Are you a glass half full kinda person or do you see it as half empty? If you are like me, you see it half full.
That is the approach I take to eating out as a vegan. There are certainly times when it is more difficult than others, but my experience in 90% of cases is very positive and easy.
That is, if you live in a big city.
But we’ll get to that. My glass half full experience eating out goes like this: when you are vegan, the menu shrinks considerably.
For many people it can be frustrating to have so few options, and I will admit when I go to a vegan restaurant where the full menu is available to me, I am almost overwhelmed and also overjoyed to have so many choices.
But there’s a catch — sometimes choice isn’t a good thing.
The Paradox of Choice
Have you ever heard of the paradox of choice? There is an excellent TED talk on the subject by psychologist Barry Schwartz (watch).
In it he discusses how more is not always better when it comes to choice. I won’t spoil his talk for you, but one example he uses is salad dressings in the grocery store.
If you go to a full supermarket in the United States and stand in front of the salad dressings you may be alarmed to find tens if not hundreds of choices. Twenty different brands offering ten different dressings each — how do you possibly choose?
Some may say, “this is amazing! God bless America for giving us 200 salad dressings to choose from!”
But the research paints a very different picture. The research suggests that you will be far less happy with your choice than if you only had just a handful of dressings to choose from.
With 200 options, you have a 1 in 200 chance of selecting the “optimal” dressing. When you get home and try it out, you will likely be thinking about the other 199 you passed up and wondering if you made the right selection. This likely won’t be a conscious thought, but it will influence how satisfied you are with your decision.
If you only had a handful of choices however, you will feel more confident that you selected the right dressing, and you will feel happier about it. So say the respondents of surveys.
Enter Vegan Eating
Is it just me or have menus in America ballooned from one or two columns to six or seven pages of two to three columns each? There are simply too many items to choose from!
If you are an omnivore and you are reading this, when was the last time you sat down at a restaurant, looked over the menu, selected something to order and immediately closed the menu without second guessing it? I’d wager it doesn’t happen too often.
The reality is you are likely to select something, then have a friend tell you what they are thinking about ordering, then you reconsider yours, then you ask yourself the impossible question of “what do I really want right now,” then you have to scan the menu with your nebulous answer to this question loosely held in your mind, only to find now you have three or four items you are choosing between, and then the waiter comes and your friends are ready and you say “oh just start and by the time they get to me I’ll have decided,” thinking that the pressure of a time deadline will force a moment of clarity, only to discover you are no closer to making a decision than you were a moment ago, because your foolproof strategy only really bought you about 10 seconds, so now, feeling the pressure from your friends, the waiter, and every other patron in the establishment you blurt out almost at random one of the three dishes you have narrowed down from the 97 choices, hoping and praying, dear god, did I make the right choice…then you sit there in the agonizing twenty minutes before your food comes, convincing yourself that you are absolutely sure that you chose wrong and were really craving the soup and salad and by the time your food comes you are disappointed because you know it isn’t what you wanted and you sit with the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that you could have been that much happier had you ordered something different, and now you pin your hopes on dessert where the menu is much shorter, only 12 options, and the cycle repeats itself until you go insane and swear off all future dining out excursions and decide to make your own meals from scratch from now on and so you head to the grocery store ready to make that darn salad you were craving only to find there are 200 salad dressings waiting on a shelf for you that you have to choose from.
Ever been there before?
Well for better or worse, it’s not like this as a vegan.
Our menu gets instantly shrunk the second we sit down to look at it. Depending on the restaurant and style of food, it may get shortened to literally one item, or zero if you forgot to read the menu before arriving at the restaurant (#ProTip). Most of the time, in a city, at a restaurant that isn’t a steakhouse, you are likely left with somewhere between three and ten options. There’s always a salad, that’s your fall back. Oddly, you almost always have to say “no cheese, no meat please.”
But at Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, etc, there are usually several options that are vegan or can be easily made vegan. Indian cooking can definitely have ghee (clarified butter) or cheese or yogurt, so always ask the waiter how your food is prepared (#ProTip).
Some restaurants will “finish” their dishes with butter, which just means they douse it with melted butter right before serving you. — gross!
Mexican is also relatively easy, as you can usually order rice and beans a la carte, with some salsa, guacamole, tortillas, etc. Again, always ask, as some refried beans have lard in them, and occasionally tortillas do as well.
Nearly every Mexican place will have veggie fajitas as well, which you can get without sour cream and cheese. Remember, the vegetables may be cooked in butter, so ASK!
Pizza places are almost always more than happy to make you a cheese-less pie, as they are used to people with dairy allergies. So ask!
Sushi is great, just get veggie rolls Some miso soup is made with a seafood broth, though I think it’s rare, but ask anyway. Also some Asian-style sauces use fish sauce, ask.
Another #ProTip: download the Happy Cow app. It is incredible, especially when traveling, as it will tell you all the vegan friendly restaurants in the area!
When eating out is hard
I recently took a weekend trip to Cape Cod, MA, a place known for their seafood. I struggled.
Eating out in cities as a vegan is incredibly easy. In rural parts of America it’s near impossible at times. I ended up ordering a loaf of bread at breakfast, a cheese-less pizza for lunch (delicious!), and a side order of grilled potatoes and grilled mixed vegetables for dinner.
I swore to my friends “it’s not usually this hard.” But it happens, and you have to take your lumps. If you believe in what you are doing, it isn’t so hard. And the more restaurants encounter vegans who are willing to assert their needs, the more it will get easier. In fact the day after I got back I read a headline about dozens of Cape restaurants that were trying out new vegan entrees in October — ah just missed it!!
Eating out as a vegan in 2015 is easier than it ever has been, and all signs point to this trend continuing. For now, enjoy the small menu that affords you the luxury of not being paralyzed by too many choices! Read the menu ahead of time, always ask how your food is being prepared, and don’t be afraid to order off menu if need be. It will only get easier next year
For more on foods you don’t have to give up as a vegan, check out my video!: 5 Foods You Don’t Have To Give Up As A Vegan!
And stay tuned next week for the second part of the Vegan How To series, where we will discuss what to look for on labels.