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How Catholics and Restaurateurs Survive The Lenten Season (BONUS: Lent Fast Food Survival Guide)

I’m sure you’re familiar with some of Chicago’s many nicknames: “The Windy City,” “The City of Big Shoulders,” or “The Second City,” to name a few.

How about “Little Lithuania?”

Chicago is home not only to some pretty awesome, deep-dish pizza, but the largest Lithuanian community outside of Lithuania. Hence, “Little Lithuania.” Now, if you’re a Chicagoan, and if you’re Lithuanian, usually it also means you’re a born-and-bred Roman Catholic. Right now us Catholics are in the middle of the Lenten holiday (call it Easter’s “Pre-Season”), abstaining from meat on Fridays.

If you’re got a little inner-Gordon Ramsay in you, and do most your own cooking, you’re probably searing that balsamic-glazed salmon without breaking a sweat. Or, if you’re like me – grabbing most your meals on-the-run – about all you share come Friday is Gordon Ramsay’s temper.

Finding something to eat that makes both your stomach and religion happy is a challenge during Lent, and for some, the menu options can seem limiting. Milwaukee Sentinel humor columnist, Alex Thien, gave it some perspective in his column from March 4th, 1989:

“Fran Cummings came up with a weekly Lenten menu for the family and wanted everyone to know what was ahead.

Stuck to the refrigerator door was her note:

“Monday – hamburgers, Tuesday – chicken, Wednesday – pot roast, Thursday – spaghetti, Friday – tuna casserole.”

All was going well until son Jamie, who thought more creative imagination was needed, posted his suggested menu.

“Monday – McDonald’s, Tuesday – Burger King, Wednesday – Taco Bell, Thursday – Wendy’s, Friday – Red Lobster.”

I’m gonna side with Jamie on this one. Although this comes from a humor column more than 20 years old, today’s increasingly faster pace of life has folks eating out more and more often. Back then, Red Lobster would be the only one of those aforementioned restaurants to offer a non-meat option. Luckily, times and menus have changed since.

Elsewhere in the country, this wouldn’t mean making any major adjustments, but in a place where the Roman Catholic population is so densely packed, this could present a problem for both the diner and the dining establishment.

Like Rick Astley, restaurateurs and fast food chains are not gonna give up when it comes to keeping their customers well-fed during Lent.

Some restaurants, however, have made “Fish Fridays” a promotion for some of their lesser-known menu items, or the opportunity to make specials into signature items. In some cases, I’ve found the meatless options so good, I’ll order them in place of my “usual,” even after I can resume my carnivorous sensibilities.

Some offer fish on their menus year-round, and you can thank Lent for putting them there in the first place. In 1962, Cincinnati-based McDonald’s franchise owner Lou Groen needed a dining choice for a largely-Catholic customer base. His solution to the problem? The Filet-O-Fish sandwich. Some restaurants, like McDonald’s, decided to keep their fish sandwich permanently on the menu, while others bank on making a seasonal buck with it.

Now, Jamie may have thought he was being a smart-aleck, but I’m going to humor him, and leave you all with an entire week’s worth of restaurants and meat-free menu options.

And you know what that means, Jamie? Fret not, my meatless friend. Not a single one of them serves tuna casserole. Now that’s something him and I both can rejoice over.


Lenten Fast Food Survival Guide

MONDAY: Popeye’s

  • Popcorn Shrimp
  • Catfish
  • Butterfly Shrimp
  • Big Easy’s Sandwich (Fish or Shrimp)

TUESDAY: Culver’s

  • Butterfly Jumbo Shrimp Dinner
  • Northwoods Walleye Sandwich or Dinner
  • North Atlantic Cod Fillet Sandwich or Dinner


  • Grilled Cheese


THURSDAY: Jimmy John’s

  • #3 Totally Tuna
  • #6 Vegetarian
  • Slim #3 (Tuna Salad)
  • Slim #6 (Double Provolone)
  • #13 Gourmet Veggie Club
  • #15 Club Tuna

FRIDAY: Pop’s Italian Beef, (or substitute any typical, Chicago-style grill)

  • Pepper and Egg Sandwich (Lenten special)
  • Cod Dinner (Lenten special)
  • Shrimp Dinner
  • Grilled Cheese
  • Tuna Salad Sandwich

SATURDAY: Burger King

  • BK Big Fish
  • BK Veggie Burger
  • Garden Salad

SUNDAY: Taco Bell

  • Bean Burrito
  • Fresco Bean Burrito
  • Triple Layer Nachos
  • Cheese Roll-Ups
  • Shrimp Tacos
  • Cheese Quesadilla
  • Cheesy Nachos
  • Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes
  • Mexican Rice
  • Pintos ‘n’ Cheese
  • Cinnamon Twists
  • Caramel Apple Empanadas


  • Premium Fish Fillet (100% North Pacific Cod)
  • Garden Sensations Salads (minus the “B” in the BLT Salad and the chili on the Baja Salad)
  • Broccoli Cheese Baked Potato
  • Sour Cream and Chive Baked Potato

Do you celebrate Lent, and if so, how do you go about fasting? If not, do you notice the impact of promoting meat-free items at this time of year? Are there any suggestions you would add to the list above?


