11 Tips For Ordering A Vegan Meal When Dining Out

If you're vegan, then you've most likely gone out to eat with friends and been disappointed by the lack of plant-based options on the menu from time to time. Although vegan foods are much more accessible than they were even a decade ago, you've probably had your fair share of salad and french fry dinners to your chagrin. But until all of the restaurants hop on the vegan train, you may have to get a little creative when it comes to navigating menus. Most restaurants will have options that you can either modify or piece together to make a proper meal, sans meat, eggs, or dairy. It's important to stash away helpful tips for being vegan and tips for ordering a vegan meal when dining out and use them at your disposal because not every restaurant is on board with the vegan lifestyle as you are.

Keep in mind that unless specified, most kitchens cannot promise that your food won't come in contact with any meat or dairy. This means that typically, they won't specify that food is vegan, because it may be shared with a grill, deep fryer, or surface with animal protein. If this is a concern for you, it may be wise to focus your attention on vegan restaurants, and improving your own cooking skills at home. Otherwise, loosen that belt buckle and get ready to do some serious menu navigation when it comes to dining at your average restaurant.

Check out the menu online beforehand

It's nearly impossible to find a restaurant that won't cater to a vegan diet these days. There are even some notable plant-based options at popular fast-food chains. Every now and again, you may find yourself invited to a meal at an all-American eatery or barbecue joint that just doesn't have any promising veggie options. If you have an inkling that this may be the case, consider looking up the menu online beforehand. This is good practice in any dining situation because, in the worst-case scenario, when all you can order is a side salad or corn on the cob, you could at least prepare by eating a meal beforehand so you don't find yourself on the brink of hanger.

If you check out the menu beforehand and the place doesn't have any vegetarian or vegan options, and the side dishes consist of nothing but mac and cheese and chicken tenders, it may be time to pick up the phone and give the spot a quick call. Chances are, this isn't the first inquiry the restaurant's gotten about plant-based options, and it's likely that because the staff knows you're coming, the chefs can throw together something you can eat. If there is no wiggle room, you could suggest a different restaurant to your group, or at least you'll know what you're walking into and can stash away a few granola bars to nibble on.

Be polite to your server

This should be a no-brainer. No matter the circumstances, it's common courtesy and practice of human decency to treat your server with respect. Practice patience, make direct eye contact, and remember that they are not responsible for everything that goes wrong with your order. You'll want to be extra polite now that you're about to potentially modify menu options and ask a truckload of questions. This individual is your lifeline, so approach your inquiries with understanding and without expectation, and tip generously. You may be in luck and can simply order a plant-based option, or make a modification as simple as leaving the grated parmesan off of your pasta marinara. But if the menu is far from plant-friendly, you may have to do some problem-solving together. Changes are, you are not their first vegan customer, and they know what options they can offer you.

Before you jump into the question extravaganza, keep a few things in mind. The cooks in this restaurant are not your own personal chefs, so don't request specific dishes that aren't listed on the menu. Instead, let your server help you navigate the menu, and if they can't help you, they will speak with the chef and let you know what they can offer. You are on their turf, and they only have so many ingredients stored back in their kitchen.

Navigate the menu like a pro

If you are looking for a veggie option and coming up dry, the best thing to do is target several vegetable-heavy dishes and make a few modifications. It's always acceptable to ask for an ingredient to be removed from a dish, but if it is part of a pre-made sauce, you may be out of luck. For instance, ask for a marinara pasta dish without meatballs, or a pizza without cheese.

If you're hoping to swap a meat or dairy product for something more vegan-friendly, consider scanning the menu first just to be sure they have the ingredients in stock. If you're going to ask for that salad topped with grilled chicken to be topped with avocado instead, scan the menu to see if avocados show up in another dish. If you're going to ask for your taco to be made with black beans instead of beef, be sure there is a dish that includes black beans on the menu. If you're at a gourmet restaurant, your chef might rather just make you a vegan dish from scratch instead of putting together parts of other menu items. Don't expect that the kitchen will be able to accommodate your every request, but it's likely that if you let your server know you're looking for plant-based options, they will work with you on finding substitutions.

