iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Carolyn Scott

GET UPDATES FROM Carolyn Scott
 

How to Order Vegan, Gluten Free Or Healthier Options at National Restaurant Chains

Posted: 04/12/2012 12:44 pm

Expanding on last week's post on healthier fast food finds, I've compiled a list of popular restaurant chains that can be found nationwide. You never know when you are heading out for a meal with a group and need to do the best you can with the menu you are given. No matter where you may be in the U.S. (and Canada), you should have no problem finding a decent meal at any of the places on the list below. So fear not my little health conscious foodies, you may eat, drink and be merry in mainstream dining establishments! In no particular order:

P.F. Chang's: Three words, veggie lettuce wraps! OMG, I LOVE these darn things. Tofu sauteed in a delicious soy sauce (gluten free people, have them sautee the tofu in rice vinegar and lemon) served with crunchy rice noodles and crisp lettuce "tortillas." They are great about offering steaming vs frying, brown rice and lots of veggie dishes. Tofu can be substituted for most of the meat entrees as well. Chow down guilt free at PF Chang's!

Chili's: I want my veggie meal, veggie meal, veggie meal ... Yeah, order up the portobello & steak fajitas and have them hold the steak. They will add extra mushrooms and veggies like broccoli, onions, peppers and more! Make sure, vegans, to ask for extra fixins to make up for the loss of the cheese and sour cream. Don't forget extra chimichurri! Their black bean burger is also a great veggie and healthy hit, although not vegan. Also opt for their veggie tacos, hold the ranch sauce for a satisfying meal. Their salads are all modifiable but be sure to ask about the dressings as that's where the naughty ingredients like to hide ; )

California Pizza Kitchen: This place rocks for vegans, veggies, gluten free peeps and more! Vegan split pea soup, asparagus soup with no croutons and their grilled veggie salad are to die for! Their hummus (with neopolitan crust instead of pita) is a winner for any diet type and the guacamole is a hit too. Salads can be modified to fit your special diet, the balsamic vinaigrette is vegan. Pizzas made on neopolitan dough are veganizable when ordered without cheese. I kill for their veggie or tricolor salad pizza!

Houston's: I know, what can you get at a steak house that's healthy or even vegan? How about the best damn veggie burger ever? A homemade black bean and brown rice patty smothered in a sweet soy bbq sauce. Order it without cheese and check out one of their vegan sides like steamed veggies or black beans with brown rice. You can also opt for a soy latte, a veggie sushi roll and a side salad. Insane!

The Cheesecake Factory: This catalog for a menu always has something for all discerning orderers ; ) Tons of veganizable salads (choose a balsamic or citrus vinaigrette and nix the black beans as they are soaked in beef juice). Naughty fried zucchini, crisp artichoke hearts and the best, avocado egg rolls. A healthier fire roasted artichoke dip is a great start choice as well edemame and guacamole. That dang bread they serve will come in handy for satiating the carb demon as the pastas and sauces are not vegan. And lastly, the grilled portobella on a bun is yummalicious without cheese and mayo!

The Olive Garden: Italian is usually simple enough for a health nut ; ) Their minestrone is vegetarian, make sure they do not garnish it with cheese or throw in to many pasta shells. It's hearty and tasty when paired with the all you can eat salad. Ask for oil and vinegar as the dressing as the house Italian contains Parmesan. The bruschetta appetizer with no cheese is a doozy too. Gluten free folks can ask for a separate menu that lists acceptable items as it is part of their new garden fare menu for those looking for the lighter side of the garden ; )

Applebee's: Try the veggie patch pizza appetizer with no cheese or spinach (it's creamy). Change up any salad by omitting unwanted items and tossing it in their balsamic dressing. Go for the chicken portobello sandwich without the chicken with a nice side salad. Those of you on Weight Watchers, they've got the points values of everything on their menu so you don't have to guess!

