I ask for no cheese "just because," it will still have cheese on it about 50% of the time. Another way to make sure you're not ordering something with hidden eggs or dairy is to ask for an allergen menu as soon as the waiter or waitress gets to your table. That way, you have time to peruse the menu for something you can safely eat before it's time to order, and it's also a not-so-subtle way of letting your server know you're allergic, whether you actually are or not.

3. Check out online menus. Technology these days is amazing! You can ask your phone to find nearby restaurants for you, order take-out from your iPad, and even customize your meal long before you get to the restaurant. If I know ahead of time that I'm going somewhere for dinner that I've never been before or am unfamiliar with their menu, I always look it up online first. If they have a website, you can almost guarantee they'll at least have some form of the menu posted online. (If they don't, you might want to avoid eating there.) Many places will also have not only the menu they give you in person, but also nutrition and allergen info available -- bingo! I always use this method to decide what I'm going to order long before I even leave the house; that way, I don't have to waste anyone else's time trying to find something I can eat, and I know for sure that what I'm choosing is safe.

4. Mexican or Asian cuisine is usually a sure bet. Most restaurants (and when I say "most," I mean somewhere around 90%) that serve Mexican, Chinese, Thai, or Japanese food have a separate section on their menus that's labeled "Vegetarian." They make it very easy for you to narrow down your choices and pick something tasty and within your personal dietary boundaries. The tricky part about Mexican restaurants, I've come to find, is the cheese that they tend to put on just about everything. Fortunately, they usually have a taco salad or bean burrito that you can order without cheese, and then you're golden! Vegetable Lo Mein or Vegetable Fried Rice are both delicious options when you're ordering Chinese, as are Spring Rolls (not Egg Rolls) -- just make sure if you order any fried wontons that they don't have crab in them. Thai restaurants are just as good, if not better in some ways, at offering veg-friendly dishes; a basic Pad Thai is usually safe and scrumptious! Japanese food is a little trickier, since most places nowadays cater to the "Steak and Sushi" crowd. It's still pretty easy to find fish-less sushi (avocado and cucumber is my favorite combo), and they typically have more than just that to choose from.

5. If all else fails, stick with salad. Sometimes you end up going out with a group of friends who aren't interested in the new raw vegan place in town, so you suck it up and head to a local BBQ joint instead. What on Earth do you do in this situation?! Whine and complain that you're starving while everyone else is enjoying a nice, hearty meal? I should think not! First of all, if they're really your friends, they'll at least take you somewhere that serves a salad. If they take you to Punky Patrick's Pork Palace, where literally the only thing on the menu is "Pig... and lots of it," and they know you don't eat meat, then you should probably get some new friends. That's an extreme case, though. In almost any other situation, you can at least have a salad. Just make sure you ask for the dressing on the side (balsamic, red wine, and Italian vinaigrettes are usually safe, but you should always check to make sure) and find out whether it's served with cheese or not. More often than not, the salads are so big anyway that you'll be good and full by the time your friends finish their stack o' ribs! Trust me. I went to Texas Roadhouse once and ended up just ordering a side salad with no cheese, because it really was the only thing on the menu I could have. The good company made up for it.

6. Have a few places in your pocket to fall back on. I know that, wherever I go, I can eat at Panera, Subway, Jimmy John's, and Chipotle with little to no hassle, and all four of them serve much healthier options than other "fast food" chains. At Panera, the Black Bean Soup, Tomato Soup, and Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich (with no feta) are all vegan, as well as the baguettes (did you know you can ask for Whole Grain instead of French?), apples, and chips they offer as sides. At Subway, I always get the Veggie Delite with no cheese, which I just load up with veggies and a little Sweet Onion Sauce. The Sweet Onion, Vinegar, Oil, Mustard, and Buffalo sauces are vegan, as are the following bread choices: English Muffin, Hearty Italian, Hearty Oat, white Italian, Roasted Garlic, Sourdough, 9-Grain Wheat, and the Wrap. The options at Jimmy John's are a little more limited, but they do have a vegetarian sandwich, that can be made vegan by asking for no cheese and no mayo (it's the #6 on the menu). Chipotle is one of my favorite veg-friendly restaurants, because you can get anything vegefied (is that a word?) -- salad, burrito, or burrito bowl -- and all you need to avoid are the pinto beans (cooked in bacon), sour cream, and cheese! This page makes me so giddy. Why don't all restaurants do this? Basically, my point is that, once you find a few go-to spots that you know you can get something delicious and healthful, keep an eye out for them whenever you're on the go and need a quick bite to eat. It beats trying to order a burger with no meat.

