The Rules for Eating Out: How to Enjoy Restaurants Without Compromising Your Health

Monday Aug 10 | BY |
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Beautiful girl feeling unhappy about the receipt and having money problems

Restaurants can be tricky on a raw food diet, or any diet, for that matter.

When I was eating 100% raw, I avoided restaurants almost entirely. I occasionally ate at raw restaurants, but because the food served there was usually based on nuts and seeds and very high in fat, I wouldn’t feel very good afterwards.

Even when I was eating close to 100% raw but with occasional exceptions, I avoided restaurants.

People have made various suggestions for raw foodists who want to know what to do when they find themselves in a situation where they have to eat at a restaurant for business, or in other social settings. Some people suggested simply pretending you have already eaten, but having a glass of something like orange juice with your group.

Others have suggested calling the restaurant in advance to request a special meal, or even pretending to the waiter that you have food allergies. I also knew a raw foodist who carried a little card with her listing all the items she was allowed to eat, and asked the waiter to pass it along to the chef and ask if they could do something with it. One raw foodist I know ordered a salad once — but found it too small, so requested another one “three times the size.”

Many raw foodists simply eat beforehand, and then order something small, like a green salad with dressing on the side (which they won’t touch) to avoid being difficult or looking too weird. In some cases, they bring their own dressings.

These are all hidden admissions that it’s very difficult to follow a raw food diet in social situations, unless you lie, or go out of your way to make a special request that probably won’t be accommodated the way you would like.

When I was traveling in the Philippines with my ex-wife, we found it very difficult to find healthy foods at restaurants. And whenever we made special requests, people didn’t really understand what we wanted. It turned out that whatever vegan choices (or special requests) we could make at restaurants were much more unhealthy than the standard choices. Pasta would come out overcooked, doused in a very sweet sauce; and vegetables were fried. In this situation, it would have been better to simply order a straightforward, non-vegan meal, such as grilled fish and rice.

All of these inconveniences are generally not a big issue for most people, but can contribute to the feeling of social alienation many people feel when eating healthy diet. It’s not that most people miss eating out at restaurants, but they also cannot eat out with friends in other circumstances, share a drink, and otherwise feel part of the “normal world.”

Some people don’t mind any of this because of their personality and feeling that they are doing the right thing for their health — which is their priority. I certainly think that this attitude is great, as long as you are happy with the choices you make and options available to you.

In the past, I had clear rules for eating out — and I’m not even talking about raw foods. Eating 100% raw vegan at a restaurant is extremely difficult — especially if you intend this meal to actually nourish you and not leave you hungry half an hour later. Having a vegan meal is possible in most places, but what I have found is that it’s next to impossible to make sure the meal meets my ideal standards, such as being low in oil and salt, and having enough vegetables. I would often explain exactly what I wanted, only to be disappointed when I received my plate.

What I have discovered is that often the vegan option at a restaurant is not the healthiest choice.

Often the vegan option is a pasta dish, or another dish containing a lot of refined carbs.

I now find it better to simply look for the healthiest dish on the menu, and order that — even though it may not be ideal. In some cases, that would be a vegetarian dish including some small amount of dairy (e.g. cheese on top, which could even be picked off if you wanted). In other cases, it might be fish. I know this philosophy will not work for some of my readers because they feel very strongly about vegan ethics — but it works for me.

In North American cultures, restaurants are more used to special dietary requests. Many people don’t drink, only drink decaf coffee, avoid gluten, are vegetarian, or have other special dietary needs. Therefore it is not completely out of place to refuse something that’s offered to you in social situations when you have dietary or other restrictions.

In other cultures — especially Asian ones — it’s considered very rude to refuse to taste food or drink offered by your guests. Many North Americans don’t understand that concept, but it’s quite prevalent in many parts of the world. I knew a raw foodist who was a businessman in Asia. He ate a raw food diet most of the time, but had to make an exception when he was doing business in China — because he simply could not refuse to taste food and drinks offered by his hosts. If he had done so, it would have been considered extremely rude by his business associates — and he would have lost the business.

That being said, it’s still difficult in North America to eat a healthy meal outside of a “health” restaurant because  the staff is rarely confronted with someone who literally cannot have anything on the menu.

It may help you to have a few simple rules about what “not to eat” at a restaurant or other social occasions.

Everyone will be different in this regard, so I won’t give you rules that you should imperatively follow. It’s more about how you react to certain foods (gluten, dairy, etc.) and your personal values (vegan, etc.).

Here are my rules that I try to follow when eating out:

Always order dressing on the side. I found that this works better than asking for “no dressing,” even if you don’t end up using the dressing they bring you at all!

• If any type of sauce is mentioned in the description, request it “on the side”

* Avoid dairy products, if possible, especially when cheese is a main component in the meal. Look for an alternative without the cheese.

Avoid fried foods, as well as anything that includes the word “crispy” or “creamy.”

• Avoid soups. Soups are generally too salty. Most chefs use a lot of cream in the soups, as well.

Avoid appetizers. Only order main courses or salad. Easier said than done, but I’m always happy with this choice!

• Avoid dessert (this rule is occasionally broken for a “once in a life- time” dessert experience!)

In my next article, I will talk about what to actually order in specific restaurants!

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.


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  1. JoJo says:

    It has been years since I have eaten off the menu since I have many restrictions in my diet: no gluten, no meat, no dairy, no refined sugars. Since I moved out of NY I find most places are willing to work with me and accommodate this. A lot of times I do look at the appetizers as they are the right size – a main meal is general enough for a family of four.

    Some times I ask for a modification of what is on the menu. And for the really limited menus I have asked the wait person to tell the chef what I can’t eat and to surprise me. I think this option usually works the best because the chefs like a create challenge and I like a tasty meal. Then I don’t get a paired down bland version of what had sounded delicious.

    For salads a lot of times I will just ask for olive oil and some lemon wedges on the side. This has done well for me.

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