Beef up that salad

"Beefing" up a vegan salad may seem like an oxymoron, but the point we are trying to make is that lettuce isn't a meal, and you shouldn't have to settle for starvation just because you're vegan. If you've found yourself in a corner with no other options than to order a salad, then make the best of it. Salads can certainly be considered meals if they are loaded up with enough ingredients. Start by selecting a salad with a majority of plant-based toppings, and request any cheese, eggs, or meat be excluded. Next, look for any hearty vegan side dishes, or elements to any other meal that you might be able to top your salad with.

An easy go-to for the salad-topping department would be to add avocado or hummus, if available. If not, check out those side dishes and add a pile of seasonal vegetables or roasted potatoes. If you're in luck, the kitchen might even have a portobello mushroom or veggie burger they can throw on the grill that could make your salad go from bland to satisfying. Consider asking for a side of quinoa, rice, or farro alongside your salad. Simply mix it into your leafy greens and raw veggies for the ultimate grain bowl. Top with a vegan dressing and enjoy.

Potatoes are your best friend

If there is one thing we can count on, it's that most restaurants carry some type of potato dish. Whether that be roasted fingerlings, french fries, baked potatoes, or potato wedges, who doesn't love a cooked spud? If you're finding yourself with limited options, consider ordering that chicken breast entrée accompanied by vegetable side dishes, and asking for your chicken to be swapped with a baked potato or potato side instead.

Consider ordering a potato side to go with any vegan dish to add a little more substance. In fact, a baked potato can go a long way when you're trying to throw together a meal from a meat-centric menu. Almost any vegetable side dish can be stuffed into a potato or served over potatoes to make a meal complete. What would we do without potatoes? Check with your server that the potato dish you are interested in is made with oil instead of butter or animal fat. Keep in mind that mashed potatoes are typically made with cream and butter.

Replace a beef patty with veggies

Pubs and burger joints can be some of the most difficult places to get a vegan meal. Depending on where you are, many restaurants will at least offer a plant-protein burger, but when they don't, you just may be left with those trusty old french fries and a side salad. If you notice that the burger joint has a burger topped with mushrooms on the menu, or a Southwestern burger with peppers, onions, and guacamole, you might just be in luck.

Ask if you can build your own burger. Most burger places allow this and are used to modifications by picky eaters. Simply ask for all of the vegan toppings (or at least your favorite toppings) including lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, caramelized onions, peppers, guacamole, and mushrooms. If the mushroom topping is premade, it might be cooked with beef broth, so be sure to clarify with your server that you don't eat meat. Remember to ask them to omit the patty from the burger, and simply call it a vegan sandwich. Although they may be surprised by your request, the restaurant will likely accept your request with open arms, because it saves them money by not having to provide a beef patty. Don't forget about sauces and toppings. If you're sticking to mostly raw veggies, then salad dressing pairs surprisingly well. Mustard is always a good option, but feel free to inquire about the other plant-based dressings and spreads the place might have.

Ask for hummus or avocado instead of cheese on your sandwich or salad

While your local deli or bakery may offer a vegetable sandwich, it's likely loaded to the brim with cheese or a mayonnaise sauce. This is a step in the right direction, but, of course, you'll want to modify it so it doesn't contain dairy or eggs. But who wants to eat a wrap or sandwich with just plain, raw veggies? Seasoning and sauce can make any sandwich go from bland to memorable, so it's important that you inquire about a few of the ingredient substitutions that every vegan should know.

Start by asking if there is any avocado or hummus on hand. If not, inquire about plant-based spreads or dressings. It's very likely that any restaurant or deli will have at least oil and vinegar splashing around somewhere. Keep in mind that even though you are replacing cheese with a plant-based alternative, you may still be up-charged for the addition. This has been a struggle for vegans for a long time. While vegetarian options are usually the least expensive thing on the menu, substitutions are where they get you.

If the spot doesn't have any sauces or spreads on hand that you can use, ask about adding cooked vegetables. These are often flavored and carry a certain moisture content that can add to the overall mouthfeel. It's also never a bad idea to carry around little packets of dressing or hot sauce with you for emergencies.

