Eating Plant Based at Restaurants

How to emphasize plants in an animal-centered industry.

8/21/20234 min read

While there are fully vegetarian and vegan restaurants out there, odds are you’ll find yourself at “typical” restaurants from time to time. You may find yourself wondering how to eat plant-based at a restaurant. Some are going to present more challenges while others may be as simple as choosing the veg option (or one of a few good options!).

Whatever kind of restaurant you find yourself at (yes, even a Texas Roadhouse), there will likely be something you can work out to order. Rather than feeling a need to set your values aside, follow these tips to figure out a dish you can order and enjoy while staying consistent with your values.

1. Skim the menu for veg-forward options

Start by seeing what you have to work with. Are there any plant-based options already on the menu? At a local fried chicken joint, I found a lovely dinner salad packed with kale, quinoa, avocado, fresh cherry tomatoes, beets, and more. Start by trying to find out what dishes the restaurant already offers and ask to adapt as needed (e.g., if there is meat, cheese, or eggs you wish to be left off).

2. Find restaurant ingredients you can pair together, creating your own dish

If there are no veg-forward options already on the menu, ask the waitstaff if you can combine some ingredients into a plate or bowl off-menu. The key here is to ask politely and already have an idea in mind. (Also, simply let them know that they can charge you whatever they feel is fair.)

For example, I found myself at a barbecue spot a year or two back, and without any plant-based options to opt for, I took it upon myself to create a killer salad. I asked for a salad with several ingredients across the menu that caught my eye: red bell pepper, avocado, pickled onions, and their house-made kimchi. Unfortunately, I had no whole grain or legume to add to the mix, but I didn’t sweat it. This ended up being delicious and kept me feeling light and energized.

I want to encourage you: Don’t be shy. Your choices matter. If there is no plant-based option on the menu yet, you’re voting with your preferences! Maybe they’ll see multiple people making similar requests and eventually makes some changes to their menu.

3. When all else fails, just ask

If you have trouble figuring out an idea based on what is on the menu, don’t hesitate to speak to waitstaff about options. Odds are you won’t be the first they have encountered asking a similar question. You might start by stating what your dietary preferences are, or you might start with a particular question about something on the menu and build from there.

Try framing questions like, “I was wondering if it would be possible to ...” and explain your preferences to avoid particular ingredients. Depending on the context, you might describe yourself as vegan or vegetarian, or you might be more specific about the ingredients you’re trying to avoid. For example, “I was interested in putting together a few of your sides, like the baked sweet potato, the broccoli, and the black eyed peas. Would it be possible to get those without any butter? I’d like to avoid animal products.”

4. Don’t forget to say “thank you”

No one likes to be an inconvenience. I get it. Many of us would rather stomach the discomfort of eating something we’d rather not eat than face the opposite discomfort of seeking a way to order something we’d be more comfortable eating (and which will be better for us in both the short term and the long run). Keep in mind that being humble, patient, and kind goes a long way. It’s ok to realize that you may be creating a bit of an inconvenience by ordering off-menu or sending questions back to the kitchen, but treating the staff well in the course of the exchange can make a world of difference.

Also, avoid apologizing. Instead, simply emphasize smiling and expressing gratitude. Show you are grateful that they are willing to work with you, tell them how delicious the plant-based meal was, and thank them for their flexibility. (Finally, don’t forget to tip well!)

As a bonus tip, if you know in advance that you’ll be going to a restaurant that won’t have any plant-based options, try giving the menu a look before you arrive so you can have a game plan. It’s ok to snack a bit before you go so that you don’t end up either (1) hungry or (2) caving to eating what you don’t really want to be eating. Preparation is key to sticking to your values with confidence. Whether that is choosing in advance what you’ll order, queueing up a few questions in your mind, or planning to eat a bit before you go, having an idea of how you’ll face the situation can be a tremendous help.

Lastly, remember that gathering with others over food is about so much more than the food. These tips are to help you make good choices at restaurants with less stress so that you can be present with others. At the end of the day, don’t let food be the sole focus. Enjoy fellowship with those you love.

Photo courtesy of Alex Haney on Unsplash.

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