Eatingout can be intimidating for new vegans. Heck, it can be intimidating to longtime vegans depending on the situation. Even though things have gotten much more vegan-friendly in many communities, we are still very much in the minority, which we can forget thanks to the bubbles of social media. Some challenges might be living somewhere or visiting places with very few options for vegans, or eating with people who don’t respect or want to accommodate your dietary needs. In addition to the recommendations here, please check out the much longer and more comprehensive piece I wrote on this topic for Vegan Street. You will find so many great tips there from seasoned vegans around the globe.
As many parts of the world are moving more in the direction of plant-based options being available and even abundant in some areas, things are getting a little - or, depending on your circumstances - a lot less challenging. In addition, we also have different apps that can be a lot of help, taking the guesswork out of finding vegan food. As discussed in Chapter 8, some helpful vegan dining apps to consider for your smartphone are HappyCow, Vanilla Bean, VeganXPress and Vegan Surprise (links to all), each unique and offering an invaluable amount of information. (Remember that the information on these apps is only as good as the users, so updating them with your discoveries, tips and reviews is going to result in a better experience for everyone using the app.)
When dining out as a new vegan, remember that a little preparation is always helpful. Most restaurants now have their menus online so you can check it out before you ever go into a restaurant because if you show up and they can’t accommodate you, there’s not much you can do. If you have some familiarity with the menu, you’ll be better prepared. You can also call ahead or email and ask some questions, which could reduce the stress of ordering.
Second, as more vegan food brands are scaling up through investments and professionalizing, it’s easier to find them in mainstream restaurants because many now have more widespread foodservice distribution. Asking for animal-free items by name like vegan proteins (for example, Gardein and Beyond Meat), cheeses (like Kite Hill and Follow Your Heart), and eggs (like JUST Egg) helps restaurants understand how they can better serve the burgeoning market of people who are eating more plant-based. Many places don’t know and might genuinely appreciate the help. Think of it as vegan advocacy.
An invaluable skill for dining out as a vegan is learning how to skim a non-vegan menu and figure out easy hacks for creating a good suitable menu item if none exist. This is where having a basic familiarity with cooking, as described in Chapter 7, can come in handy but even non-cooks can develop this talent. Developing some know-how for this means that you’ll be able to look at a menu and see, for example, that maybe the chicken tacos can have the black beans from another dish added to it to replace the meat, or that sautéed veggies can be added to a pasta dish you order without cheese. If a server isn’t as immediately understanding as you’d like, be patient: sometimes they are not trying to thwart your ordering attempts but are genuinely confused because they haven’t experienced this before, maybe they don’t know how to ring up your order or charge you. Explaining that you’d like to order a dish without paying for what you’re not eating is a simple and non-confrontational way to get your point across. Remember, especially when you are eating out with others, it’s an opportunity to model that being vegan isn’t a hassle. I’ve had the experience where the simple menu hacks I’ve asked for tempt people to change their own orders. Please consider keeping it pretty simple to be a positive experience for the server and restaurant. Major suggestions - like adding vegan proteins to a menu or offering vegan as-is menu items – might work best over email.
Last, one of the biggest challenges vegans face when dining out is finding your assertiveness with dining companions. If you are dining out with a group and a steakhouse is suggested as a possible meeting place and you are not comfortable there or wouldn’t feel accommodated with just a baked potato, this is your opportunity to make other suggestions, ones that work for everyone. When dining out, if someone at your table decides that seeing your food makes him feel guilty (“I tried to be a vegan but…”) or reactive in some other way (“Ew! How can people stand tofu?”) how you respond is up to you. Letting any anti-vegans talk without reacting could result in awkwardness: not yours, theirs. Remember always that you have nothing to defend.