Eating out is a lovely experience to enjoy with people you love or just like spending time with, and you can usually eat out at any restaurant you go to when you’re eating vegan- even at a steakhouse, believe it or not! The key is to know what to look for, what to avoid, and what to ask your waiter when you go. Many otherwise vegan dishes might be cooked with products that contain animal ingredients or may be cooked on the same pan or grill as animal-derived dishes.

While 100 percent vegan restaurants are the best option, you can’t always find one nearby or won’t always be able to convince those you’re with to try them out. The best thing you can do is to visit a restaurant with full confidence that you can eat vegan and do so in an enjoyable way. Many people who know I’m vegan actually think I can’t go out to eat because of my food choices, which isn’t true at all.

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You don’t have to be annoying at the table, but you should know a few questions to ask in case you’re not sure about certain menu items. Keep these questions in the back of your mind so you can know what to spot on a menu and what to ask your waiter when it’s time to order. Just remember – always be as nice as possible to show everyone just how easy eating vegan out can be.

1. How Do You Cook Your Veggies?

Most restaurants prepare vegetables with butter or a mock butter spread that often contains some kind of dairy. Hopefully, they’re not using trans-fat filled margarine (which might be vegan but isn’t very healthy). Be sure you ask the waiter to cook your vegetables plain or with some olive or canola oil. If you feel more comfortable, tell them you have a dairy allergy so they’re sure not to overlook it.

2. Can I Construct My Own Meal?

Remember that a salad with salsa, baked sweet potato, avocado, cucumber, carrot, tomato, and balsamic vinegar with black pepper and lemon juice is easy to get anywhere and it’s one freaking amazing salad combo, let me tell you! Other great items include veggies and rice (be sure to specify they’re cooked without butter or milk) or a simple baked potato or sweet baked potato with salsa or hummus, or even guacamole. Black coffee, toast and fruit is easy to find for breakfast, along with oatmeal with berries or with peanut butter and banana (but remember to ask them to cook it without milk or cream).

3. Can I Get Avocado in Place of Butter?

Everyone knows that avocado is “poor man’s butter,” but it’s also “smart man (or woman’s) butter” if you ask us! Avocado is brimming with cholesterol-free, healthy monounsaturated fats, along with B vitamins, vitamin E, fiber, potassium, and magnesium. It’s also the perfect replacement to dairy butter on toast or bread or baked potatoes. It also pairs lovely over salads, sweet potatoes, or serves as a yummy addition to sandwiches. If you don’t see avocado on the menu, just ask! Most restaurants carry it if they make guacamole (which also makes a great vegan choice).

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4. Does the Sauce Contain Fish or Other Animal Ingredients?

Many sauces that come on top of menu items contain dairy (since sadly, most everything does) but other sauces might include fish, meat, or eggs. Many Asian restaurants use fish sauce in dishes, even veggie dishes. Be sure you ask and if you’re not sure and the waiter can’t tell you, it’s probably best to just leave off the sauce and opt for the menu item without it. When in doubt, go for salsa as a yummy topping. Even if it’s not on the menu, most places carry it and will be happy to serve it to you. I personally love it as a salad dressing.

5. What’s in the Soup?

Soup seems like an obvious vegan choice but you can never be sure. Many soups like tomato and vegetable soup are made with milk, butter and/or cheese, while others might contain meat or fish, even if it’s just in the seasonings used. Be sure to ask for an ingredient list for items that contain lots of ingredients like soup or just opt for a “create your own salad” to be safe.

6. Do You Have Soy Milk?

Until restaurants get on board the nondairy milk train and carry options like almond milk, coconut milk, and hemp milk, most likely our only hope is that they’ll at least offer soy milk for coffee and tea lattes. If the restaurant you’re visiting doesn’t specifically say they have soy milk – ask. Many actually do keep soy milk, even if it’s not on the menu. If they don’t, you might just give them an idea or you could suggest that they offer a non-dairy milk option for those like yourself who just love their restaurant!

One really helpful tip I’d suggest is to go online and visit the websites of various restaurants in your area, even fast food chains. See if they cater to vegans or read their nutritional info on their menu items. Most all have to list ingredients these days due to food allergens and contamination issues. Most likely, you’ll be able to see what is vegan and what isn’t.

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Oh, and by the way – you can always get a PB & J if you’re desperate. Most every single restaurant stocks the ingredients for emergency meals for kids (seriously).

If you’re vegan and eat out at restaurants, what tip do you have for playing it safe?

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Image source: Alan Light/Flickr