I had just sat down for breakfast at a saloon outside of Joshua Tree National Park when I had that moment every vegan dreads. There wasn’t a single vegan item on the menu. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But it was one of the most memorable (and delicious) dining experiences I’ve had as a vegan because my creativity was put to the test.
When you switch to a plant-based diet, you learn pretty quickly that you need to be creative and adaptable when it comes to dining out. While things are easier for vegans now than they were a few years ago, many parts of the country are still catching up. Quick tip: The Mojave Desert is one of these places.
This is why it’s so important to keep an open mind whether you’re dining in an exotic locale or going out to eat in your hometown. With a little bit of imagination on your end and some cooperation from the restaurant, you can easily build your own delicious vegan meal that will rival the plates of your omnivorous friends. Here are a few tips for eating vegan when dining out.
- Research and plan ahead
If you’re in charge of choosing a restaurant, search the Happy Cow website for a selection of vegan-friendly eateries in your area. Of course, it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you have to go with the flow and agree to eat where the group is going. In this case, scope out the menu online before you go to see if there are any obvious vegan menu items or vegetarian dishes you can modify to be vegan.
- Call the restaurant ahead of time
If there aren’t any obvious vegan items on the menu, don’t be afraid to call the restaurant ahead of your arrival and ask if they can accommodate a vegan. This can be a little intimidating, and you may even feel like you’re being bothersome, but most restaurants appreciate a heads up whenever possible. Most of the time they’re super accommodating and the chef may even whip up a custom dish just for you.
- Get creative with sides
Whenever I start to get panicky that there are no vegan menu items, I look for the section that lists the sides you can pair with a main course. This is the strategy that saved me in Joshua Tree. I ended up with a hearty meal of wheat toast topped with tomato slices, salt and pepper, as well as an avocado and a generous portion of seasoned breakfast potatoes. Other good sides to look for include rice, steamed veggies, and beans.
- Hit the salad bar
I know. Salads aren’t my first choice when dining out, either. But eating a plate of leafy greens sure beats going hungry and watching your friends enjoy their food in front of you. Salad bars usually have a lot of vegan options, making it easy to create a filling meal. If you’re ordering a salad from the menu, request that the chef swap tofu for chicken, and hummus or guacamole for cheese. Easy.