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Plant-Based Food in Restaurants?

Posted Oct 21 2010 12:00am

Govinda's Vegetarian Restaurant in Philadelphia, PA

The concept of plant-based food in restaurants seems foreign to many people.  It’s true, finding nutritious food away-from-home can be challenging but it is possible.  Food allergies and autoimmune disease are on the rise, so businesses are prepared to deal with special requests.  While this is uncomfortable initially, it is worth asserting yourself.  Many places are prepared to accommodate vegetarian and vegan preferences, and it is easy to hold the salt and oil.  It’s all about having a strategy in place, a plan for you.

You must be your own health advocate.  Food vendors are looking to make a sale, not to keep you healthy.  They know that most Americans are addicted to fat, sugar, and salt so that is what they offer, but as a paying customer you vote with your fork.

The following suggestions are listed by priority.  Incorporate these actions in this order and you will be good to go:

1.  Think Veggies – Although I don’t suggest a vegan diet for everyone, if you want to make good choices while eating out – go veg!  By ordering vegetarian or vegan entrees, you are more likely to get high nutrient fruit, vegetable, and plant-based ingredients.  Plus your plate won’t be filled with animal products: a.k.a. fatty, nutrient poor foods.  You will find there is a lot less temptation by entering a restaurant with your mind set on veggies.

2.  Preparation is Key – Do your research before going out to eat.  Use the guides listed below to locate restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options ahead of time.  Glance at restaurant websites, reviews, and definitely look at the menu.  Make sure there is at least one option you will enjoy, preferably more.  You will develop an eye for good restaurants just by taking a quick look at what they offer.  I get a real kick out of finding new places with unique, plant-based meals.

Bookmark these Search Tools for Restaurant Locations:

Happy Cow Compassionate Eating Guide – An International vegetarian and vegan restaurant guide

21 Day Vegan Kickstart: Restaurant Guide – Share Your Favorite Restaurant – Let the Kickstart community know where they can find healthy plant-based options in your neighborhood. And find out where to eat vegan when you’re on the road. – Your online guide to vegetarian and vegan restaurants around the world – Features:  Find Vegetarian Restaurants | Vegan Restaurants | Vegan Videos | Vegan Twitter Streams | Vegan Foods – An International vegetarian restaurants directory guide to natural food restaurants and natural food stores

3.  Assert Yourself – If a restaurant does not offer a menu online, than take a minute to call and politely ask if they offer any vegetarian or vegan options.  Most restaurants provide at least one vegetarian choice these days.  You can always ask a facility to omit ingredients like cheese, dairy, oil, and salt from a vegetarian meal.

4.  Take the Time to Be Proactive – Even if a restaurant does offer a menu online, it still doesn’t hurt to be proactive.  If you have specific requests,  a food allergy, or medical needs, take a minute to call and convey this prior to arriving.  You will get a good sense about how cooperative the facility will be over the phone.  If they are expecting you, they may make an effort to meet your needs.  By taking time to express your situation privately before arriving, it’ll alleviate anxiety at the restaurant and it’ll allow you to enjoy your time out.

5.  Be Willing to Pay – Communicate that you are willing to pay more to have your food prepared a certain way.  You can either pay more for quality ingredients now, or you will likely pay more for your health care later.

6.  Go Prepared – If you have not been to the restaurant before, it never hurts to go prepared.  I have multiple clients who take beans and their own dressing to top an all veggie salad.  Vinegar or homemade nut-based dressings in a small, tightly sealed container fit easily in a purse or a coat.  Simply order a plain house salad, top it with beans, order fresh fruit, and you have a decent meal.   Take anything you wish, but go prepared!

7.  Be Loyal – Find several local restaurants who willingly accommodate your needs; places you can visit for a wholesome meal away-from-home.  Get to know the staff and build a good rapport where you value their services and they appreciate your business.  This way you won’t have to make the same requests repeatedly at new locations, and they will be happy to serve you.

8.  Know your Options – None of these tips do any good if you don’t know which foods are healthy options.  Here are a few items you can find just about anywhere, in a Standard American Restaurant (SAD), or on-the-go:

  • A house salad without the cheese or croutons – just raw veggies.  Always ask for the dressing on the side.  Assume that all dressings are loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and processed, synthetic ingredients.  Travel with your own salad dressing in a small container, or keep a flavored vinegar handy to top your salad.  If you are in a pinch, request salsa on the side.  Unless it is homemade salsa it is probably not low sodium,  but it is the lesser of two evils.  If you choose to use the restaurant’s dressing, stick with a vinegar, avoid creamy dressings, and go light.
  • Grilled, steamed, or lightly sauteed vegetables prepared with minimal salt and oil with the sauce on the side.  Make sure the sauce does not contain MSG (Monosodium Glutamate).  A dressing or vinegar from home would be your best option.  I recognize this is not always convenient, so go with a light, non-creamy, preferably vegan sauce on the side.  Bear in mind restaurant sauces, vegan or not, are still very high in salt and sweeteners.  Serve over brown or wild rice.
  • Baked potato with steamed broccoli, request no butter or salt.
  • Brown rice, veggie sushi, with lite soy sauce.
  • Vegetable soup is an okay option if you are in a pinch, but most soups are loaded with sodium.
  • Fresh fruit such as an apple, orange, banana, or a fruit cup.
  • Fruit smoothies: specify that you only want fresh fruit and ice; no sugar, no protein powders, no sweetener, no milk, or juice added.
  • Low sodium V8 vegetable juice or 100% fruit juice.
  • Veggie wraps with hummus.
  • Decaf organic tea for a high antioxidant, sugar free, low calorie beverage.
  • Ethnic restaurants such as Asian, Japanese, Greek or Mediterranean, Indian, or Mexican offer much healthier options and often have vegetarian, if not vegan, choices.  Note: American and Italian restaurants have very limited, if any, vegetarian options.
  • If all else fails, find a Whole Foods Market or any other health food store in your area, enjoy one of their ready-prepared meals, or gather ingredients to make your own delicious food.

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