Tips for Vegetarians: Eating Away from Home
Ideas for Vegetarians Eating Out
Just because you are a vegetarian, there is no reason you should have to stay home and hide. There are plenty of options for you, whether you are eating at a restaurant, a potluck, or in nearly any other setting.
The vegetarian population is on the rise. As a result, people are seemingly more understanding of vegetarians. In addition, restaurants have become more accommodating to vegetarians.
This article is intended to give you an idea of what to be aware of when you eat away from home (such as foods that are surprisingly not vegetarian). Read on if you are uncertain how you will be able to maintain your vegetarian lifestyle when you are away from home, or you do not generally feel comfortable with the thought of eating away from home.
Restaurants - General Thoughts
My first piece of advice for eating at restaurants is to ask your server what vegetarian options are available. If vegetarian items are not marked on the menu, servers will generally indicate that there are meals that can be modified and made vegetarian. Pasta dishes can often be made without meat, for instance.
More and more restaurants are now including vegetarian sections on their menus, or indicating on their menus which dishes are vegetarian with a symbol. Even then, if you see a dish that is not marked as vegetarian, there is a chance they can modify it for you.
When possible, if it is the first time I have eaten at a restaurant, I check the menu on the restaurant's website prior to visiting to ensure it will not be too difficult to find something to order. Some restaurants include a section on their website (sometimes hidden in FAQs) that indicates which vegetarian dishes they serve or which dishes they can transform to be vegetarian friendly.
Vegetarian Friendly Restaurants
There are a number of restaurants that offer several great choices for vegetarians. You will discover some on your own, but it may be helpful to have some ideas to start with. Therefore, without further ado, here is a list of restaurants that I have found are excellent to eat at as a vegetarian:
- Pei Wei (many Asian restaurants serve several vegetarian dishes, but see note below about fish sauce. Pei Wei indicates which dishes are vegetarian on their menu)
- Red Robin - you can order any burger with a garden or Boca patty instead of beef
- My Big Fat Greek Restaurant
- Kona Grill
- Papa John's (sauce, dough, and cheese used on pizza are vegetarian friendly; their parmesan cheese and cheese dipping sauce are not vegetarian friendly)
- Cheesecake Factory (be careful though, some of their desserts contain beef gelatin)
- P.F. Chang's
- Subway (most sub and sandwich shops should be a safe bet - it is easy to omit the meat)
- Sweet Tomatoes
- The Olive Garden (most Italian restaurants are likely safe bets)
- Texas Roadhouse (this is a good option if your family and friends want ribs. They have a Country Veg Plate, which consists of four sides. Options include sauteed mushrooms, fresh vegetables, mashed/baked/sweet potato, and house salad - to name a few. Do not forget to omit the marshmallow topping on the sweet potato if you are avoiding gelatin)
- Pita Jungle (Arizona and California only, unfortunately)
Final Thoughts on Restaurants
If you are going out for Mexican and do not see any options, you can probably order fajitas with extra veggies and no meat. Questions you may want to ask your server are whether the tortillas contain lard, whether the cheese contains animal rennet, and whether the sour cream contains gelatin.
If you are going out for sushi - there are likely veggie rolls on the menu. If not, ask - they will probably make some for you on request.
If you are in the mood for French fries, be careful. Some restaurants season them with meat flavors. McDonald's and Burger King are flavored with beef and chicken, respectively. Wendy's fries are vegetarian.
Some items may seem like they are vegetarian because of the lack of meat, when in fact they are cooked with a beef or chicken broth or other animal by-product. Examples include pasta and soups (such as French onion soup). It is always best to ask your server if a dish is vegetarian - even if it is meat-free.
Asian dishes may contain fish sauce. After asking if a dish is vegetarian, ask a follow up question (does it contain fish sauce). They may consider it vegetarian even if it contains fish sauce so the extra question is warranted. Fish sauce is most likely to be used in Thai and Vietnamese food, though may be in any Asian dish.
What can I say about potlucks? My personal style is to bring enough to make me happy and only eat other dishes if I can safely assume they are vegetarian friendly (such as fresh veggies). People are blown away by my generosity for being so thoughtful and bringing more than one dish. A selfish act that makes others happy... sure, why not? Win win.
The alternative would be approaching a dish, yelling out "hey, everyone, who made the mashed potatoes? Oh, Carol did. Hey Carol, is there any animal-based broth or other animal by-products in your potatoes? Does the sour cream you brought contain gelatin? Thanks." Then moving along to the next dish, yelling out "who brought the... uh whatever this dish is?" Not only would you hold up the line, while giving complementary headaches to all others, but that is a lot of trouble to go through for a plate of food.
If you have been invited to a dinner party you are probably wondering how to approach the situation with tact.
I recommend you first inform the host of your dietary restrictions and ask if there will be anything available that would be suitable for you. I do not advise that you request your host to accommodate you. However, it is a good idea to have in mind a couple of suggestions for relatively quick and easy dishes before you have the conversation, in case the host indicates he or she would like to accommodate you. Most non-vegetarians are unsure what vegetarians do and do not eat and will need suggestions.
If there will not be any suitable dishes and the host does not make an offer to accommodate you, ask if it would be okay if you brought a dish. He or she will likely agree. A vegetarian lasagna or similar all-in-one type of dish would be a good choice. Unlike a potluck, you probably do not want to show up to someone's dinner party with several dishes.
If the host does not want you to bring a dish and you really have your heart set on attending, you still have an option. Eat a meal prior to the party. If salad, bread, veggies, etc. are available at the party, nibble on those so you feel more comfortable when others eat. If anyone asks, let them know you had a big meal earlier.
Barbecues and Picnics
Depending on the style of barbecue or picnic, you may be safest combining suggestions for potlucks with suggestions for dinner parties. If the barbecue host is laid back, it is likely you could bring a box of Boca patties or garden burgers and a couple other items without offending anyone. It never hurts to talk to the host to let them know your plans.
The Impossible Situation
What do you do if you are on a road trip and the car gets stuck in a ditch in the middle of no where for four days and all the driver brought to eat was bacon covered beef jerky? Or suppose you are out with friends and they all vote it's a good night for steak and you walk through the parlor-style doors of the local steakhouse to discover the sign, "vegetarians are not welcome in these parts."
Though I have never been in such a situation, I have been to a steakhouse that did not have a single suitable entree, nor the ability to create one. I simply ordered appetizers. It was not ideal but by no means was it the end of the world and I did not walk away hungry.
You will likely (hopefully) find that many of your friends and family members will be thoughtful when making group decisions. Most restaurants either have vegetarian options or will gladly modify dishes to be vegetarian. It would be difficult to choose a restaurant that has absolutely nothing to offer you.
Nonetheless, if you do find yourself in a situation such as this, perhaps you can enjoy the company a little longer and stop somewhere else for a bite after everyone finishes their food. If you pick a place with excellent desserts, it may make the second stop more appealing to others.
There are ways to work around meaty situations!