Eating Out & Traveling

Preparing meals at home may not be as convenient as eating out or ordering take-out foods, but when you make things yourself you can keep the amount of fat, sugar and sodium to acceptable limits. When going to restaurants, parties, potlucks and barbecues, it becomes a challenge to avoid fats and animal proteins. There are a variety of ways in which you can eat enough and still enjoy the occasion.

Restaurants that offer vegetarian and low-fat friendly foods are increasing, and many will go out of their way to give you a low-fat meal that is as delicious as their regular menu fare. The American Restaurant Association has informed its members that about 7% of the population, or about one in every 14 persons requests vegetarian food. They urge their members to offer more vegetarian items. Unfortunately, vegetarian doesn't necessarily mean low fat. Vegetables may arrive covered in butter, margarine or oils. Salad dressings are mostly fat and many baked goods are high in oils.

Steamed vegetables are available in most restaurants. Baked potato is frequently offered, as is rice and pasta. A plate of vegetables and a potato or rice is filling and nutritious, especially if served with an oil-free spaghetti sauce or salsa. Salad bars are a good source, if you avoid the cheeses and dressings. I bring a small plastic jar of my own favorite non-fat salad dressing with me when I eat out, and I've never had a problem from anyone about this. Soft rolls and breads may have a little oil, but with the other items you're eating, the meal should still be less than 10% calories from fat. When whole wheat bread isn't available, French bread, which is usually made without oil, is the best choice (but without butter or margarine). If the dinner isn't too formal, I often make up a veggie sandwich, adding some non-fat salad dressing on the bread. Ketchup is a non-fat flavor enhancer, but mustard is a high fat food, though small quanties are not a problem.

In the U.S. and Canada most larger communities have ethnic restaurants. Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and other Asian restaurants often feature vegetarian dishes, but you should make it clear that you do not want oil or fat. Coconut milk is a common ingredient in many southeast Asian dishes, so order with care. Chinese restaurants are found in even small communities, but their vegetarian dishes are often made with oil, chicken stock, and can be high in MSG. A personal request to the owner or manager will often get you low fat and meatless versions of many menu items. I usually don't ask the waiter, since the cook may not care what he requests, but when the boss says low fat, it is more likely to come that way. Europe and South America have fewer vegetarian resources, but asking around will almost always reveal at least one place to eat safely. The Vegetarian Resource Group (see Resources for link) has a list of restaurants in all areas of the world.

Calling the restaurant in advance can make the difference between a risky evening and a rewarding one. Explain that you must eat a no-fat vegetarian diet for health reasons. To some people "low fat" might mean a meal with more fat than you'd want to eat in a week The mention of heart disease usually promotes cooperation, since almost everyone knows someone who has it.

Fried Squid - No Squid
Before I started on this program one of my favorite meals was fried squid, mostly fresh stir-fried vegetables and a tangy-spicy sauce, at a local Korean restaurant. I was sad to learn that the same size portion of squid has five times the cholesterol of steak, and it looked like I'd never get to eat my favorite dish again. When I asked for the fried squid dish, but without the squid, I explained that it was for my heart condition, I'd eat vegetarian or nothing. The owner agreed, but said she'd have to charge extra to leave out the squid. Although that sounded strange, I agreed. Then I told her that I wanted it cooked without oil. She shook her head and said that was impossible. So with great authority I told her that with the squid it needed oil, but without the fish, it could be prepared without any oil. She looked at me as if I were crazy, but made it my way. It was just as delicious as it had been in the past (in fact, with the spicy sauce, I'm not sure I ever tasted the squid), and I could eat it as often as I liked. Now she adds lots of extra vegetables and charges me the same as the original squid dish. The lesson:
Always ask for what you want, and take the time to explain why.

Many national restaurant chains offer low fat choices. Veggie-burgers are becoming more common. Gardenburgers (a brand of vegetarian patties) are now available in more than 5,000 restaurants in the Los Angeles area alone. National restaurant chains may vary from one location to another, and some have regional menus. Note: not all "garden burgers" are the same. Even the original GardenBurger® has a variety of products, some vegan, others made with cheese and with eggs. If you're following a vegan diet, check to see which type of garden burger is offered.

