Dining Out Dairy-Free
Dining out is supposed to be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. It is a chance to escape the food prep, cooking and best of all, the cleaning! For anyone who has dietary restrictions, eating out can often be worrisome, especially in times where you don't get to choose the restaurant due to a group or work function. As someone who is dairy-free, hearing that the birthday party of a close friend is at an Italian pizzeria is not a moment of excitement, but instead a moment of fear and horror. With the right preparations, you can do your best to make the most of your dining experience, no matter where you dine!
1. CHOOSE VEGAN
Vegan restaurants are always a safe choice because there will be no animal products on site, including dairy. Although I eat meat, there is something freeing and relaxing about going to a vegan restaurant knowing that you can eat anything on the menu and will not have to ask questions and second guess whether or not they actually know the answer, communicated the message to the kitchen accurately or followed through with the request at all. Eating a vegan meal is also a great way to lower your ecological footprint as every bit counts.
Unsure where to look for vegan restaurants in your area? Check out the app and website, "Happy Cow" that compiles vegan restaurant worldwide. This app is especially useful when travelling and unsure what options there are locally.
Click on the link to explore restaurants in your area or beyond!
2. ASK QUESTIONS AND ADVOCATE
You are heading out for a special dinner and don’t want a vegan meal; that’s fair. As you head into restaurants that use butter instead of oil, stuff everything with cheese and add milk to their dinner rolls, the next tip is the most important; ask questions and advocate for yourself.
I learned this the hard way when I didn’t advocate for myself to push for what I required to have a safe and enjoyable dining experience. This left me feeling hungry and disappointed in myself. After some reflection, I treated it as a learning experience and has ultimately empowered me to be a stronger advocate for myself while dining out. Unfortunately, it can take that one negative experience to move past that fear of whatever it may be that is holding you back from advocating for yourself. Whether that feeling is confidence, embarrassment, judgment, trust, control (and the list goes on), the fact is that the restaurant ultimately wants you to have a positive experience and would love for you to return again and again. For the most part, people will be successful in accommodating you, but when they are dropping the ball, that’s when you need to take control of the situation.
3. CALL AHEAD, PLAN AHEAD
Whether you are heading out to dinner with friends, family, or a large birthday party, you probably know which restaurant you are headed to. Every restaurant has a website at this point so check it out, pick out a few menu items that might work for you and even call ahead to make sure they are safe so you can arrive at the restaurant relaxed and ready to enjoy a meal. When you arrive at the restaurant, it is always a good idea to double check some of those menu items you were thinking of ordering to ensure there were no updates to those dishes. Depending on the type of restaurant, things such as sides and sauces can change seasonally.
If you are attending a large dinner for a birthday party with existing friends as well as new people where you might not feel like being the centre of attention having to explain that you don’t eat dairy, why, what happens, etc., give the restaurant a call ahead of time to suggest menu items or menu items that can be accommodated. This can be a proactive way to minimize those uncomfortable situations around new people to avoid having to share your life-story and the need for being dairy-free.
4. ALLERGY AND DIETARY RESTRICTION CARDS
Some of us have more than one food allergy which can often complicate things, leaving the server with a long list of items that must be left out of your dining experience. This can be worrisome when wondering if they wrote them all down and were specific and clear enough to the kitchen staff. To avoid this problem, creating small index cards to keep in your purse or wallet with a list of food products that you cannot eat is a useful tool. This allergy index card can be passed onto the kitchen staff with your order while preparing your meal. This is a great place to go into detail about your allergy. You may say to the server, "no dairy please", but the index card allows you to expand on that. Rather than say "no dairy" you could say "no cheese, no milk, no cream, no butter, etc.". This can leave you with peace of mind that nothing was missed. It may seem a little much, but I'm confident the server would appreciate the help! There are services available who can create these allergy index cards for you, including translating and creating your allergy cards into various languages that are invaluable while travelling.
5. SAFE(R) CUISINE CHOICES
You will always manage to find an item on any menu that you can eat from any type of cuisine with some sort of easy modification. The lists below are intended to give you some guidance as an overall menu based off their use of dairy in their dishes.
Cuisine to generally avoid:
Cuisine that offers a variety of dairy-free options:
g. Middle Eastern
h. South Indian
6. HIDDEN DAIRY MENU ITEMS
There are certain sides you make at home that you would never think to put dairy in (probably because you are dairy-free, like me, QuincyB) but restaurants like to use a lot of butter, cheese and cream to enhance the flavour of certain menu items.
Here is a list of popular menu items that often contain dairy. Be sure to clarify ingredients on these items with your server.
a. mashed potatoes
c. some curry dishes
f. some deep-fried food (the coating)
g. salad dressings
h. baked potato (twice baked)
i. processed meat
j. butter when frying meat or vegetables
k. pancakes and waffles
l. scrambled eggs
As someone who eats dessert after every meal, this is always a bit disappointing when eating out at a restaurant because there are rarely dairy-free options, unless dining at a vegan restaurant. I never expect to eat dessert while dining out, but as you can imagine, I am pretty well versed with the dairy-free dessert spots in the city and always look for a few in the neighbourhood to walk to for a post-dinner sweet treat.
I hope through sharing my experience and tips that you were able to pick up a few new things to make your life easier when dining out dairy-free. Show appreciation for the restaurant staff and praise a job well done. This can go a long way and possibly build a relationship leading to a more relaxed dining experience as they get to know you and your needs in the future. Most importantly though, remember to take charge, advocate and ask questions. Remember, only you know what you need and it is your job to communicate that.
Do you have any dining out tips or experiences that could benefit others? Share with us in the comments below.