Pro tip: The most advantageous way to learn about what vegans eat is to say to a vegan, “Hey, I don’t understand what vegans eat. Can you show me?”, and that vegan will jump at the chance to cook something awesome for you, or take you to whichever restaurant in town has the most shockingly delicious veg-friendly food.
But if you’re just curious in the abstract, I apologize for having a really boring answer for you. The basic answer is that vegans eat what non-vegans eat, just minus the animal products.
Just like with non-vegans, there are all different kinds of vegans who eat all different kinds of things. Some are ultramarathoners who only eat super healthy foods. Some are “junk food vegans” who prefer to live off donuts and pizza. But as with non-vegans, most of us fall somewhere in the middle — eating healthier sometimes, and less healthy other times, but overall eating a variety of things that sound good to us and suit our personal tastes.
In terms of replacing animal products, there are a lot of options. Some people do mainly home cooking, whereas other people rely more on pre-made veg-friendly meals from the supermarket. Some vegans need to avoid nuts or gluten, some don’t. Just personally, some key veggie staples (like seitan, a beef replacement, and Daiya, a cheese replacement) don’t sit well with me, so I have to get a little more creative with home-cooked alternatives.
Sure, there are a few tricks of the trade: who knew that cashews could be blended into a dairy replacement, or that something called “nutritional yeast” could be a cheesy and vitamin B12-rich topping for popcorn? But overall, whether vegans are cooking for themselves or eating at a vegan-friendly restaurant, they essentially eat and order like anybody else. And when we don’t know whether something is vegan, or how to make a traditional recipe vegan-friendly, it isn’t rocket science — we just google it, like somebody would do in order to figure out any type of recipe.
At my favorite local vegan joint, I often debate about whether to order the chili cheese nachos, the cheesy meatball sub, or the buffalo ranch bowl. (The only difference is that, behind the scenes, these dishes use plant-based ingredients like beans, cashews, and soy instead of animal ingredients.) I only look weird when I have to go to a really veg-unfriendly place like a steakhouse, where all I can order is iceberg lettuce.
I totally agree that veganism would be depressing if all I could eat was iceberg lettuce, but that isn’t what’s going on — what’s going on is that if I’m stuck going to a restaurant that doesn’t have anything good for me to eat, then there won’t be anything good for me to order. If you were allergic to shellfish and your friends brought you to a lobster place, your order would probably look pretty pitiful as well — not because you don’t eat great food normally, but simply because there wasn’t anything good for you to eat at this specific restaurant. Same deal.
Even though veganism might seem really extreme, or foreign, or inaccessible, the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty straightforward. “Oh, that dish has an animal ingredient? What’s something that achieves a similar taste and texture to replace it with? Ok, we’ll eat it that way.” The end!