Offering plant-based items on your menu isn’t just about having a veggie burger on your sandwich menu or offering to substitute vegetables for animal protein in your pasta dishes. It’s also about finding ways to use plant-based ingredients to make a vegan or vegetarian dish as rich and satisfying as any other entrée on your menu. Think about how you can harness the properties of plants to make soups heartier and sauces creamier. When done well, your guests won’t miss the meat.
If you’re looking to appeal to flexitarians and offer a strong gateway to the plant-based foods on your menu, chicken can serve you well. Not only is it a lean protein that can benefit a person’s muscles, bones, mood and cardiovascular health, but it can also be seasoned and prepared in many of the same ways as the vegetables on your menu, making it easy to create different variations on a single dish.
Consumers are thinking more about not only their health but the health of the planet right now. Incorporating more plant-based meals into your menu and promoting their environmental, health and ethical benefits can help you support the changes they are making to their diets. A recent report from Meticulous Research estimates that the plant-based market will grow nearly 12 percent annually in the next seven years. Nestlé also reported that 87 percent of Americans are incorporating plant-based protein into their diets. As consumers look to eat more plant-based dishes, restaurants are in an ideal position to make those plants more craveable. Consider updating traditional dishes with plant-based alternatives and changing up presentations to add interest to your menu.
Recent research from NPD Group found that 54 percent of consumers want to incorporate more vegetables into their diets – and that their desire to make their existing eating behaviors healthier is driving it. Restaurant preparation can go far in elevating the appeal of a plant-based dish. As you look to offer more plant-based meals on your menu, consider using global flavors to boost the craveability factor of new dishes, from salads and soups to plant-based side dishes.
Beans are a crowd pleaser in salads, plant-forward burgers and sides. Aside from being a flavorful, satisfying addition to a dish, they have plenty of health and environmental benefits to tout too: High in protein, fiber and B vitamins, they may help reduce blood sugar and cholesterol. They’re helpful to the planet and your pantry as well, since they can store well for long periods during supply chain shortages of other ingredients.
Is there anything a chickpea cannot do? Use them in their pure form in hummus or blend them with onions, garlic and spices for nutritious plant-based burger patties. They’re even taking the guilt out of pasta dishes: Try chickpea pasta as a high-fiber, high-protein, low-glycemic, gluten-free substitute for the traditional version.
If you’re looking for a pantry workhorse to complement sweet or savory dishes, try polenta. It’s rare to find an ingredient so versatile – it can work in every section of your menu and stand in for everything from oats to rice to pasta. Try it with a berry compote at breakfast, fry it and serve with marinara, bake it into crisp croutons on salad or include it as a creamy accompaniment to pork and poultry. Or for guests who aren’t gluten-free, offer lemon polenta cake or cookies for a simple, rustic dessert.
Just about every week, there is news about a new animal protein that has a vegetable-based or lab-grown substitute that makes a compelling case for replacing the real thing. New and up-and-coming options ranging from plant-based shrimp to lab-grown pork belly and bacon are on offer – and this comes at a time when animal protein continues to be hit by COVID-19 outbreaks in processing facilities and resulting supply chain delays. Granted, consumers still crave animal protein: A report from CB Insights says 30 percent of the calories people consume globally come from meat products. However, the pandemic may be accelerating the plant-based trend, along with an enhanced desire among consumers to choose foods that are environmentally sustainable. (The report said sales of vegan meat soared 264 percent in the nine weeks ending on May 2.) But how much are your guests willing to adjust their eating habits to help climate change? Will a lab-grown alternative really suit someone craving a bacon cheeseburger? A Nielsen report from last year found that only 12 percent of respondents said they would be willing to eat cultured meat in order to reduce their impact on climate change, while 61 percent said they would be amenable to reducing their meat consumption, 43 percent would eat more plant-based proteins, 22 percent would consider vegetarianism or veganism, and 8 percent would consider insect alternatives. But as more animal protein alternatives appear on grocery store shelves, consumers may become more willing to try new options. As a report from the Rail noted, introducing plant-based alternatives on your menu can be a way of gauging your diners’ interest in more daring alternatives: “A guest eating an Impossible Burger now is likely to at least have an interest in a lab-grown burger in the future.”
Plant-based foods had already been on the rise before COVID-19. Now they may be playing even larger roles on the plate as people look to replace lockdown comfort foods with more health- and environmentally conscious options. At a time when animal proteins have been in shorter supply, first try swapping in plant-based proteins in flavorful recipes where the meat is less likely to be missed
Even before the lockdown, plant-based foods were in increasing demand among consumers. The National Restaurant Association included plant-based among their tops trends of the year. As we emerge from lockdown, consumer preferences for healthy, plant-forward options remain – and are worth serious consideration as operators try to manage price spikes on animal proteins ranging from beef to pork to chicken. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in April, grocery prices were the highest they had been in 50 years, with the sharpest increases recorded for meat, poultry, fish and eggs. If you are given the choice between raising the menu price of a burger and removing that item from your menu until prices fall to more manageable levels, could you choose? Or might it be possible to offer a plant-forward option as a third alternative? If your guest base likes to do its part to protect the environment, promote the benefits of substituting a meal of animal protein with a plant-based option. The Environmental Working Group suggests integrating such protein alternatives as lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, nuts, peanut butter and brown rice into recipes to shrink environmental impact. Doing so can help you keep a lid on costs too.