Dining out is a majorly attractive activity for several reasons: it relieves you from cooking your own dinner (you do all the eating, they do all the cooking and cleaning), you experiment and experience new foods and new flavors (tuna heart? sure, why not), and generally, you get to enjoy the whole evening amongst friends.
I am happy to say, that even with strict dietary needs, eating out is not out of the question. But it does require some pre-planning as well as willingness to be quite forward with your needs. There are some simple steps to take that will ensure an entirely delightful and delicious meal that is sodium-safe. Remember, though, that as a diner with such particular needs you are entering a serious tree of trust with the restaurant and chef: you trust them to prepare food that meets your health requirements and they trust that you are not just a picky eater. And a part of building that trust is also building customer loyalty. If you have been served well, you will most likely return. And the more you return, the more creative and comfortable chef’s become with creating altered variations of their standard menu items. So follow the tips bellow and go enjoy the many delicacies that your city has to offer.
Choosing the right restaurant
Fast food joints or grab-and-go spots will most likely be unable to meet your dietary needs – food is usually pre-marinated or pre-seasoned and the likelihood of fresh, unprepared items is low. Instead, look for places that make the plates to-order. If a restaurant boasts local and organic ingredients, even better – from my experience, this usually means they have a lot of fresh product on hand and can whip something up from the kitchen cupboard.
The best way to guarantee sodium-free menu options is to call ahead. I usually try to call the morning before my reservation (if it is at night) but it is even more helpful to the restaurant to call the day before. This way, you can ask the kitchen to set aside a piece of meat or fish and veggies without any marinade or seasoning.
Vacationing (especially outside of the US) can be a daunting experience if you have dietary needs. But in all likelihood you will have made reservations ay hotels or restaurants before you leave and you can send ample warning to these kitchens before you arrive. Send the hostess or concierge a list of your dietary needs, talk to the chef before you go, or if there is a language barrier, have hotel staff translate for you. It takes a little prep work, but taking the time to make these calls ensures some good eating in foreign lands.
Taking orders and taking it seriously
The best way to explain your needs to a waiter or waitress is to be as honest and open as possible. I start every order by saying,
“I have strict dietary needs. My kidneys failed five years ago and I cannot have any sodium in my diet.”
This usually makes their ears perk up and I know I have their full attention. Just saying, “I can’t have salt,” doesn’t ignite the same amount of gravity nor does it end in a successful, sodium-free meal. Admittedly, this kind of candor can be a little intimidating, especially when dining with a group of people, new friends, or while on a first date. But…get over it. Because if you are kind, grateful, and engaging, chances are you will (A) receive a great meal and (B) be remembered by the waitstaff.
Standing out is not a bad thing. I have formed many great relationships with San Francisco restaurants that I am no longer a nameless customer. Chefs and waitstaff know me and when frequeting these familiar spots, eating out and eating sodium free becomes less and less of a hassle. So own it and be frank with your needs – it will end up benefiting you in countless ways.
Here is what I cannot have – and of course your needs may vary, but this is a good place to start:
no salt * no salted butter * nothing pre-seasoned or pre-marinated * no shellfish * no pre-made broth or sauces with salt * no vegetables that have been blanched or boiled in salt water * no soy or Teriyaki * nothing pickled, smoked, or braised * no pre-canned, pre-packaged veggies * no dairy or cheese
Here is what I can have – and this is equally important to list as it gives the chef more creative license and you will end up being served a more flavorful meal:
meat: beef, poultry, fish, oysters (from the pacific only!), and clams
for flavor: olive oil, most vinegars, citrus, garlic, onions, fresh herbs, reduction sauces, wine, sweet butter, and cream
all fresh veggies
all grains (rice and pasta) that are cooked salt-free water
Send your thanks
Whether you walk over to the kitchen or write a hand-written note, giving some thanks never hurts. Chances are, a busy kitchen went out of its way to meet your needs. A smile goes a long way and those simple words makes a restaurant want to serve you again.