TGIFriday's: You are pretty much subject to ordering a salad without meat or cheese and going with a vinaigrette. You can indulge in a basket of sweet potato fries though ; )

Panera Bread: This is one of my all time favorite spots. Fresh salads, soups and breads that work well on any diet. I always go for the pick 2 and get a vegan soup with the classic cafe salad. Go for an apple as your side and you are good to go! The sandwiches can be veganized with proper direction and its worth it as their bread selections are awesome. Soy lattes and healthy meals are the perfect combo!

Ruby Tuesday: Gluten and peanut allergy sufferers can dine happily here along with us greenies. They have detailed menus of what special diets can order without worry. For me, I can chow on a guacamole dip starter. Then I can move on to a salad I make on my own at their salad bar. Perhaps a homemade veggie burger and some brown rice pilaf or steamed broccoli and I've just had one vegtastic feast!

Fuddrucker's: If you must, a veggie burger with all of the fixins to hold you over. I normally order it protein style, no bread, wrapped in lettuce ; )

Chevy's: I've said it before and I'll say it again. Mexican is a great way to go for all kinds of special diets. Always make sure of the chips and tortillas are made with lard but usually one or the other is ok! Chevy's has some kick ass guac and salsa! Their veggie fajitas rock as does their veggie burrito. Just save the sour cream and cheese and you are golden! AT a chevy's the black beans are vegan and the both tortillas are lard free (with the exception of the El Machino flour tortillas) The salsa vinaigrette and Mexican rice are also perfecto!!

Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation: You can't go wrong when you make your own salad at a salad bar! Some of the tossed salads are also vegan such as the mandarin spinach with caramelized walnuts, strawberry fields with caramelized walnuts, thai peanut & red pepper, and the thai udon & peanut. Vegan friendly prepped salads are white bean, arugula citrus, red pepper slaw, Asian pepper salad, bean & cilantro, dijon potato & garlic dill, mandarin noodles w/broccoli, mandarin shells w/almonds, green bean & potato, roasted potato & chiplote chili, southwest pasta, summer barley w/ black beans, tabbouleh, citrus & brown rice, tomato cucumber marinade & three bean marinade. Again, it's safe to stick to the vinaigrettes. Lots of soups to choose from as well, providing they are available on the day you pop in like the tomato onion, ratatouille, black bean, veggie harvest, minestrone and lentil. The bakery and pasta bars don't have much for vegans but you may get lucky with some of the bread or sauteed veggies ; )

Hard Rock Cafe: Yep, depending on where you are or who you are with, you just might find yourself at one of these ; ) Fear not as you can grab a tried and true HRC veggie burger, with no cheese or mayo. Have a side salad unless you want to be naughty, then order the fries!

Boston Market: Love their market salad with no cheese. It is super fresh and tasty! You can also order a veggie carver and indulge in the apple cobbler, Cinnamon applesauce or fruit bowl.

Denny's: You know you might end up here one night after a show or a long drive! So if and when you do, know that you can consume a veggie burger and a side salad. Or for breakfast, oatmeal with no milk, a veggie patty with dry toast along with some OJ and coffee ; )

Macaroni Grill: My favorite thing to order here is the create your own pasta in which I ditch the pasta all together and have them saute all of the veggies they have in a garlic and olive oil! Goes down great with a glass of red wine and some of their peasant bread ; ) Vegans can't do the pasta, pizza crusts or even the red sauce. They are great with food allergies and special diets so don't fret if you don't know before you go!

Buca di Beppo: Start with some bruschetta (hold any sprinkled cheese) and then split a big ol' mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I mess with the menu by ordering the gnocchi with plain marinara and veggies and I'm sure you can do the same with any pasta dish.

Pick Up Stix: You can't go wrong with Asian cuisine as you can always get some sort of stir fried veggie dish. Here you can do tofu lettuce cups, tofu and veggies, rice bowls and whole slew of lighter fare. Go for the steamed, not fried items if you can swing it, have some salad, and watch out for the soy and teryaki of you are wheat and gluten sensitive.