TGIF (Thank Goodness Its Friday) restaurants usually have a light menu. some with a vegan (strictly vegetarian with no eggs or dairy) option. Try the vegetable baguette (ordered without cheese) and the Gardenburger. Santa Fe Chicken, which is a sliced breast of chicken or tuna over a bowl of mixed steamed vegetables, with a vinaigrette sauce on the side, can be ordered without the meat and with a baked potato. They also serve baked potatoes with steamed vegetables in them. The Thai chicken salad, ordered without the chicken, is mostly salad greens, oriental vegetables, Chinese noodles and mandarin orange slices in a spicy peanut dressing. The noodles and peanuts are high fat, but they are a very small part, so the meal is within acceptable limits.

In an emergency, most Burger Kings offer a Veggie Whopper. This is a Whopper sandwich without the meat or cheese. Ask for extra lettuce and tomato instead of the meat, and tell them to hold the mayonnaise. The price is the same as their regular Whopper. At one time, Burger King test-marketed a true low-fat veggie burger, had a surprisingly large number of sales, but then announced they would not offer it nationally. Ask the manager when they will offer it again, as they may bow to customer demand.

Taco Bell can make you (if the manager is agreeable and it isn't the rush hour)a burrito with refried beans (which have a small amount of vegetable oil) and salsa. They also have a salad, but it is not very large or varied. Avoid the taco salad, which was analyzed to have 61 grams of fat even without the 50% fat taco shell. Their "lite" offerings have much less fat, but most still have 5 grams of fat or more.

Subway sandwich shops offer a veggie combination on a whole wheat roll. It is made of the normal garnish that goes on their other sandwiches, lettuce, tomato, pickles, peppers, bean sprouts and cheese. Ask them to hold the cheese, olives and mayonnaise and you'll have a filling lunch. Subway shops' menu may vary, and some franchises offer fat-free veggie burgers. If your local Subway doesn't, enough requests may get them added to the menu.

Vegetarians across the U.S. report that Denny's does not appear to be catering to persons seeking low fat vegetarian food. They have discontinued their veggie sandwich and the menu offers little else that is within the guidelines recommended here.

Many local restaurants and regional chains offer excellent low fat vegetarian choices. If you find one, it is a good idea to thank the manager. Telling them that their offerings are appreciated helps keep these items on the menu and encourages them to add more.

At dinner parties it is both courteous and wise to call the hosts and explain your dietary restrictions. Usually just explaining that you'd appreciate no meat, fish or fowl for yourself and that you can simply double up on vegetables and starches will get you a fine meal without embarrassing yourself or the hosts by asking for special treatment at the time the meal is served.

At pot lucks bring a dish to share and also bring enough to feed yourself in a separate container. If the other choices allow, eat what is offered and take your emergency meal home, but often you'll have to eat what you brought. In a barbecue or other buffet where there may not be much for me to chose from, eat a full meal before leaving, and then you can snack on a salad, vegetables or bread if there is any. If you have to be there for a while before you can eat, ask the hosts if it is OK to bring some special diet foods with you. Many hosts will offer to make something special, but you can always decline, saying that you're happy to bring your own.

Traveling, especially when the meals are prepared in advance, can be risky. Always bring plenty of low-fat snacks with me when flying, such as whole wheat bagels, pretzels (scrape off the salt), and fruit. Almost all airlines offer special meals, vegetarian, low-fat, non-dairy, kosher and others. It is important to order these meals well in advance, when making reservations, and to confirm the request a day or two before departing. That doesn't mean you'll get the meal, though. When the meal service starts, the cabin attendants may ask who gets the vegetarian meal. If someone who either forgot to order one or decides that it sounds good raises a hand, your pre-ordered meal may go to someone else. Before departure, it is helpful tell the cabin attendant responsible for your area that you ordered a special meal. It's also a good idea to give a gentle reminder just before the meals are served. If you find your meal has been served to someone else or not even loaded on the airplane, ask for a fruit plate and any extra veggies and get your emergency rations ready. For a comprehensive listing of all airline vegetarian food offerings, see the Airline Foods page at Vegetarians in Paradise or use the link on the Resources page.

When taking long car trips, sandwiches can be made in advance, salads made along the way, and other foods stored in a cooler. If you're traveling with kids who want fast food stops, bring your own food with you to eat while the kids have theirs.

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation