Well, okay, *this* vegan doesn't eat out very often. But to be honest, that's only partly due to the vegan thing. It probably has more to do with me being a homebody.
But sometimes even this vegan finds herself out-and-about, and hungry. So I thought I'd share some of my experiences. First, let me mention that vacations are a whole 'nother ballgame, and definitely deserve their own post, so that's something I will address (probably in HUGE detail, as it's one of my favorite subjects) at a later date.
Whenever I go out to run errands, I almost always take a snack bar with me. I love Clif bars, though I've cut way back, simply because they're not all that low on calories. Even if I don't need it, it's nice to know it's there. As I mentioned, I don't eat out much, and sometimes a snack bar is all it will take to tide me over until mealtime at home. But sometimes that's not an option.
For those "on the run" meals, there are actually a few fast food places that can accommodate a vegan. There's a site I found that has information about a handful of places: Vegetarian-Restaurants.net I also have a guide I bought a few years ago that lists helpful info like that. You can order it at: The Vegetarian Resource Group.
A few standby meals for me include: bagels at Panera Bread. They aren't all vegan, but a few are. You can find all the ingredients on their website at panerabread.com. Taco Bell has a couple of safe items, if you modify them (and so far, I've never encountered a problem doing that). I usually just get a bean burrito, no cheese. It's not very exciting, but with a little hot sauce, it's not too bad - it's filling, and a good source of protein. Wendy's has baked potatoes. You need to order it "plain, dry", but it will keep you from starving (salt and pepper helps). Actually, if "healthy" isn't your issue, then Wendy's fries are vegan, too. (They're actually one of the few that is.)
And then there are those occasional invitations to eat out. Those are the worst, because either I don't have any say in where we eat, which can be disastrous, or they *do* ask for my opinion, which is even worse, because I hate being a bother, and I know full well that my first choice is almost never anyone else's.
One of my tools is a little business card I carry in my wallet. I use this to give to servers and/or chefs at restaurants, whenever I get that blank stare that tells me they really don't know what a vegan is:Happily, I am using this less and less, as the word is getting out about just what we are, but it's a nice little thing to have, anyway - especially if you're too bashful to say anything.
Some restaurants are really great - they ask questions and genuinely want to accommodate you. Others aren't so great. Olive Garden falls into this second catagory. Company policy prohibits them from sharing recipes, and in turn, ingredients. Now, I don't have a problem with that, as long as they will assure me that a particular dish is actually free of everything on that little card. However, they feel the need to take this policy to the extreme, and will not "guarantee" any item on the menu as vegan. (Wouldn't you know it... my hubby's family loves this place.)
I have found, with experience, that the more ideas *I* have, the better I will eat. This has been a very hard-learned lesson for me, because I've always been the type to say "I'll have what they're having", or "whatever you have is fine", etc. This doesn't work so well as a vegan. Out of desperation, I have eaten a lot of salads "minus cheese, minus bacon bits, minus croûtons, with vinegar and oil dressing, or lemon, or no dressing" as it seemed to be safe. (For the record, Italian dressing is usually safe, but you do have to ask as some places add cheese.) I have also eaten a lot of plain, dry baked potatoes. All this, because I was too bashful to explain my situation. (Usually, the servers just assume that I'm watching my weight.)
I'm getting better, though. Most sit-down restaurants have the ability to prepare a nice plate of steamed veggies, sometimes with seasoning, if you ask. (You do have to be clear, though, about your needs, or most likely they will add butter.) Pasta is another good option. You have to make sure there's no egg in the pasta (fresh usually has eggs, dried usually does not, so in this case, the fancier restaurants are actually a worse choice). As for pasta sauce, often the tomato sauces are vegan - but you have to ask.
If I have the opportunity, I will call ahead and ask to speak with a chef. It's still difficult for me, but it's easier than speaking up when we get there. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Most places appreciate the extra notice, so they aren't caught off guard.
The best tip I have for bashful diners, though, is SMILE. If you are nice to them, often they will be nice right back at you. Isn't it wonderful how that works?