Finding Decent Vegan Food at Stores or Restaurants: Overcoming the Barriersby Sherry Jeppson Zitter
One of our greatest challenges as new or experienced vegans can be finding nutritious and delicious foods, whether in a restaurant or at our local grocery store. What are some ways to handle these dilemmas?
Our Vegan MetroWest Network in central Massachusetts just started a new Meet-Up event: Vegan Conversations, a monthly forum to discuss topics related to our experience as vegans. I sat with a dozen vegans at the first gathering listening to questions or concerns such as: "I live alone now. It's so hard to cook vegan for one person!" "I recently became vegan for my health after being a cheeseburger addict. How do I make a decent vegi-burger? I don't want to buy processed junk food -- vegan or not!" and "The only vegan thing on the menu was vegetables, and they came cooked in butter…I didn't want to hurt the waitress' feelings by sending them back…."
We come to veganism from many motivations: animal rights, health, environmentalism, social justice, and more. A longterm vegan told me: "I'm not vegan for what I eat; I'm vegan for what I don't eat." For an ethical vegan whose main concern is avoiding animal products, this may be sufficient. But many of us are foodies, ethical vegans or no. And most of us care greatly about what we eat, how it tastes and how to get good nutrition to maintain our health.
Buying local produce through area farmers' markets, farmsteads and CSA's* is a great way to insure higher nutritive value in our food. Produce can lose up to 80% of its vitamins on the way across the country to our store or restaurant. (*CSA'a are Community Supported Agriculture, where consumers pay upfront for a season of produce to enable farmers to buy seed and hire workers to plant)
Although finding organic produce is not only a vegan issue, it has great implications for animals (human and non-human) and our environment. Organic CSA's such as Enterprise Farms in Whateley, MA have drop-offs in many locations from western MA to Boston, and are adding more each month. (Their winter farmshare is a loose cooperative venture of farms along the East Coast, providing scrumptious oranges from Florida and hothouse tomatoes from Pennsylvania in February, for lower prices than the supermarket.) Many areas in New England have organic farmsteads; ask at your local farmers' market.
The local supermarket may offer hidden options. Markets compete with each other for consumer loyalty, and one priority is customer service. Although the organic produce area or the vegan grocery section may look woefully inadequate to you, you can often order items not on the shelf by talking to the head of the department. You can suggest new products that other shoppers might also want to buy, and be sure to buy a few (and ask your friends to do so) as soon as the product shows up on the shelves.
My friend Laura noticed a vegan chocolate chip muffin when she stopped at an unfamiliar Whole Foods Market, and asked her local WF bakery manager to offer the same item. She mentioned that the same batter they use for blueberry vegan muffins (a standard offering), could be easily adapted for chocolate chips. When the new offering appeared, she made it a point to buy a few several times that week and freeze them. She then stopped to thank the bakery manager and ask how the new item was selling; he was pleased that it was doing so well. This is an example of great advocacy for ourselves and our community!
Our local Stop and Shop produce manager has been responsive to requests for specific organic items, and usually has them in a few days. If we order a case of bananas or apples, we get a 10% discount. (A case can be split with friends or family; some apples or cold weather veggies such as carrots, potatoes, onions or turnips can be stored in a root cellar or cool basement for several weeks.) I also have requested specific grocery items from S&S, and the department manager has gotten them when they were available. I remember to close the loop by thanking him by phone if he is not around when I shop.
When our vegan group bemoaned the fact that we had to travel almost an hour to buy nondairy ice cream, some of us wrote a petition to the town's homemade ice cream stand, asking them to provide such an option. We took the petition and some Trader Joe's chocolate coconut frozen dessert (I know non-vegan ice cream aficionados who prefer this to dairy ice cream!) to the manager, and spoke to her about the many vegans and people allergic to dairy in the area. It turned out her mom is lactose-intolerant! She was open to adding this option for next season; stay tuned.
Preparing Wholesome Food without Taking All Night
Many of us work full-time jobs, are raising a family, and/or have many other obligations that necessitate efficient food preparation. One of my group members lamented that the gap from carnist (voluntary meat-eater) to ovo-lacto vegetarian (one who will eat eggs and dairy) is not so great, but from there to vegan is a HUGE leap, both in terms of availability at restaurants and convenience in home cooking. For the latter, some of the essential tools for yummy, healthy meals are a pressure cooker, slow cooker (aka crockpot) and freezer. (We recently bought a Fagor combination pressure cooker-slow cooker-rice cooker that is fabulous and takes the space of 3 appliances.)
