If you aren’t vegetarian or vegan (and sometimes even if you are), ordering a veg-based meal at a restaurant can be downright intimidating. If you order the wrong thing, you may end up sending your meal back and contributing to the 34 million tons of food that is wasted in the U.S. each year.
To make matters even tougher, animal products could be hiding in one of many nooks and crannies in your meal – from beef stock-based sauces to bread glazed with egg.
So, what’s a novice vegan to do? Don’t fret, hungry greenie. Earth911 has you covered. Whether you’ve recently adopted a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle or you simply want to give it a try for a night, here are 10 questions to ask your server before choosing a veg-based meal.
1. What vegetarian options do you have?
If a brief glance over the menu yields less-than-exciting choices like a garden salad, steamed broccoli or crudités, ask your server about other options. You may have missed a few vegetarian or vegan choices on the menu, and some others may be simple for the chef to “veganize.”
Ask about getting a pasta course without fish or chicken, or order that yummy panini without the cheese. Most restaurants receive requests for vegetarian and vegan meals often. So, your sever will likely have a number of options on hand if you ask.
2. Do you offer à la carte?
Can’t find a veg-based entree that strikes your fancy? Another option is to go à la carte, which allows you to build your own plate using side dishes and lighter fare.
Assemble an à la carte platter with all of your favorites – some rice or pasta, a salad and a few fresh veggies – to create a well-balanced meal that’s pleasing to your palate (and the planet).
3. How is this made/what is this made out of?
Ordering something even though you don’t know the ingredients is a recipe for disaster. So, if your head is spinning from menu choices like baba ganoush, seitan and polenta, don’t be afraid to ask your server for a bit more information.
Once you’ve picked a meal, take a moment to double-check with your server that your choice is animal product-free. Meat and dairy can often be lurking in choices like soups, breaded appetizers and stuffed pastas. So, making sure is your best bet to avoid surprises.
4. How can I make my choice vegan?
If you’re already going vegetarian, vegan could be a few simple steps away. Ask your server if your meal contains any eggs or dairy and if it can be prepared without these ingredients for a vegan-friendly plate. And while you’re at it, ask about locally-grown and organic produce to up the green factor of your meal.
5. Are vegetables and beans cooked with dairy or animal fats?
Here’s where choosing veg can get a bit tricky. You’ve selected a meal with only vegetable ingredients, but how are those ingredients prepared?
Some restaurants cook beans and other vegetables in butter, bacon fat or other animal products. To save yourself the headache of sending a meal back, don’t assume. Ask first.
6. Does my choice contain meat broth or stock? What about other vegan no-no’s?
Many soups and sauces are made from meat or poultry stock. So, ask about this before ordering to ensure a truly vegan meal. Other common ingredients could also bring your meal back into non-vegan territory, depending on how strictly you define the term.
Some vegans may simply avoid meat, eggs and dairy, while others may opt out of foods containing other vegan no-no’s like gelatin (used in many candies and jams), bone char (often used to process white sugar) and, sometimes, lecithin ( some forms are made from egg yolk and used to bind salad dressings).
If you would rather not partake in a meal containing these ingredients, mention them to your server by name and ask him or her to double-check with the chef before you order.
7. Is there any protein in my meal?
Many people who aren’t familiar with vegetarian and vegan diets assume that these choices may be lacking in nutritional value, and protein is typically a top concern. While Americans tend to believe that king-sized portions of protein are necessary to grow big and strong, medical findings show a different story.
Only one calorie out of every 10 we consume needs to come from protein for a healthy diet, according to a study conducted by the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Academy of Sciences‘ Institute of Medicine. And most vegetable choices more than meet the quota.
A cup of cooked beans or lentils contains a whopping 18 grams of protein, while a mere 2 tablespoons of peanut butter weighs in at 8 grams, according to the USDA. If you’re unsure about the protein or nutritional content of your meal, ask your server for further guidance.
8. Do you offer dairy substitutes?
If you love milk, cheese and other dairy products, don’t deprive yourself! Ask your server about dairy-free alternatives like almond milk or rice cheese.
These choices may sound a bit off-putting at first, but most taste the same (if not better!) than the real thing. If you’re already thinking ahead to bathing suit season, you’ll be pleased to know that these choices are typically lower in fat and calories, too.
9. Is your pasta made in-house? Does it contain egg?
Homemade pasta is always an attractive menu choice. But be careful when ordering it if you’re going vegan for the night. Typically, homemade pasta recipes require egg. Many restaurants opt for eggless alternatives to please vegan diners, but you’ll never know until you ask!
10. What kind of bread do you use?
This may sound surprising if you’re not a baker, but many bread recipes actually call for milk, scratching them off your list of vegan possibilities. Other chefs may glaze their bread with egg to create a golden-brown hue. So, be sure to ask your server about these ingredients before chowing down.
Feature image by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash