March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Dining out can be a challenging experience for vegans and vegetarians. Some restaurants aren’t vegetarian or vegan friendly, while others may not highlight their meatless options. Further complicating the matter is that vegetable dishes might be cooked with ingredients vegetarians avoid, including butter, chicken or meat stock and gelatin. The good news is restaurants are adding or expanding vegetarian menu options in response to customer requests restaurants.
Keeping a few helpful tips in mind can make dining away from home a more rewarding experience for vegans and vegetarians.
For starters, check menus for symbols such as a v or a leaf marking dishes as vegetarian or vegan. When in doubt, ask the wait staff. Increasingly, servers are being trained to meet the needs of non-meat eaters.
Don’t be afraid to make a special request. Some chefs will prepare a dish that is not on the menu, or modify a dish so it fits into your diet. Or, consider ordering vegetable appetizers or side dishes as your main course. At weddings, work functions or other catered events, request a vegetarian meal in advance or ask the wait staff to exchange the meat on your plate for vegetables.
Finding meatless options at fast food restaurants can be challenging, but many restaurants now have salad menus and sandwiches with vegetable or meat substitute fillings. Breakfast items are often vegetarian friendly, especially for lacto-ovo-vegetarians.
Dining at a friend’s house? This can be tricky if only one main course is being served. If you are invited to someone’s house for a meal, let your host know in advance about which foods you do not eat. You can also offer to bring a vegetarian dish to share.
Airlines, trains and cruise ships are increasingly working to meet the needs of their vegetarian clientele. Before you plan a trip, check with transportation groups to see if they offer vegetarian options. Often you can find vegetarian meals, fruit plates and vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian menu options. When in doubt, pack vegetarian snacks such as trail mix, granola bars and dried fruit.
Ethnic restaurants are often ideal for vegetarians. Asian menus, such as Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese, feature a variety of meatless options including rice and noodle dishes containing vegetables and tofu. However, if you do not eat fish, ask the wait staff whether dishes contain fish or oyster sauce. South Asian cuisines, including Indian, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Pakistani and Nepali, are known for meatless dishes using breads, lentils, beans, rice, curried vegetables and yogurts. If you do not consume dairy, ensure your dishes are prepared in vegetable oil instead of common ingredients like ghee (clarified butter), cream and paneer (a type of cheese). Also, be wary of fried dishes as they can be high in calories.
Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern foods offer many meatless options such as pasta primavera, pasta marinara, falafel, couscous, minestrone soup, eggplant dishes, Greek salads and tabbouleh. Olives and feta cheese are high in sodium and should be limited if you’re on a low-sodium diet. Mediterranean restaurants sometimes use large amounts of oil for sautéed dishes, dressings and sauces, which add fat and calories to food. Keep this in mind when making your menu selection.
Vegetarian-friendly Mexican cuisine may include burritos, fajitas, tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and tamales made using rice, beans and cheese. Spanish rice, guacamole and salsa are also vegetarian. Refried beans may contain lard, so ask the restaurant staff if you are concerned. If you do not eat dairy, order dishes without cheese or sour cream.