Use balsamic and vinegar instead of creamy dressings

While Greek, house, or Italian dressing may seem compliant with a vegan diet, there's a chance that those dressings contain eggs. In addition, many fancier restaurants use honey to sweeten the salad dressings and sauces, although it will likely be indicated on the menu, as it's quite a selling point for those who eat it.

If you're going to check with your server about the ingredients of a dressing, let them know that you're seeking a plant-based option that doesn't contain meat, dairy, or eggs. That way when they check in the back, they can present you will alternatives, or a list of compliant options. There is nothing worse for a waiter than having to run back and forth to check on several separate items, so try to give them as much information upfront as possible and ask your questions all at once. When in doubt, ask for balsamic vinegar and oil to top your salad or dip your sandwich in. In a perfect world, you would have plenty of options to choose from, but you can always make your own fancy dressing when you get home. And who doesn't love the classic combination of olive oil and tangy sweet vinegar?

At Japanese restaurants, order vegetarian sushi

Several international cuisines make vegan dining a breeze. Most Asian countries don't use dairy in their recipes and put quite an emphasis on vegetables and beans like soy. However, there are plenty of Asian foods that seem vegan but aren't – because of fish. Fish sauce, as well as dashi, are used in many seemingly plant-based dishes like curries, sauces, and even miso soup. If you aren't sure what dashi is or how it's used, it's essentially dehydrated fish flakes that hold an intense umami flavor. Even dishes listed in the vegetarian section may include fish products, so be sure to ask your server and specify your dietary preferences before ordering.

At a Japanese restaurant or restaurant with a sushi bar, a safe bet is to order vegetable sushi. Look out for rolls that contain cream cheese, or are drizzled in spicy mayo. Dip your sushi in soy sauce and wasabi, and enjoy your pickled ginger without concern. If sushi really isn't your thing, you can always order rice with steamed vegetables, and drizzle it with soy sauce if there is really nothing else on the menu you can eat.

At Mexican restaurants, replace meat with beans

Mexican food is one of those cuisines that is notably vegan-friendly. With rice and beans at the forefront, almost any dish can be modified for your average vegan. Typically, Mexican restaurants will have an entire section dedicated to vegetarian cuisine. If your menu has one, this is a great place to start. Likely, the main issue you'll run into is dairy. It's unlikely that your food will contain eggs, but it's always a good idea to let your server know about your dietary preferences in whole. Simply swap sour cream and cheese for extra guacamole. Although you may have to pay for it, it will be well worth it when it comes to flavor.

Keep in mind that refried beans are typically made with lard, which is not vegetarian. Check with your server, and if this is the case, stick to black beans. Many Mexican-American chains like Margarita's, Chipotle, and Qdoba keep their beans meat-free, but a more authentic restaurant may use animal fat in its refried beans recipe. In the same vein, it's important to always let your server know about your diet because it's possible that the rice has been cooked in chicken broth. Look for an asterisk next to vegetarian menu items, and always inquire if you're uncertain about the ingredients of a dish.

Throw together side dishes

This final tip for ordering a vegan meal when dining out is perhaps the most common trick when it comes to dining at a meat-centric establishment: Fixate on those side dishes. Some restaurants are ahead of the game and even offer a meal made up of three or four side dishes of choice. And even if they don't, you can order some on your own. Even if there isn't a section for side dishes on the menu, you can ask your server if you can piece together sides from the entrée options. This can be a great way to have control over what's on your plate and ensure that you'll get just what you want. Try to select a variety of vegetables, including some starches, some leafy greens, and some seasonal vegetables. And, hey, an appetizer or dessert to round out a meal never hurt anyone.

If you're forced into getting a salad as an entrée, be sure to pair it with a side dish, as well. There's no need for you to leave the restaurant hungry, and even a small side of potatoes can help to fill that void. And if you're still hungry when all is said and done, go ahead and order another side dish. Side dishes are typically pre-made, so your server will likely be able to bring you another serving out fairly quickly.