Welcome to “Tips for New Vegans” week. For the remainder of the week, I’m going to feature tips on being vegan for the new convert. After the week is done, I’ll continue with occasional postings, as driven by your questions. Just submit ‘em over here.
One of the trickiest things for new vegans is eating at restaurants. This isn’t particularly true when you’re the one choosing the restaurant, but it gets more difficult when, say, you’re out for lunch with co-workers at Sweetwater Tavern, where a friend once told me “the only thing vegan there is the napkins.” So, here are a few tips on dealing with these outings:
- E-mail or call ahead: Even after being veggie for over six years, I still don’t like to pepper the waiter with questions before ordering, particularly when I’m with a group of people who may not be sympathetic. If you have enough warning, visit the restaurant’s web site. See if they have a list of ingredients, mention preparation techniques, or even list specifically what’s vegan. If not, drop them an e-mail or give them a call. You’re pretty anonymous this way, so it’s even a good way for introverts to deal with it. Before my company’s holiday party this past year, I e-mailed the catering company and asked about obtaining a strict vegetarian meal since none were offered. The head chef got back to me and let me know I was covered. What resulted was, by far, the best catered meal I’ve ever had. The downside with this technique, particuarly with e-mailing, is that it’s really hit-or-miss with the restuarants. I’ve found that a lot don’t even bother replying, which is frustrating. But at least you’re no further behind than if you didn’t try.
- Go with the safe bet: If you find yourself at a restaurant and are feeling the pressure, you can almost always ask for a salad with no cheese and oil and vinegar dressing. Sure, it’s kind of lame, but it’ll hold you over and you can always grab something a little later. The main thing here is to keep a good attitude about it. If you make yourself feel like you’re sacrificing something, you’re probably forgetting why you went vegan in the first place. Veganism’s not about sacrifice, it’s about doing what you know is right.
- Ask the chef to prepare you something: This is one that’s always recommended in “going vegan”-type books. “The chef will like the challenge!” the books promise. Honestly, I have a feeling this isn’t so true. While it may be true in certain types of restaurants, I suspect it generally leaves chefs grumbling under their breath. However, as long as you’re not asking them for the world, most are perfectly fine with making minor alterations to existing dishes.
- Know what to watch for. This kind of goes with the last one, so you know what to ask them to leave out. For instance, in Thai restaurants, you always want to be sure to specify “no fish sauce” since curries and even the dishes labeled “vegetarian” will often use it. In Indian restaurants, ask if they can make your meal using oil instead of ghee. And if you’re in a Hungarian restaurant… um, just run. Everything’s probably made with lard.
- Eat ahead: Jenna over at Vegan Freak Radio has mentioned this a few times on their show. It’s interesting, because I never really thought about this option much. But, yeah, if you eat ahead (and no one needs to know), you can order something light and not walk away hungry or feeling deprived. While I haven’t tried this option often when eating out, I often do it when there are catered lunches in the office. I’ll eat ahead and then just hang out with everyone else afterwards while having a drink. No one ever seems to pay any attention to the fact I don’t have food.
- Bring a hibachi and cook up some tofu while everyone else orders. Just kidding. Bring tempeh instead.
Initially, eating at restaurants can feel like a hassle, wondering if that really is non-dairy margarine on your bread or if it’s butter. Or worrying that they’ve cooked your pasta-that-might-have-been-made-with-eggs in chicken broth instead of water or veggie broth. But I promise you that with time, it gets much, much easier. These days, it’s almost never an issue. I either make sure not to put myself in uncomfortable situations to begin with or take responsibility for myself and make sure I have something to eat if things don’t work out.