A simple way to have good food all week is to make a pot of beans and a pot of grain twice a week that can be eaten for 3 or 4 days. All that remains is to steam vegetables (5 - 7 minutes) and add your favorite sauce or dressing and spices/condiments. I keep my cutting board and favorite chopping knife (a cleaver) next to the stove. When I get home, I begin boiling 2 inches of water in a pot while I chop carrots and leafy greens. Carrots (or thin-sliced beets, sweet potatoes, turnips, or other root veggies) and stems go in as soon as the water begins to simmer. After 3- 5 minutes, I add the kale/collard/swiss chard/beet greens/dandelion leaves, or small broccoli or cauliflower florets, and steam another 2 minutes. (I don't use a steamer, preferring to capture the vitamins in the cooking water and pour it over the rice and beans coming from the frig to warm them up.)
Using a pressure cooker for beans cuts cooking time incredibly, often to 25%. Adding 1 - 2 inches of kombu (a type of kelp seaweed) to beans softens them to help them digest more easily. Using a rice cooker means you can add rice (or any grain or mixture of grains) and water, plug it in and do something else for 30 - 40 minutes, arriving back in the kitchen to a sweet-smelling, steaming pot that is never overcooked.
Various ways to prepare beans in interesting ways can be found at:
Many wonderful one-pot meals can be made in the slow cooker, during the day or overnight. (A web search for "vegan slow-cooked meals" will yield good recipes and books.) The prototypical one is kitchari, a traditional Ayurvedic Indian dish consisting of mung beans (and/or dal, split lentils), rice, vegetables and spices. [example at http://www.aroundmyfamilytable.com/2012/01/kitchari/] Avoid ghee (clarified butter) in recipes, and feel free to leave out hing (or asafetida, an Indian spice that makes beans more digestible) or other spices or veggies you don't have - kitchari is infinitely flexible!
Some friends of mine pick a few easy recipes each Saturday, shop for ingredients, and cook up a large dish on Sunday to last most of the week. Some favorites that keep well, or freeze in individual or family-sized portions for later use, include vegetarian eggplant parm or lasagna, ratatouille, hearty soups and stews, or veggie and pasta salads.
Money can be a substitute for time: to keep on the healthy end of menus, buy pre-washed and chopped veggies or salad ingredients in bags, so a salad or a stir-fry can be prepared in minutes. Westsoy makes a few flavors of seitan already in chunks or strips to throw in the pan; seitan has as much protein per ounce as steak, with no saturated fat or cholesterol. [http://www.mitoku.com/products/seitan/healthbenefits.html]
There are countless wonderful websites for vegan dishes; chances are that if you do a web search for almost any dish you love, a vegan version or conversion will be found. Rip Esselstyn's Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds has delicious vegan ideas for "real men." Also check Amazon for the quick vegan recipe category; books abound with "Ten Minute Recipes" or "Quick Vegan Cooking" in the titles or descriptions. (Or check out our recipe book suggestions in the Resource section of Kindness Counts, our new plant-powered informational guide in the Shoppe on this website.)
As you experiment, you will find a handful of favorite recipes for your family that come easily to you, and except for when you want to spaciously branch out, you may find yourself relying on them frequently. As long as you stay away from highly processed foods, you and your family will be happier and healthier the more vegan meals you consume.
Dining Out: Happy Cow or Pot Luck?
The Happy Cow website [happycow.net] is a wonderful source of vegan and vegetarian restaurants and health food stores throughout the US. It also lists more general restaurants with good vegan options. If you find a restaurant through Happy Cow, please do let the manager know that, to support this vital information source.
But you may be with friends or family in a restaurant where waiters aren't even sure what "vegan" means. What do you do then?
Many vegans will call ahead to a new restaurant, particularly if they will be at a business lunch or entertaining a client, or any situation where it isn't appropriate to spend time on site negotiating food choices. A small cafe in Sturbridge, Mass., the Sunburst, has been happy to stock avocados when they know we are coming, as they can add these delicacies to salad that might otherwise be boring for a vegan.
Sometimes it pays to literally walk the waitperson through the menu, asking if various items can be made without dairy, eggs or honey. Restaurants are used to accommodating special needs and allergies, and often will willingly adapt. In fact, one vegan claims he is "allergic" to eggs, dairy products and honey to be sure the cook is careful!
I recently met a group at a Panera Bread; when I asked the young woman at the counter which menu items were vegan, she said "none." I spent some time going over the menu with her, pointing out the vegan roasted veggie sandwich and explaining how several other choices could be easily adapted for vegans. She called over the manager, who brought the notebook of ingredients in each bread, soup, etc., and we had a good discussion about convenience for their chef along with vegan accessibility.
