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Tips for eating out vegetarian (and vegan)

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

eating out as a vegetarian can be super anxiety inducing. Click the link to learn how I navigate eating at restaurants as a vegetarian!

Eating out can be anxiety-inducing for a vegetarian or vegan. Especially when going to a new restaurant.

Are you going to find anything to eat? And if you do, will it be enough to fill you up?  Are you going to be stuck with french fries and a side salad?

Luckily, the rest of the world is catching up and many restaurants have vegetarian options. Some even have an entire vegetarian menu!

Read on for my top tips for eating out as a vegetarian with ease.

Quick tips for eating out

  • Check the apps and sides
    • Appetizers often have vegetarian or easily adaptable options, and are often smaller and cheaper!
  • Remove “accessory meat”
    • How easy is it to just ask for the meat to be left out?  An easy “no bacon, please” could solve half your problems.
  • Look for a V or a leaf, or another indicator of options that are already veg*n
  • Ask the server if they have a vegetarian menu or for recommendations
    • I promise you’re not the first to ask!
  • Happy Cow
    • This app allows you to search for vegetarian or vegan-friendly restaurants near you
  • Caution with soups and beans
    • These often contain “hidden” meat, such as meat-based broth or fat.

What to choose?

Some genres of food tend to naturally lean towards vegetarian friendly and others don’t.  You can consider this when choosing a restaurant, especially if you don’t want to peruse the menu first.

To me, a restaurant is not vegetarian-friendly if you are stuck with eating a bunch of side vegetables.  You need your protein just like everyone else!

Of course, the list below is just sweeping generalities and you can see a wide range of accommodations and options (or lack thereof) at any type of restaurant.

Food genres that tend to be vegetarian friendly

  • Asian
  • Burgers
  • Mexican (sometimes- and usually the protein is cheese)
  • Mediterranean and Middle Eastern

Food genres that tend to NOT be vegetarian friendly

  • Barbecue
  • Fast food
  • Steakhouses
  • Seafood restaurants
  • Cajun

Options at different types of restaurants

While every restaurant certainly has its own twist, there are general patterns among individual restaurants of the same genre.

Use the following overview to help you decide where to eat out tonight!

I’ve tried to include as many types of restaurants covering as many regions as possible, without overwhelming anyone. Let me know if I missed something!

African (South of the Mediterranean border countries)

There’s so much variety here, and I’m not super familiar with African cuisine.  What I’ve done here is peruse the menus of local African restaurants, spent some time reading on the internet, and incorporating some of what I’ve learned from clients.   Hopefully, it can still be a resource!

Western Africa

Peanut Stew – many west African nations have a peanut stew (originally made from groundnut). Obviously, there are variations across regions, and they will have different names, potentially maafe, domoda, or tigadegena.  This is usually vegan, though meat can be added.

Jollof rice – a precursor to Spanish rice, thought to have originated in Nigeria.

Fufu – made from a starchy root vegetable, this is a paste that is eaten with your hands and dipped in a sauce or stew. 

Egusi soup – made with melon seeds and has plenty of protein as a vegetarian dish, though coastal countries may include fish.

Stewed greens – often made from the leaves of cassava, pumpkin, taro, sweet potato, amaranth, and more.

Red Red – a bean dish from Ghana made with black eyed peas and tomatoes. May contain fish.

Eastern Africa

Injera – a fermented flatbread used to scoop up food. Eat it with…

Wat – a thick stew that can feature lentils, vegetables, or meat (so make sure to ask). May also be called tsebhi or zigni.

Ful medames – crushed and heavily seasoned fava beans

Ugali – similar to fufu

Sukuma wiki – collard greens, usually vegetarian, but some cooks may add meat

Azifa – a cold lentil salad

Interestingly, all of the Ethiopian menus near me featured a specific vegetarian or vegan section! It’d be super to eat meat-free within this cuisine.

Southern Africa

Nshima – again, similar to fufu. This is traditionally a very labor intensive dish and forms the basis of Zambian cuisine.

Chidulo – one of a variety of relishes that can include a variety of green, leafy vegetables and wild mushrooms.

Ifisashi – a stew made from greens and peanuts. May or may not be vegetarian.

Ombaga – spinach cooked with cherry tomatoes and lots of chilis and seasonings

Oshigali – pureed white beans

From what I can tell, the countries in the southern regions of Africa rely much more on meat and fish than other regions and it is much more difficult to find local restaurants that prepare food from this region.

But please let me know if I missed anything or if I misrepresented the food. I would love the opportunity to learn more!

American

The classic American burger joint has become increasingly vegetarian/vegan friendly!

Most places will have either a black bean patty or the more recent Impossible or Beyond Meat patties.

In addition to ordering the vegan burger already on the menu, you can almost always switch out the patty for another burger on the menu. For example, I’ll almost always get a mushroom swiss burger, with vegetarian patty instead.

Some places will even have a vegetarian option for hot dogs. 

Make sure when you’re reading the menu that there isn’t any sneaky bacon!

In general, the sides at American restaurants are vegetarian-friendly. Many times, they’re even vegan-friendly! Fries, sweet potato fries, and steamed veggies are common. Vegans should avoid fried mozzarella and cheese curds. Onion rings may have buttermilk in the batter.

East Asian

Most Asian restaurants will be very friendly toward vegans and vegetarians.

You can usually swap tofu for other proteins in many dishes. However, you will usually see a tofu section in restaurants that serve Asian cuisines, such as Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and more. 

