4 tips for menuing plant-based options for students

school kids eating lunch

From Kellogg’s.

K-12 foodservice operators are creating more innovative, exciting and flavorful menus than ever before. Many are also starting to include plant-based protein options as students grow more interested in global cuisine and clamor for multiple menu choices every day.

Popularity of plant-based protein has grown 6.4% in the away-from-home category, according to NPD Supply Track data for the 12 months ending in August 2017, and that includes in schools. As adult consumers become more interested in vegetarian meals, they are teaching their children to enjoy plant-based proteins, too. Operators can take advantage of this trend and increase participation by menuing a variety of kid-friendly, flavorful plant-based entrees.

Foodservice directors might be concerned about pushback from concerned parents, but they shouldn’t be—it’s a myth that vegetarian and vegan diets aren’t safe for a growing child. The American Heart Association recommends a heart-healthy diet, which also happens to be a pro-vegetarian way of eating. A heart-healthy diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, legumes, nuts and low-fat dairy (though skinless poultry and fish are also recommended). The American Academy of Pediatrics also notes that eating a variety of nutritious plant foods can provide all the nutrients that a child needs during this important phase of growth.

“Millennials and GenZ lead the way in less meat at the center-of-the-plate to requesting more meals that are plant-based focused, “says David Grotto, MS, RND, Nutrition Manager for Kellogg’s.  “Animal welfare; a diminished carbon footprint; and more selections with inherent nutrition from the plant kingdom, are just a few of the motivators for younger generations to make the ‘flip’.”

A selection of plant-based meals also benefits a K-12 operation’s budget and can make it a little easier to menu items that comply with federal meal pattern regulations. These items don’t have to be plain or “safe” approaches, either, like bean burritos without veggies or salsa—students are drawn to flavorful food, and high-quality, fresh ingredients are important, even at a young age, according to Technomic’s Gen Z: Decoding the Behaviors of the Next Generation report. Here are just a few ways to boost the plant-based protein options successfully.

Switch up the menu

Kids who are willing to try plant-based proteins regularly might feel limited or put off by the same options all the time. If a vegetarian meal graces the menu three times a week, ensure that it’s not the same option each time. For example, offer veggie street tacos on Monday, a Mediterranean rice bowl with chickpeas on Wednesday and a veggie burger on Friday.

Upgrade sandwiches and burgers

Speaking of burgers, vegetarian burger and sandwich options need not consist of a standard cheese sandwich. Consider inventive toppings and flavors to keep kids excited—after all, a top burger trend for 2017 was unique flavor combinations. If the menu is themed, apply that theme to plant-based and meat entrees alike. For example, a Hawaiian-themed burger can be easily translated into a plant-based option by using the same toppings on a veggie burger.

Think outside the bun

Sandwiches and burgers are a great gateway item for kids to try meatless options, but don’t limit vegetarian offerings to just that. Consider other parts of the menu, such as wraps, salads or bowls. If the school participates in the School Breakfast Program, the morning meal is an ample opportunity for plant-based protein, such as a breakfast wrap filled with scrambled tofu, peppers and mushrooms.

Don’t stray from student-accepted flavors

Generation Z is often more open to trying new foods than older generations were, but kids still aren’t always the most adventurous of eaters. While introducing plant-based proteins to students, start with flavors that students have already accepted, whether it’s a Southwestern rice and bean bowl or a build-your-own stir-fry that includes tofu as a protein option. Too much unfamiliarity at once can cause students to reject the unknown foods outright.

Developing a tasty meatless menu for K-12 students isn’t as hard as it might seem. By menuing familiar options, expanding sandwich offerings, and switching up the menu regularly, operators can keep young taste buds interested in trying new flavors and dishes.

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