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5 Tips for Eating Out as a Vegan

06/11/2015 12:30 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
Shutterstock / Sergey Yechikov

It's a familiar experience for most vegans. You open the menu at a restaurant selected by your dining partner, hoping there will be something you can eat. Edible would suffice; filling and tasty are probably out of reach. Just please, not another salad....

Yup, another salad. At least this one has dressing and some nuts.

Eating out has been the bane of many a vegetarian or vegan existence. It's not just restaurants; finding a healthy bite to eat while running errands, at work, or at social events can be equally daunting.

In 2015 things have never been better for those who follow a plant-based diet. Overall vegan literacy amongst restaurants -- and the general public -- has improved dramatically over the past five years. In urban areas at least, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place without at least a vegetarian option.

I've been vegan for more than a decade and have picked up some tips and tricks over the years, such as that you can save all kinds of grief by looking at the menu in advance, calling ahead, or offering to bring something shareable to a dinner party.

Don't settle

People are increasingly tolerant of accommodating allergies and dietary restrictions, some more frivolous than not eating animals. Even if you're dining in someone's home, don't be afraid to (politely) assert your needs; it's less awkward for your host to know ahead of time and have a chance to accommodate, than to find out as dinner is being served.

When eating out, be proactive in suggesting vegan or vegan-friendly dining options. Most people don't mind trying something new. Challenge your friends and family to eat outside their comfort zone, and don't be afraid to suggest a place to go that you know is good, or just a popular restaurant that you know has a dish you can eat.

Don't be afraid to ask

Even when things seem bleak, many restaurants are able -- and willing -- to create a vegan option that's off-menu; you just need to ask.

Other restaurants may not be so vegan savvy, but could end up surprising you. They may simply need help. Don't expect every server to know what vegan is, let alone how to apply the definition to the menu. Be patient, and prepared do some explaining and suggesting. Calling ahead can also give you a big leg up on ensuring your needs are met, and avoiding having these conversations in front of friends or colleagues.

Ethnic restaurants are your friend

More than half of my list of favourite vegan-friendly restaurants specialize in international cuisine, and I am hard-pressed to name many "Canadian" food restaurants -- chains in particular -- that can feed a plant-eater adequately.

Indian restaurants and Ethiopian restaurants are almost guaranteed to leave you with a satisfied belly. Asian restaurants can be hit and miss (always ask about fish sauce and meat stock!), but many have a "vegetarian" menu that's at least a starting point. Italian restaurants usually have something, as do Lebanese and Greek eateries.

Do carry food with you

Sometimes when you're on the go there isn't time for a sit down meal, but you still need something to curb your hunger. Avoid being tempted by junk at the check out aisle by always carrying a simple snack with you. There are several kinds of plant-based energy bars that make perfect "purse food," or you can carry snack bags of nuts or dried fruits. (These items are also great for your workplace snack drawer!) Fruit like oranges and granadillas are perfect for taking on the go.

Back to Basics

Even if you leave home empty-handed, it's not complicated to piece together nourishment on the fly...even gas stations sell packets of nuts or sunflower seeds. Most grocery stores now offer to-go meals that are suitable for vegans, and all of them sell fresh produce. It's about managing our expectations, and remembering it's just short term. Will we have 25 different kind of chocolate bars from which to choose? No. But do we need to have that much choice?

Psychologists David Meyers and Robert Lane have independently concluded that Western society's current abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness. Lane asserts that the price of increased affluence and freedom is a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community.

Perhaps rather than seeing veganism as limiting, we can instead embrace having fewer options because they make us more appreciative of what we do have.

Quick Vegan Travel Tips

1. Behold the Internet's bounty. Sites like Happycow.net and yelp.com are very helpful for locating vegan-friendly eateries anywhere.

2. Helpful health food stores. Even in locales where no veg restaurants exist, natural food stores tend to be veg-friendly and have mini-buffets or a prepared foods section that can feed you in a pinch.

3. Versatile appliances. If you have the space, carry something like a magic bullet with you to open up the world of smoothies, dips, dressings and puddings. A kettle can also accomplish amazing mobile culinary feats.

4. Single serve saviours. Traveling with small cartons of soymilk, a bit of Earth Balance, and single serve peanut butters ensures you will never go hungry at breakfast.

This article first appeared in Healthwise Ottawa, and has been adapted for the Huffington Post.

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