Jason's Deli : This is a nice spot to pick up fod for a trip or day at the park. Sandwiches and sides for all. Go for the spinach veggie wrap with no cheese or the Mediterranean wrap with no mods.

Bennigan's: The usual American fare can be health-ified by veganizing the salads and keeping an eye on the dressings. Same for the veggie burger ; )

Outback Steakhouse Haha, OK. For non veggies, get your meat grilled and get a side salad instead of that damn bloomin onion! For veg heads, get a salad with the tomato dressing, no cheese. You can also pull out all the stops and get a steamed sweet potato! Their veggies are drowned in butter but you can ask for them steamed and dry. No mushrooms either as they are swimming in beef broth ; (

Johnny Rockets: Boca burger is your friend here and is customizable to be as fat or as plain as you want it. Fries here are A-OK as they are fried in soy oil. Vegan but not too healthy ; )

Z Pizza : This organic pizza joint is a hit! Organic crusts, toppings and even vegan cheese and meatless toppings. Pizzas, salads and sandwiches are all made fresh and taste freakin' great!!

The Habit: It can't be healthy and again, these places are supposed to be had once in a blue moon. However, if you find yourself here, get the veggie burger (unfortunately not vegan but ok for veggies), no cheese, on grilled sourdough with cucumber, sprouts, avocado and grilled onions. OMG!!! Oh, and they have salads too ; )

Pizza Fusion: This is what heaven must be like!! Organic salads, sandwiches and VEGAN PIZZA!! Yes!! Gluten free crusts, vegan cheese, a gajillion awesome toppings ... word.

Daphne's: Mediterranean rocks for healthy choices. I love their veggie combo plate with hummus and pita, dolmas, falafel and salad. Filling, tasty and no guilt to wasty ; ) I hold the spanikopitas (cheese) and add more of everything else. Falafel pitas and salads are good too!

Pomodoro: I really like the selection here. I go light with a mixed green salad and minestrone. Sometimes I do the melanzane penne pasta primavera ; ) They also have some great side veggies, some even organic!

Louise's Trattoria : This place wins for the best minestrone! Ask for it with no sprinkly cheese or crusty cheese bread and it's still mega tasty! I pair this with a huge Louise's chopped salad with no cheese and I am elated ; )

Mimi's Cafe: A large menu always has some good options for alternative meals. The salads are veganizable with balsamic dressing as is the veggie ciabata with no cheese or pesto. The vegetarian vegetable is a good choice as is veggie burger.

El Torito: Oh yeah, tableside guac -- the best in the biz! Go for that and some salsa but make room for their veggie burrito as it is chock full of great veggies. Order it with the vegetarian beans and you will be a happy camper! And if you drop the dairy on the veggie enchiladas, you will be full for days!!

Acapulco: Similar to El Torito, their appetizer guac is pretty good. Check out the veggie fajitas with no cheesy or creamy condiments.

Chin Chin: Veggie potstickers and minced veggie lettuce cups every time! But they do have some great veggie noodle and rice dishes as well as being able to sub tofu for meat on most of the menu items.

Claim Jumper: Mmm, fire roasted artichoke (ask for it with ponzu sauce) or avocado rolls to start! Veganize any salad by nixing meat and dairy items and sticking to citrus or balsamic vinaigrettes. Also try to produce bar! For a heartier meal grab a veggie sandwich sans cheese with a veggie stuffed baked potato with no cheese ; )

El Pollo Loco: I forgot these last two guys last week so here they are! If you catch yourself around here, sides are alright. Like a side salad with no cheese, pinto beans and some veggies with no margarine. Slather all your stuff in salsa!

Pollo Tropical: I am a sucker for Cuban food so the sides here make me very happy! Boiled yucca in garlic sauce, plantains, and some rice with black beans. They also offer the veggie tropichop which is like a cuban veggie rice bowl. Oh so good!

We'd love to hear about your special diet menu secrets at national chains!

For more information, www.HealthyVoyager.com

 
 
 

Follow Carolyn Scott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HealthyVoyager