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  1. Jenna Markowski

    What a great idea for a post, Eric! As a fellow fast-food fanatic and participant of Lent, this post hits pretty close to home. My personal favorite fast food fish option is Burger King’s Big Fish (believe it or not). I’m not usually a huge fan of Burger King, but the fish sandwich is one territory where they win over McDonald’s. Since QLP has the luxury of being located so close to one of the few Long John Silver’s, we also have that option!

    Also, your photo captions cracked me up! 🙂

    • Eric

      Thanks, Jenna! 🙂

      Have yet to have BK’s Fish…all I know is Culver’s makes a mean Walleye. Try it sometime. That sandwich is to me as highly revered a season specialty as the Shamrock Shake (also a great meatless option) is to some people.

      Speaking of: both Culver’s and Potbelly Sandwich Works both will make specials after they’re discontinued if they have the ingredients (you just have to ask for them, and sometimes, let them know how to make it).

  2. Jaimie Smith

    Eric, this was a really good post idea!! Very helpful to many people! I try as hard as I can to participate in Lent, but I find it very difficult to do so. i LOVE meat, and am not a fan whatsoever of seafood, lol. So i do not do so well…

    • Eric

      Hmm…well, how about Asian food? Thai, Chinese, etc.? They can do a lot with noodles where you wouldn’t ever miss the meat, and I’ve even had Tofu I’ve liked (provided it’s fried-up well in the wok). Funny you say that: I never used to like seafood, but grew into as I got older. Still not a steak person, oddly enough, so at least that helps. 🙂

  3. Jen

    LOL, did you just Rickroll all of us?!?

    Great post Eric. I don’t participate in Lent, but I have eaten quite a few of these options over the past few years (well…minus all the fish and seafood options). I ate only vegetarian for about four years, and discovered that Taco Bell has the most vegetarian friendly menu out of all the fast food chains.

    • Eric

      Thanks, Jen! 🙂 Sometimes if I’m looking to eat a light lunch, or just not be completely terrible to my body, I’ll order some of these things, too. I’ve actually gotten in the habit of ordering the baked potato over the fries at Wendy’s, and – tell ya what – I don’t miss the fries anymore. Potato usually stays hot for a good long while, and those fries cool down in minutes after you get ’em from the drive-through. And I’ll agree with you, I never thought I’d be the case, but Taco Bell seems to have one of the friendliest menus for non-meat-eaters.

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    Wow, I am kind of shocked that Taco Bell has the most meat-free options. I don’t think I would’ve ever guessed that.

    I usually just eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Fridays during Lent, but next time I have to grab a meal on the run, I’ll know exactly where to go. Thanks!

    • Eric

      Sometimes it’s nice just not to have to have a burger, ya know? I never liked fish as a kid, but after awhile, I did get sick of burgers. That said, a lot of the aforementioned items are my own go-to items, Lent or otherwise during the year. Take a break from that PB&J!

  5. Amy Swanson

    I think I’m a fast food fish snob, I’ve tried Mickey D’s fillet of fish and wasn’t impressed so I haven’t tried other places fish sandwiches as a result. However, I’m Lutheran so we do some aspects of Lent, but not the meatless Fridays so I don’t really have the motivation to go out and find a fish sandwich I like, hahaha.

    Way to go Taco Bell by kicking butt and offering the most meatless options! 😀

    • Eric

      “Fast Food Fish” has come a LONG way from ye olde days of processed fish patty. I think folks initially liked being able to have a fast-food dinner, but began asking for higher quality products, hence, a new emphasis on actual fillets, and even including the origin of the fish in the sandwich name, for example. Again – another shameless endoresement I’ll never see anything in return for – but Culver’s has a mean Walleye sandwich, if you like fish. Just sayin’. 🙂

  6. Amanda

    Great post Eric! I don’t participate in Lent. But I think all you can eat fish fry specials on Friday are awesome! We go once and a while with friends, and it’s a good time. We love seafood–and in my opinion, the best fast food fish sandwiches are from Portillo’s and Wendy’s. Soo good! I get them pretty often when we eat out. =)

    • Eric


      I’ve never been much of a guy for red meat, so anytime a new chicken or fish sandwich comes along, I’m usually fixin’ for it and I’ll give ‘er a try.

      Which reminds me…I guess it’s only fair that if I’m allowed to make personal endoremsents for something, I could just as well do the opposite. White Castles “Fish Bites,” fish nuggets, fish…whatever they are? Don’t do it. That is not fish as nature intended for it to be served.

  7. Rachel

    Rick Astley AND Rebecca Black, all in one post? My goodness. 😉

    I may have to hit up Taco Bell tonight for a Cheese Quesadilla, mm. Neat idea for a post, Eric — thanks for all the suggestions!

  8. Eric

    Haha, oh, holy hell…I just had to re-read my entire blog to make sure I DIDN’T reference Rebecca Black. “Friday, Friday/Gotta have fish on Friday/Ev’rybody’s Fastin’ for the Season, Season…”

    Viva las quesadillas. This blog has done one thing, consistently…make me hungry. Probably going to go out and sample half the damn menu, now! 🙂

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