The restrictions that vegans and vegetarians impose on their diets limit their choices when dining out. These limits by no means make it impossible to find plenty of restaurants and menu items that will provide an enjoyable and satisfying meal, but they do make it a bit more challenging.
But first, let’s define the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” so we know what we’re talking about. Sometimes the terms are treated as if they are synonymous, but they are not. True, they both have to do with refraining from eating meat, but they can be distinguished.
Roughly speaking, vegetarian is the broader term, used for a wide variety of diets that avoid animal and animal-related foods to varying degrees, with vegan being at the extreme end of the continuum that rejects all such foods. That’s a bit oversimplified in that there are different shades even within veganism-different notions of where the lines must be drawn and how tenuous the connection with animals can be to still require excluding a food-but that’s the general idea.
So vegans typically not only avoid meat, but eggs, milk, cheese, butter, honey, and anything else that somehow comes from an animal or is made from something that comes from an animal. This can be tricky in modern times since so many packaged foods and restaurant foods use at least some animal product of some kind somewhere in their processing or preparation. Potato chips, for instance, might seem fine since a potato is a plant and not an animal, but if they were cooked in oil that contained any animal fat at all, then they are off limits to vegans.
Non-vegan vegetarians range from not quite as strict as vegans, to barely distinguishable from non-vegetarians. Most can eat foods that involved trace amounts of animal products in their preparation. Some eat eggs; some allow themselves dairy products. There are even people who call themselves vegetarians who eat seafood and/or poultry, though most vegetarians would say that’s going a little too far to still come under the vegetarian umbrella.
So given how common it is for restaurant food to contain meat or at least some animal-related product, how can vegetarians and especially vegans dine out without violating their restrictions?
1. Use Google.
As in so many areas of life, “Google is your friend.” Google your town-something like “vegan Toledo” or “Toledo vegetarian restaurants”-and you’ll likely find a vast array of restaurants announcing to the online world that they seek to accommodate those who cannot eat some or all animal-related foods. Follow up with some phone calls to the ones that interest you to learn more about whether they do indeed fit what you’re looking for.
2. Check the menu.
Even restaurants that aren’t solely vegan or vegetarian will sometimes have a section of the menu specifically for people with those diets. There are so many vegans and vegetarians now that it’s simply good business to make sure you have at least some items that will appeal to that big a niche of the population.
3. Ask questions, make suggestions.
Especially for vegans, there will be many menu items where it’s impossible to know just by their description if they would violate your dietary rules, since they may have animal products as ingredients or be cooked in butter or oil that contained animal products. So you need to be willing to speak up and ask your server about this, or if possible speak directly to the cook, so you’ll know what you can and cannot eat.
Sometimes you can work out a modification of a dish to bring it within your rules. For instance if you’re ordering Mexican food at a restaurant that uses a beef or pork based chili in its burritos and such, maybe you could substitute a salsa that doesn’t have meat.
There are also many imitation meat and animal products now that vegans and vegetarians can eat. For instance there are soy or vegetable products made to mimic the appearance and taste of eggs, bacon, hamburgers, and more. A lot of mainstream restaurants might not have these options available, but if you explained to them the desirability of doing so-how adding such items would suddenly make them palatable to a much broader range of customers-you might change that for the future.
It may take a little more effort for a vegan or vegetarian to dine out, but the decision to place these restrictions on one’s diet is most often done for moral or religious reasons, and it goes with the territory that sticking to one’s moral or religious principles involves a certain amount of sacrifice and overcoming challenges. If it were always effortless, those principles wouldn’t be worth much.