7. Don't rule out pizza. It wasn't until recently that I too thought vegans couldn't order pizza from such staples as Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, Domino's, or Papa John's. You know what? I was wrong! It's actually quite easy, and relatively common, to order a veggie pizza with no cheese. They don't typically add eggs or dairy to their crusts either, making for a completely vegan pizza (always double check their nutrition information to make sure there aren't hidden ingredients). And in case you were curious, the plain breadsticks and the ever-popular Garlic "Butter" from Papa John's are also 100% vegan (although you should be forewarned that the garlic butter is really just a lot of seasoning, oil, and soy derivatives -- not the healthiest choice, but it sure is tasty). Also, if you haven't already, you should definitely check out Mellow Mushroom. They offer great vegan and gluten-free pizza options, complete with Daiya "cheese" if you so choose!

Bonus: As you may know by now, I recently started working at the ridiculously well-known coffee powerhouse called Starbucks. I was a little distraught to discover that allergen info is not publicly available for their beverages, with the exception that Starbucks does post on their menus that whey protein (which comes from cows' milk) is added to their smoothies. I have had to actually hunt down original ingredient labels to determine whether or not I can drink this or that, and it shouldn't be that way; dairy allergies are kind of a big deal. Anyway, I thought, since I am in a unique position to know, I would share with you which options are not vegan, and how to order some veg-friendly alternatives to a few favorites. (I hope this is helpful... if not, you can tell me, and I'll stop rambling.)

A couple things to keep in mind (that the baristas will probably not tell you unless you ask):
-- a Caramel Macchiato, Caramel Frappuccino, Salted Caramel Mocha, and Caramel Apple Spice come with caramel drizzle on top
-- ALL Mocha drinks (including White Mochas and Frappuccinos) automatically come with whipped cream
-- lattes do not come with whipped cream unless you ask you for it
-- the Pumpkin Spice, Caramel Apple Spice, Cinnamon Dolce Latte, and Hot Chocolate all automatically come with whipped cream
-- soy milk is the only available non-dairy option, but it IS sweetened with vanilla
-- all smoothies are made with bananas (in case you're allergic)
-- the only pastry items that are vegan are the plain and multigrain bagels (with no cream cheese or butter)
-- everything can be made with soy, including the smoothies (just ask for no protein powder)
-- the Coffee Frappuccino does not come with whipped cream, but every other Frapp does.

These ingredients are NOT vegan:
-- caramel drizzle sauce
-- pumpkin spice syrup
-- white mocha syrup
-- Chai tea concentrate (doesn't contain dairy, but is made with honey)
-- whey protein powder

Here is how to order vegan versions of some popular drinks:

  • Instead of a Caramel Macchiato, order a soy Caramel Latte with the espresso shots affogato (on top).
  • Instead of a Pumpkin Spice Latte, buy the Pumpkin Spice Via packet that you make at home. Unfortunately, there is no dairy-free alternative to the coveted PSL, but the Via version is vegan. Plus, if you make it at home, you can use almond, coconut, or rice milk instead of soy!
  • Instead of a White Chocolate Mocha, order a soy, no whip Mocha with 2 scoops of vanilla bean powder. 
  • Instead of a Chai Tea Latte, order a soy Chai Latte with tea bags instead of the concentrate.
  • Instead of a Salted Caramel Mocha, order a soy toffee nut, no whip Mocha. If it's Fall or Winter, chances are they have the salt topping you can ask for, as well.
  • Instead of a Cinnamon Dolce Latte, order a soy, no whip Cinnamon Dolce.
  • Instead of a Caramel Apple Spice, order a steamed Apple Juice with half cinnamon, half caramel syrup.
  • Instead of a Chocolate Smoothie, order a soy, no protein powder Chocolate Smoothie with half the amount of Mocha syrup and a packet of nuts.

Whew! That was a doozy. I hope this post has helped shed some light on the possibilities of eating (and drinking) out when you follow a plant-based diet. If you have any questions, or if there's a specific drink at Sbux you'd like me to veganize for you, just leave a comment. I'd be more than happy to offer any help I can give. Happy Eats!

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