Making plant-based menus a reality

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

palomar exterior

Palomar Health, an eight-unit healthcare system in the San Diego area, already boasts a menu that’s about 25% to 28% plant-based, says Jim Metzger, director of hospitality. But he’s got a loftier number in mind—60%, by this summer.

The health profile of Palomar’s patients and employees was a big factor in the decision to go plant-heavy. In northern San Diego County, 57% of deaths can be linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, Metzger says. “What are we doing to help prevent that based on the food we serve, and making the public more aware?” he says. “When we look at our mission statement to promote health in the community we serve, promoting health is really saying, ‘We prevent disease.’” Here are some steps Palomar is taking toward meeting its plant-based goal.

Make Meatless Mondays a rallying cry

meatless monday

Metzger’s plan draws attention to the bigger picture of Meatless Monday, which includes environmental factors such as growth patterns, shipping and the transportation of animals. “If you can give up meat one day a week, it will have the same effect as driving a hybrid,” he says, adding that when Palomar instituted Meatless Monday, employees said they made the vegetarian day a habit in their own households.

To make Meatless Monday financially as well as environmentally attractive for diners, Palomar created a frequent Monday card. If customers eat meatless for a full month of Mondays, their fifth meal is free, Metzger says.

Manipulate menus like a restaurant

plant based burger

As Palomar adds vegetable-centric mains like a black bean and quinoa burger and a portobello mushroom burger, it will also roll out a restaurant-style program on patient menus. “Plant-based items like salad and stir-fry are taking more of a center point on room service menus,” Metzger says, adding that he sought team feedback on which menu items to keep and cut while reformatting.

Foodservice directors also need to realize that they can’t do it all when it comes to providing a huge menu, Metzger says. “Somehow at a hospital we feel like we have to be all things to all people, but restaurants have a specific profile,” he says, which feeds into how Palomar is promoting the nutritious factors of its healthier focus to staff and patients.

Capitalize on seasonality

local produce

With a location in sunny Southern California, Metzger realizes how lucky he is to be able to buy local produce year-round, and says diners have noticed that both the freshness and quality of Palomar’s produce have changed. Even for operations in areas with more limited growing seasons, such as the Midwest, Metzger says there’s a “tremendous opportunity to follow the seasons,” pointing to chards and root vegetables, as well as quinoa and wild rice as alternative plant-based proteins.

Clean up the impulse-buy zone

healthy snacks

The 5-foot zone around the cash registers is the last thing diners see before making a purchase, providing a final point of temptation, Metzger says. Chips and candy were moved to a different location, and healthier options appeared in the checkout line.

Make plant-centric dining actionable

healthy cooking

To help diners make low-meat diets a routine, Palomar hospitals host a monthly cooking class led by doctors. Community members leave armed with take-home literature, recipes and new knowledge, and Metzger says there’s already a wait list for the next session. “Two people [in the most recent] class were recent patients at the hospital; one man had double bypass surgery 11 days ago, and here he is in the cooking class,” Metzger says.

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