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How to Choose Nondairy Meals at Restaurants

Sooner or later, you’re going to end up eating at a restaurant where the dairy-free choices aren’t obvious. The menu is the first resource you can study to determine whether the food you want to eat has dairy in it.

The ingredients in the menu items may be cloaked in terms that have their origins in foreign languages or culinary jargon that you aren’t familiar with. If you don’t know what a dish’s ingredients are, ask. Doing so is particularly smart when the menu descriptions aren’t clear whether dairy ingredients have been added to the foods.

When you’re in an unfamiliar restaurant, you need to be able to put on your sleuth hat and figure out what ingredients are in the different dishes available. It’s helpful to develop some investigative skills and strategies that you can apply to understanding restaurant menus.

Some sources of dairy are obvious. Milk and cream, whipped cream, melted or grated cheese, and cream sauces, for example, are relatively easy to spot on the menu or on your plate. Others may be subtler, though. It may be more difficult to pinpoint these more minor sources of dairy. So, depending on your level of dairy intolerance, you may need to go a step further in determining whether certain foods contain dairy ingredients.

As you survey the menu and look at the listings for appetizers, salads, and sides, pay particular attention to items that may have cheese added. Many dips and stuffed items — spinach and artichoke dip and stuffed mushrooms, tomatoes, and other vegetables — are made with soft cheeses that may be grated on or melted into these menu items.

Salads, too, often have grated cheese tossed into them. Or they may be served with crumbles or round pieces of goat cheese, feta cheese, Gorgonzola, or other salad-type cheeses. Salads also may come to the table already tossed with cream-based dressings. Side dishes, such as mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, or creamed corn may have milk or cream added to maintain a creamy texture.

Layers of cheese often are added to entrees such as strata, lasagna, eggplant Parmesan, and casseroles. Some meat dishes also include layers of melted cheese. Examples include veal Parmesan and chicken cordon bleu. Club sandwiches and Monte Cristo sandwiches often contain cheese layers, too. And some dishes are smothered in cream sauce.

Dairy products are a mainstay in restaurant desserts. There are pies and brownies a la mode (with ice cream!). There’s the whipped cream on the berries and pie. And then there are the cream pies, ice cream sundaes, gelato, puddings, custards, crème brûlée, and cheesecakes, which all contain dairy. Many after-dinner liqueurs do as well.

When you do find dairy ingredients in menu items, determine whether the restaurant can prepare those foods without dairy or with alternative ingredients. For example, if ice cream is added to the top of the brownie before it’s served, ask whether sliced strawberries or bananas may be available instead. (This assumes, of course, that you can handle the likely small amount of milk that may be present in the brownie!) Or if you see that the pasta of the day is tossed with cream sauce, ask whether a simple olive oil and garlic dressing can be used in its place.

Get some ideas about what the alternatives may be by surveying the other items listed on the menu. You may be able to determine whether certain ingredients used on other plates can be substituted in a dish you’d like to order. For example, if you see that applesauce comes with the potato pancakes at breakfast, you may be able to ask for it over your gingerbread instead of the whipped cream that usually comes with it.

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