Dining out is one of the luxuries that many take for granted. We often swing through a fast food drive-up for a quick meal, celebrate important occasions at nice restaurants, and even invite friends out for a bite. Most of us look for meals that simply sound good, but there are many who have dietary restrictions that narrow their choices. It is true that most establishments have adapted to these diners by offering things like low carb and low fat choices, as well as allergy warnings and even fad diet calculations. The Weight Watcher’s menu at Applebee’s is a good example. Yet when it comes to the vegan diner, we usually find that they have been forgotten.
The main problem occurs when a restaurant does not understand the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan. A vegetarian, depending on the type, will exclude red meats but still consume varying levels of animal products. A vegan will not eat, or use, any animal products or honey. I have often found that inquiring about vegan items on the menu leads the server to suggest a vegetarian item. Consequently, vegetarian meals are offered and vegan foods are forgotten.
Another issue is in the detail of the menu. Main ingredients are usually listed, and even some minor ones that are special to the dish, but meat products are sometimes included in the meal but not in the menu description. Mexican restaurants, for example, will offer vegetable fajitas that are served with melted cheese and refried beans that are sometimes made with lard. Family restaurants may have a meal composed of their side dishes, but those vegetables are often cooked with butter or bits of meat as flavor enhancers. Burger establishments commonly offer vegetarian burgers. Though this seems like a great solution, these patties can contain eggs and milk, and they are often topped with a slice of cheese and a smear of mayo. In addition, many bread products are made with eggs and dairy products, which can make cold sandwiches another tricky dinner venue.
Lastly, there are places a vegan will be invited to that have meat in everything they serve. Every main dish includes a large hunk of animal flesh. Their soups are made with beef or chicken stock and their breads are made with eggs and dairy. Someone will eventually suggest a salad, which turns out to be little more than iceberg lettuce and carrots topped with bacon, cheeses, and buttered croutons. If you are lucky, there are unshelled peanuts at the table for you to munch on while your dinner guests finish their meals.
It is understandable that not every establishment can cater to every diet. They each have their target customers, as it would be very expensive to serve food for every type of diner. However, there are a few things vegans would like restaurants to consider. First, educate yourself and your staff about vegetarians and vegans. This will allow them to make educated suggestions to your vegetarian and vegan patrons. Second, label the presence of animal products in your menu items. Even something as small as a symbol next to an item that is 100% vegan would be a great step, one that some Thai restaurants have already taken! Third, if you aren’t a place that obviously is designed to grill up meat, like a steak house, offer at least one item on the menu that is vegan. It will increase both your number of patrons and your reputation. Vegans are a growing part of society that like dining out, and with a few thoughtful changes, they will enjoy it even more!