You don't have to be a full-blown vegan to learn a thing or two about choosing plant-based meals when you're dining out. Whether you're exploring the diet, have been a vegan for years, or just want to give burgers and Brie a break, you can still enjoy a meal out with friends without feeling deprived. If you're one of the many people who think a vegan diet is too restrictive and only consists of beans and rice at home, it’s just not true.
Thankfully, as plant-based diets have become more and more popular, most restaurants have grown accustomed to accommodating vegans. Many chefs have developed special dishes or substitutions just for vegan eaters, and a lot of venues offer a full vegan menu.
Take time to go out with your friends and follow these easy tips on dining out while following a vegan diet (and when you're at home, you can find tons of healthy recipes in my 7-Day Vegan Detox book that prove a vegan diet can really be abundant, delicious, and fun).
1. Look at the menu ahead of time.
Scope out the restaurant menu ahead of time by checking out the website and seeing what they have to offer. TBH, this is something that's helpful even if you aren't following a specific diet plan.
By checking out your options ahead of time, you can decide which items you're definitely staying away from and then set your sights on two or three options to choose from once you get there; if there are any adjustments that need to be made (avocado instead of goat cheese), have that ready too. When you've studied up on the menu, you can happily sit down at the table knowing you won't have to order something non-vegan or totally boring while under pressure.
2. There's an app for that.
Apps make vegan dining easier. There are a few great ones out there that can help you track down the best vegan restaurants. My personal favorite is Happy Cow—it's like Yelp for vegans, so you can find vegan-friendly restaurants in just about every city. It's great for discovering new plant-based haunts if you're traveling and in the mood for a bite.
3. Go veg... then go from there.
This can be super easy to do as long as the kitchen is amenable. Sometimes all you have to ask for is olive oil instead of butter, or to hold the poached egg on avocado toast. A little pro tip: Sometimes when you remove an ingredient from a certain dish, it needs a little more flavor. Scan the menu and see if there's anything else that you like and could add to the dish. For example, if you're scrapping the sour cream, ask for guacamole. Or if you're removing cheese, ask for chopped nuts to keep the texture and flavor.
4. Dress (your salad) for success.
You can always swap out dressings on any salad for the good ol' vegan standard: oil and vinegar. In my opinion, this is a little boring, so I'll usually ask the kitchen to whip up lemon-tahini dressing or avocado-lime dressing. They're both simple enough for the chef to make easily, and they're deliciously creamy (without any cream!).
5. Make tofu your brunch buddy.
If you're out for brunch, ask the waiter if the chef offers tofu. Most places can make a tofu scramble instead of scrambled eggs, and it looks and tastes just like egg whites so you'll forget you're eating vegan at the moment.
6. Don't be afraid of DIY dining.
Chefs don’t always like this and may not always let you do it, but if you see an ingredient on the menu, it means they have it in the kitchen. From there you can mix and match to make your own healthy vegan dish. If they have eggplant Parmesan, they have eggplant, which can be a hearty addition to add more sustenance to your meal.
7. Make side dishes your main course.
Instead of ordering an entrée, consider requesting two or three sides to be served on one plate as your main meal (think a side of sweet potato wedges with Brussels sprouts and kale salad). Your “entrée” will still be filling as well as full of fiber and nutrients, and bonus: Your friends won’t even notice you went off of the menu since it will appear like a typical entrée portion.
8. Make dessert a fruitful part of your night.
Most desserts are full of dairy products (and so much added sugar). Check out the menu for fruit plates since you can guarantee that will match your diet guidelines. But if that's way too boring, look for sorbets because they are typically vegan-friendly too.
9. Spoil your dinner.
On nights when I know I’m going out to dinner, I usually fill up on a high-fiber snack in the afternoon so that I won’t overeat at dinner. Some of my favorite snacks to munch on are vegetable crudites with hummus or a green apple with a spoonful of tahini. This way, dinner can be more about catching up with friends than wistfully watching them eat things you can't. As long as you've got a plan, there's really no need to stay home just because you’re not eating what your friends are.
Neda Varbanova, founder of Healthy With Nedi, is a certified health coach and recipe creator who believes that healthy eating, fitness, and a positive outlook are the keys to realizing true health. Neda’s food philosophy is inspired by her mother who has always prepared fresh daily meals with nothing short of simple, wholesome ingredients.
When Neda arrived in New York during high school, she discovered that the American diet was lacking fresh foods and has been dedicated to inspiring others to incorporate healthy foods into their lives ever since. Neda is a certified health coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, has a certificate in Culinary Nutrition from the NaturalGourmet Institute, and is enrolled in the Master’s Program in Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt.