Teaching young diners to love plant-based proteins

plant-based burger k-12

From Kellogg's.

Although the plant-forward trend has affected nearly every segment of the foodservice industry, plant-based diets haven’t yet taken center stage in K-12 schools.

But thanks to a growing interest in customizable meals and an increased focus on health, these options are now making a bigger entrance. The trick? Offering plant-based menu options that look (and taste) familiar.

Getting students involved

Plant-based menu items are a huge area of focus for one school district in California. “Offering plant-based items makes a big difference in the health of the kids, the health of the environment, the health of the planet and the health of the animals,” says Miguel Villarreal, director, food and nutritional services for Novato Unified School District.

Red meat isn’t served at the district’s schools at all, and the cafeterias participate in the Meatless Monday campaign to increase participation in vegetable-focused diets.

Villarreal makes a point not only to offer plant-based meals such as three-bean soup, chili, plant-based burgers and burritos, but to also get students involved with how their food is prepared as well. The school hosts workshops to teach students and staff alike how to make different components of a meal, such as hummus or balsamic vinaigrette, which he says increases their interest in those foods both in and out of school. Where kids may have ignored foods such as hummus before, he says, once they know how to make it, they’re more likely to eat it during lunch at school.

Serving up tastes kids love

As with other trends, operators can make plant-based proteins more appealing to kids by serving them in flavors and formats students already know and love.

According to Technomic’s 2017 Foodservice Handbook, instances of street foods are up in the noncommercial segment. Tacos, in particular, are up 20% year-over-year. Street foods such as tacos and burritos are not only great for incorporating more plants, but they’re foods that students are interested in—globally influenced flavors and the potential for vegan and vegetarian options mean these dishes offer the best of both worlds.

Villarreal says that while he would like to serve more unique and perhaps unfamiliar dishes, he first wants to focus on offering dishes he knows students will like. That’s why dishes such as burritos, plant-based burgers and hummus are great options. Other dishes where operators can easily swap in plant-based proteins include pizza and sandwich fillings—all of which are staples on K-12 menus.

What health means to Gen Z

Villarreal notes that while students aren’t asking for plant-based foods specifically for their health benefits, these foods tend to go over well when served. For this age group, health is thought of as holistic and balanced. When asked why they order food that’s considered healthy, 61% of Gen Zers say “to feel better emotionally” while just 37% say “to feel better physically” according to Technomic’s 2016 report on Gen Z. And parents, of course, are also in tune with what their kids are eating at school, so the meatless and plant-focused foods are a win there, too.

Putting plant-based proteins into practice

The effort toward menuing more plant-based proteins—as well as natural and transparent sourcing—will pay off as Gen Z matures, as “feel good” and overall wellness messaging will resonate both now and in the future, according to Technomic. Operators should include flavors that work well with flavor profiles of produce and should also consider framing plant-based proteins as trendy so that young diners will feel good about eating plant-based options.

To learn more about plant-based options for K-12 menus, visit Kellogg's here.

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