If you specifically order vegetables in oil, and they come in butter, your priorities at the moment will come into play: is this a teachable moment? If so, how might you correct the situation without either the waitperson or the cook feeling shamed or defensive? Are you entertaining a business client, and decide to let it go and perhaps call the restaurant afterwards? Handling such a situation has great potential, if it the right time for you, and your pioneering will help the next vegan diner.
When I am heading to a new restaurant, I will often grab my bag of essentials: pumpkin or sunflower seeds, an avocado, and sometimes a small jar of tahini or salad dressing. Then I can order a salad and add in some of my favorite ingredients for a hearty, satisfying salad. Or you can often ask the waitperson to add raw or roasted nuts.
Some have found that tipping the waitperson $5 or $10 in advance creates an appreciative and helpful connection, where the server will go out of his or her way to make sure the kitchen is adapting to one's needs and requests.
Our local Indian restaurant had vegan dishes on the menu, but I had to ask about ingredients to insure I got a strictly vegan meal. Recently, I went in and noticed the word "Vegan!" in red next to several entrees. What had made the difference? A good friend of the owner had become vegan and asked him to make the menu more vegan-friendly. I made sure to thank the manager on duty and tell him not only how much this meant to me, but that I would mention the improvement on our local vegan website, promoting his business.
Twice a year, a local Russian Orthodox church holds a bazaar, with traditional Russian meals and baked goods offered all day. When Victoria, our vegan group organizer, found that several of the dishes were vegan (kasha varnishkas, pickled vegetables, vegetable soup, one version of the stuffed cabbage) she posted the event on our website and several of us showed up, thanking the kitchen staff for the vegan food. The next time the event occurred, the organizer contacted Victoria, asking her to post it, expanded the vegan selections and briefed all the waitstaff on which items were vegan. These small steps symbolize how aware our culture is becoming of veganism and how our choices, and those of local businesses, can have a beneficial economic impact on our communities.
Helping School Cafeterias to Improve Vegan Fare
Ahh, the school cafeteria -- it has a captive audience, no matter what the student's diet! Yet there are practical ways we can make suggestions with the best chance of them being accepted.
First, we need to find the right person to speak with; the cashier or server probably isn't it. Requesting a 10 - 15 minute meeting is a way to let whoever is in charge of menu planning know we respect his or her busy job and plan to be brief.
Finding something to compliment about the current offering, however slight, is a great way to open a discussion. If absolutely nothing on the menu is vegan, one can appreciate the willingness of the menu planner to be open to new ideas. Often, a small change in the way items are cooked can be suggested to create vegan options: for example, tacos or tortillas with grated cheese and sour cream on the side, corn-on-the-cob or other veggies prepared without butter, or potatoes baked with oil.
When I went to social work school 30 years ago, the dining room offered 2 foods for vegetarians: cottage cheese and iceberg lettuce. For vegans, one. The non-carnivorous students bought a copy of Moosewood Cookbook (vegetarian with many vegan recipes) for the head of the dining room, and presented it to her with a few strategic bookmarks, commenting on easy and popular recipes. Suddenly, homemade hummus, tabouli salad and oil-roasted vegetables began to show up with regularity. The students responded with a thank-you note signed by 30 students (some non-vegan but grateful for healthier options) and a vegan cookbook!
The Bigger Picture
Whether eating out or in...being vegan, healthy and satisfied is not as hard as it may appear. It takes some planning and creativity, and after the initial investment, often surprisingly little time and effort. And I just love when non-vegan friends like my lasagna or muffins better than those they have come to expect!
Every time we request vegan food at a store or restaurant, we are raising consciousness, intended or not. Each time we thank a business for providing the food we need and enjoy, we are reinforcing more of the same behaviors -- in that business and in our society in general. We each have a limited supply of energy and many competing priorities, as well as different degrees of confidence at different times. There are moments when we speak up, and moments when we don't; times we send food back and times we just don't eat it. When we can avoid pressuring or criticizing ourselves or others, but simply notice our next step, our own growth edge in this process, then we will all be working together at our own paces to move veganism forward. Whether we are here for health, the animals, the environment, or a combination of motivations, we are each a wave on this ever-growing ocean of vegan community.
Sherry Jeppson Zitter is a vegan activist and writer who, with her wife Sarah, keeps working on shrinking her global footprint in creative and zany ways. She is a singer-songwriter, an eco-biker, and a clinical social worker in Maynard MA who loves to help people free their spirits. She loves comments, challenges and feedback on her writing, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org