How to Be a Vegan Just About Anywhere

Veggie sandwiches are one of the easiest vegan options when you find yourself in unfamiliar eating territory. (Photo: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

It gets easier every year to be a vegan. New "cheeses" made from nuts that are nutritious and taste amazing, egg-free baked goods abound at coffee shops, and more and more restaurants, from high-end to low-end, are labeling vegan dishes on the menu. And the vast majority of people now know what vegan means, which helps quite a bit. (15 years ago? Not so much.)

But there are still some tricky situations that pop up for vegans. Here are a few, including how to negotiate them, based on my experience as a vegetarian who eats vegan when she doesn't know where the eggs or cheese come from:

Thanksgiving: As a going-on-23-years vegetarian, I've always thought Thanksgiving was about the side-dishes anyway, and I've had my best "unturkey-day" dinners at vegan-friends' houses. (I've found that meat-eaters focus too much on the turkey and don't put as much time and thought into all the other wonderful things to eat, whereas people who don't eat meat have amazing and multitudinous side-dishes.)

There are so many recipes for vegan Thanksgiving dishes, and even the New York Times has a special vegan desserts section that's absolutely drool-worthy. If you're going to a Thanksgiving and aren't sure of the vegan options, you should definitely bring a dish so you won't go hungry; pack some olive oil so you can dip some crusty bread into it, and hit the salad — usually there will be another veggie dish without meat or cheese, but don't count on it. I once went to a Thanksgiving dinner in Indiana and not only was nothing vegan, but nothing was vegetarian — even the green beans had meat in them!

Restaurants: Many menus include designations of some kind for vegan or vegetarian dishes. If the menu you're looking at doesn't, your best bet is to simply ask the server (nicely, of course) what is vegan or could be made that way. Sometimes the server will have to go and ask the chef, and oftentimes at a good restaurant, they'll come back with something that's not even on the menu that's vegan. It's a common thing to have some kind of dietary difference or allergy, and most chefs understand these things — and have solid backup plans. But you do have to do the asking first.

If you're in a place where it's unlikely that there will be vegan items on a menu, like a Midwestern diner/coffee shop or BBQ joint, you might have to get creative. Good choices are lettuce, tomato, pickle, cucumber and onion sandwiches with vinaigrette dressing and mustard on the best bread they have; oatmeal (ask for nuts, berries or fruit, and maple syrup to go on top); pizza with lots of veggies and sauce, but no cheese; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; pasta with marinara sauce and sauteed veggies; bean and rice burritos with guacamole and salsa; and fruit salad are all safe and filling bets. A baked potato and salad make a surprisingly filling meal in a pinch. Many times, lentil, black bean, or vegetable soups are made vegan, but you'll have to ask about whether the stock used is made from meat or not.

Hiking trips: I think it's easier to go vegan on hiking trips, since you have to worry much less about food spoilage and subsequent illness while on the trail, which sounds like a nightmare! It's also easier to clean pots, pans and plates if you aren't using animal products and don't have to clean the resultant grease off things. And if Josh Garrett can clock in the fastest time on the Pacific Crest Trail yet while adhering to a vegan diet, the answer is yes — you can get plenty of nutrition from vegan foods even while doing a long hike.

If you are a fan of MREs (meals ready to eat, or freeze-dried meals), most outdoor stores carry vegan choices, like REI, which has a list of 66 options for vegan trail foods, and Outdoor Herbivore specializes in them. Of course, the Internet is always packed with great, specific information, like this list of stores that offer vegan options at resupply points along the Appalachian Trail.

College dining hall: Most colleges and universities are relatively savvy to the needs of vegan students today (not so when I was a freshman 20 years ago and spent one horrible year eating at the dining hall). If individual dishes aren't labeled as vegan — a few schools still only label vegetarian dishes, leaving vegans in the dark — petition your school to change the policy immediately. You'll be helping not just yourself, but all the other people (and there are undoubtedly others!) who need some labels. But some easy ways to go vegan at college dining halls include making a "mezze plate" of cut-up veggies and things like hummus, guacamole, chips, bread, beans and side dishes. Almond butter isn't just for sandwiches — try dipping apples or carrots in it, which is super tasty and protein-packed.

What are your staying vegan tricks? Let me know in the comments!