filed under Dining Out, Vegan Food

How to Eat Vegan When It’s Not on the Menu

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Vegan Dining in the South of France. Photo by Amber Shea Ford.

I firmly believe vegans should never have to relegate themselves to ordering a meager salad when dining out. In fact, I have never eaten salad at a restaurant in my life! A healthy vegan meal can be “invented” at any kind of restaurant whether or not vegan options exist on the menu; all it takes is a willingness to ask questions and make specific requests. The vast majority of restaurants are more than happy to accommodate your needs as best they can. No matter what which restaurants you frequent or what types of cuisines you crave, there’s an easy vegan solution. Here are some examples of vegan or almost-vegan (for those who are approximating) meals you could find at your favorite restaurants and in a variety of dining scenarios.


The relative absence of dairy makes it easy to eat vegan at an Asian restaurant. Order steamed vegetables, stir-fried tofu, lo mein, brown rice or any other meatless offering at a Chinese place. Go for miso soup and a vegetable sushi roll if you’re eating a Japanese meal. Thai, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants usually offer multiple vegetarian options on their menus as well.


Strict vegans: Always ask to make sure your meal won’t contain any fish sauce or stock.


Although it seems like this category would be the toughest one of all, it’s probably the simplest—just go for the side dishes! Build a “sampler platter” of sides like grilled corn or asparagus (hold the butter), a dinner roll or two, steamed broccoli, a baked sweet potato with cinnamon sugar, or even steak fries.


Strict vegans: Ask whether your veggies can be cooked on a separate grill or otherwise apart from where the meat is cooked.

Breakfast & Brunch

Whether you find yourself at a Denny’s or at a fancy-schmancy brunch spot, there are lots of options when it comes to breakfast food. Fresh fruit, oatmeal, hash browns with ketchup, granola, bagels and toast with jam are a few great ones.


Strict vegans: Request that your oatmeal be prepared with water instead of milk, and always remind your server you don’t want butter on your toast.


French cuisine is notorious for its liberal use of butter and cream, but you can bypass that (no pun intended) with dishes like ratatouille, veggie soup, steamed vegetables and baked or fried potatoes. When in doubt, check out the side dish menu and ask for your order to be prepared without butter.

Strict vegans: Ask in advance whether soups are made with animal stock and if breads contain egg or dairy.


An Indian restaurant is a veg paradise to me. Although many curries are made with ghee (clarified butter) and cream, most Indian restaurants will omit the ghee and substitute coconut cream if you ask—it’s much yummier anyway! Appetizers and sides like pappadum, pakora, veggie samosas, roti and paratha are also excellent vegan choices.

Strict vegans: Avoid naan, which, although delicious, is made with yogurt.


Fresh-baked bread with olive oil is my favorite starter of all time. Don’t forget the bruschetta and minestrone soup! You may think spaghetti marinara is the only entrée possibility, but many places also offer a pasta primavera or spaghetti pomodoro, a sauce made with fresh tomatoes and olive oil.


Strict vegans: Make sure no chicken broth is used in the vegetables soups or pasta sauce, and if you’re ordering garlic bread, request that it be prepared with oil rather than butter.


Think Mexican food’s no good without the cheese? Think again. After digging into the tortilla chips with salsa and/or guacamole, I like to ask for tacos, enchiladas or a burrito filled with black beans instead of meat, plus a side of Spanish rice.


Strict vegans: Ask your server whether the rice is prepared with chicken stock, and make sure the beans haven’t been cooked in lard.

Middle Eastern

Hummus (my favorite food in the world) is a no-brainer, especially with freshly baked pita bread, but there’s also baba ghanouj, dolmas, falafel, and tabbouleh for appetizers. For the main event, veggie kebabs over rice pilaf is always a winner.


Strict vegans: Verify there’s no animal stock in the rice, and request that nothing be garnished with feta cheese, just in case.


You don’t have to give up pizza night with your friends! Just get your portion of the pie cheeseless (I ask for extra sauce, instead), and pile on the veggies—roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and roasted garlic are my favorites.


Strict vegans: Most pizza crusts are naturally vegan, but ask to make sure there’s no dairy or honey in there.

And remember: whenever possible, check out a restaurant’s online menu ahead of time, to help you create a “plan of attack” in advance.  It’s always best to be prepared!


  • Justin C

    Great post! Lots of creative vegan dining options

    • Amber Shea @Almost Vegan

      Thanks Justin! :)

  • Anonymous

    Building a meal from side dishes is a great tip for sticking to a vegan diet at a “non-vegan” restaurant. And it’s fun because you get to try more things!

    • Amber Shea @Almost Vegan

      Agreed! I oftentimes find I PREFER that freedom, in fact :)

  • Spumoni

    We’re planning a road trip this summer, this will be most helpful!

  • Spumoni

    We’re planning a road trip this summer, this will be most helpful!

    • Amber Shea @Almost Vegan

      How fun! I LOVE road trips. Glad I could help!

  • foodDiva4Life

    Thanks, I really enjoyed this article. As the mother of a vegetarian I am often stressed at the idea of going out for dinner. My daughter is usually left to eat a plate of french fries or steamed broccoli. Thanks for enlightening me to other options.

    • Amber Shea @Almost Vegan

      You’re so very welcome! I’m really happy I could help. Hopefully this will ease your future stress quite a bit!

  • welcome wonderland

    great post I need to print this!!! keep it handy

    • Amber Shea @Almost Vegan

      So glad you enjoyed it and will find it useful!

  • vegan

    I must admit the use of “strict vegan” is off putting. Vegan is vegan. Otherwise, I think this is helpful for vegetarians, new (“strict”) vegans & those going the Freston route.

    • MsHoneyBee

      I thought that it was a little weird too! I’m a “strict” vegetarian, so I always verify things like animal stock or fish sauce. That seems par for the course for anyone who calls themselves “vegan” – strict or otherwise.

      I agree though – still great ideas that will be very helpful for a lot of people!

  • Woody

    I concur, I find the article is encouraging.
    I raise a warning to those traveling south or southwest, though. The side dishes typically have meat or dairy in a good portion of the vegetables side dishes in southern restaurants and the same goes Mexican restaurants. I am blessed to have a beautiful Bride of Mexican decent. She and her family have gone to great lengths to modify their cooking methods to help me maintain my vegan diet. In our travels, we have foud that the more affluent restaurants (at least in San Antonio) are now offering vegetarian or even vegan options on their menus now, to meet the up and and coming demand for this diet choice.

Amber Shea Crawley, creator and author of the popular food blog Chef Amber Shea, is a classically trained chef, linguist, and writer in Kansas City, Missouri. Specializing in healthful, plant-rich food, she is the author of the cookbooks Practically Raw and Practically Raw Desserts as well as the ebook The REAL FOOD Cleanse. Amber blogs at and can also be found on Facebook and Twitter (@ChefAmberShea).