If you’re having trouble, the appetizer section often has tofu and other vegetarian options available.

Korean barbecue tends to be less vegetarian friendly, in general. Also, watch out for soups that don’t specifically say they are vegetarian, as meat broths are very common.

South Asian

South Asian food, Indian in particular also tends to be vegetarian friendly.

Look for paneer (cheese), dahi (yogurt), dal (lentils), chana (chickpeas), and mattar (peas). Sometimes you’ll even find tofu.

However, the sauces often have cream in them, making them inappropriate for vegans. Consider chana masala, kitchari, and dosas.  There are also many Indian restaurants that cater specifically to a veg*n palate that may be more accommodating.

Barbecue

For me, barbecue is generally the land of the baked potato, hold the bacon.  

I really haven’t found another way to accommodate vegetarians at a barbecue restaurant.  Some restaurants do ensure that their sides are vegetarian-friendly, but I find that this is the exception rather than the rule. You’ll find bacon in the green beans, ham in the beans, etc.

So prepare for a baked potato and if you get lucky, maybe a side salad.

Brunch/Breakfast

A vegetarian should have a pretty easy time at a brunch or breakfast spot. Omelets, scrambles, and hashes are readily available, and you can usually get them loaded with vegetables.  If the only meat is bacon mixed in, you may be able to ask for it without.

Vegans might have a bit more trouble. Though many brunch restaurants now carry vegan alternatives. This is likely heavily dependent on where you live.

Even without specific vegan options, you’ll likely find a variety of vegan-friendly sides, salads, and soup. 

Caribbean

Caribbean food is going to have a lot of influence from Africa as well as Central and South America.  You can expect foods that are similar to those regions, such as jollof rice, stewed greens, and fried plantains, as well as foods that incorporate masa. Goat, chicken, and seafood are common proteins here.

The Caribbean restaurants near me have a variety of curries and many of them do have at least 1 or 2 menu items that are specifically vegan friendly, such as tofu curries or arepas filled with cheese instead of meat.

In general, you’d likely be able to find something to eat, at the very least in the appetizer and sides sections of the menu.

If you find a restaurant that is specifically Jamaican, you may have a bit more luck. Rastafarians have a strong belief in eating in a way that is natural and healthy, and in general, believe that humans are meant to be vegetarian.  

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern

So many options here. This tends to be my favorite region to eat from.  Remember the Mediterranean region is quite large.  

Yes, Greece and Italy are Mediterranean countries. But so are Spain, Egypt, Monaco, Turkey, Albania, Algeria, Morroco, Turkey, and even more. I’ve included Middle Eastern cuisine here both due to their proximity and because there is often an overlap of food items and even confusion about where some food items come from. 

Consider hummus. While many people think of this is a Greek food, it really isn’t. Stories vary, but hummus appears to originate in Egypt, Lebanon, or in the region now known as Israel.

Vegetarian options include:

Falafel – these are bean “patties” often seen in a spherical shape.  Most commonly, they are made from chickpeas, as is common in many Middle Eastern countries and as the vegetarian option for gyros in Greek restaurants. However, Egyptian falafel is made with fava beans and a different spice profile.

Tabbouleh – a salad made of a whole grain (usually bulgur wheat, but may vary), onions, mint, and lots of parsley.

Dolmas – grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices. Dip them in tzatziki or hummus if you want.  Note that sometimes, meat is added to these, so make sure to read the description.

Meze platters are usually vegetarian and come with quite a variety. Hummus and baba ganoush and dolmas are staples. You’ll often also see olives, tabbouleh, and a variety of veggies.

Cheese or spinach pies (such as spanakopita)

There’s usually a wide variety of bean and/or lentil dishes in all cuisines in this region.

At Italian restaurants, there are usually a wide variety of salads available (simply request no meat, or choose one that is already vegetarian). Remember that Caesar salad is not usually a vegetarian option as the dressing contains anchovies.  

Pair your salad with Minestrone soup, cheese pizza or ravioli, or eggplant parmesan.

If you find yourself at a Spanish restaurant, take a look at the tapas, there should be lots of options there including a wide variety of vegetable and potato options.

Central and South American

Another favorite of mine!

Mexican (or TexMex really) is a staple here in Texas.  There are usually plenty of options available, without even having to modify the menu.  You’ll almost always find a vegetarian option for quesadillas, fajitas, and enchiladas. Usually, there is cheese and sour cream involved, but there are often black beans included as well.   Vegan options may take some more scouting but are likely possible as well.  Consider black beans (usually vegetarian as opposed to refried beans), a vegetable side, and some dips  (salsa, pico, and/or guacamole).  Vegetarian quesadillas hold the sour cream and cheese should also work well.

Further south, you’ll see similarities and differences in how the food is presented.  

Look for empanadas filled with beans, cheese, and/or corn. Arepas are a similar concept.

Beans and rice are usually a good vegan option.

Actually, beans are used widely throughout South and Central America.

Also look for options that are a bit more unfamiliar for many of us, such as cassava, plantain, and yuca.

And if you happen to wander into an Argentinian restaurant, don’t be surprised to find some familiar Italian favs!

I hope this has been helpful!  

In no way is this a complete or super in-depth resource, but hopefully, you’ve found some good tips to make eating out less of a chore.

Please let me know in the comments if there’s something you want included here!

Vegetarian options exist everywhere, so check back for updates!

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