First, when eating out with a group, you should try to actively participate in choosing the restaurant. With time, you’ll get to know places near you that either have suitable items on their regular menu, or that are happy to accommodate your requests. When traveling, due diligence is key: Before you go, research some good possibilities at your destination. Don’t be afraid to call a restaurant in advance and tell them what you’re looking for. How welcoming they are to your inquiries by phone can convey all you need to know about how successful and satisfying a meal there would be. Once you know what the good options for restaurants are, you can suggest two or three of them and let your fellow diners pick, confident that wherever you end up there’s little risk you’ll be hungry when you leave. If you feel like you might not have enough options when you get wherever you’re going, you can always eat some healthy food at home before you go. This way you won’t be so hungry when you arrive, and you won’t be completely dependent on the kitchen to serve you enough.
Of course, it’s not always possible to plan ahead of a potential meal out, so there are some practical things you can do when you find yourself in a restaurant that may not obviously cater to your preferred food choices. First and foremost, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification of ingredients on the menu. Engage the waitstaff, explain your dietary needs, and help them figure out away to serve you. (Even make fun of yourself for doing so, just to lighten the mood!) You may suggest, for example, that a dish that’s ordinarily pan-fried can instead be steamed or cooked in a bit of vegetable broth or water. Baked potatoes can be served with a bunch of mixed vegetables and without the cheese, butter, and sour cream with which they are often paired. Beans and warm corn tortillas are another example of sides that can easily make a full meal. Do be aware, though, that many common dishes toward which you might gravitate can have hidden ingredients that you wouldn’t want to eat. For instance:
- Butter on rice and breads
- Chicken or other animal-based broth in vegetable soups and stews
- Rice cooked in chicken broth
- Bread or pasta made with eggs
- Pork or lard in beans
- Oil in sauces, salsas, and soups
In our experience there are certain types of establishments that are better than others at accommodating us. Stores and restaurants that bill themselves as “health food” destinations can be great options, but be aware that even these places tend to lean heavily on oil. Ask them to omit it, and if they seem stumped, suggest that they cook your meal using alternatives that they probably have on hand, such as vegetable broth, black bean sauce, garlic sauce, low-sodium tamari or soy sauce, diced tomatoes, or vinegar.
Salad bars would seem to be an obvious choice, and that can certainly be true, but there are some potential pitfalls here. Remember that not everything in a salad bar is healthy or free of oil- or mayonnaise-based sauces. Stick with whole vegetable toppings and put oil-free dressings on the side. Or bypass the ready-made dressings altogether and use vinegar, or ask for an orange cut in half crosswise and squeeze the juice over your salad for a delicious dressing. Also keep in mind that while dried fruit, nuts, and seeds might be among the healthiest whole foods on the salad bar, they are also very calorie dense, so use them sparingly. Finally, remember that a salad bar is rarely a good source for sufficient healthy calories (unless it includes whole grains or beans), so see if you can order something more filling to go along with the salad, like a baked potato or two.
We’ve found that at many ethnic restaurants it’s easy to find delicious food that fits our dietary preferences with very little adjustment. Asian, Italian, and Mexican restaurants, in particular, all tend to have menu standbys like soups that work well as bases for a full meal, especially when you add steamed rice and a big bowl of steamed vegetables. Just make sure you call ahead to check on the common exceptions that we mention in each case below.
Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, and other Asian restaurants have many menu standards that are excellent choices for a whole-food, plant-based eater. Among the appetizers, steamed vegetable dumplings or spring rolls and edamame are good options. Ask for entrées like vegetarian pad thai to be made without oil and eggs. Many vegetarian sushi options are excellent choices. Get a big dish of steamed or boiled rice noodles or plain rice with any combination of vegetables in an oil-free sauce. Feel free to eat white rice if brown rice isn’t available; it won’t be a problem once in a while. You can use side sauces such as soy sauce, hot sauce, mustard sauce, duck sauce, and so on, either individually or mixed together, to make your own tasty concoction at the table. One thing to look out for at Asian restaurants is that many use fish stock as the standard in every dish that has broth—that means every soup, naturally, but can also apply to sauces and even the poaching or steaming liquid for vegetables. Also confirm that the dumpling wrappers and noodles don’t contain eggs.
The kitchens of Italian restaurants are usually abundantly stocked with vegetables. Many have vegetable antipasto on their appetizer menus, and of course you can always request a pizza or pasta with tomato sauce and lots of vegetables (hold the cheese, please). Make sure their pasta isn’t made with eggs and that their vegetable soups are made with vegetable broth. Also note that more and more Italian restaurants have whole-grain pasta in their kitchens, even if they don’t necessarily advertise it on the menu. Ask if this is the case where you’re eating, but if all they have is white wheat pasta, don’t sweat it as a once-in-a-while option.
Mexican restaurants are great because their staple dish of beans is among our staples, too—just confirm that the rice they serve you is not made with oil and that the beans are made without lard or other pork products. In fact, it’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure that not every bean dish they serve contains lard, which, in our experience, is sometimes the case. Salsa is always a great choice, and you can bypass the fried chips by asking for soft corn tortillas instead. Entrées such as bean burritos, rice and beans, soft corn tortilla tacos, and grilled vegetable fajitas are all foods we eat at home—it’s just really nice to have someone else make them for us now and then!
Of course it can be more challenging when you’re on the road and—either because of time or circumstances—your only options are essentially fast-food joints. Here are our solutions to a few common on-the-road scenarios:
- At a diner, there’s oatmeal, toast, salad, or a baked potato with salsa.
- At a pizza place, order a cheese-free pizza with tomato sauce and lots of vegetables.
- At a sandwich shop, go for whole-grain bread filled
We know that this might look like an awful lot to remember, but the best thing about this lifestyle is that with time it becomes second nature. You might want to refer to these suggestions more than once during the early days, but before long you’ll be completely in charge of your own diet in such a way that—no matter where you are—you’ll know precisely what to look for and what questions to ask.
Excerpted from The Forks Over Knives Plan: A 4-Week Meal-By-Meal Makeover by Alona Pulde, MD and Matthew Lederman, MD. Reprinted with permission.