3 ways college dining is embracing plant-based cuisine

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With consumers increasingly looking for better-for-you options, lighter fare and veggie-based foods, restaurants and noncommercial foodservice facilities alike are working hard to keep up with the demand. Offering more plant-forward and plant-based dishes, implementing Meatless Mondays and other initiatives designed to increase vegetable consumption have all been on the rise.

For example, inspired by student demand for more vegetarian and vegan dishes, the self-operated dining program at Rice University in Houston, Texas, recently launched an initiative focusing on plant-based cuisine. Rice chefs learned to create a wide variety of dishes using plant-based protein that were not only delicious and nutritious, but also dramatically reduced the carbon impact of the university’s dining program.

Here are three ways C&U operators are embracing plant-based options on menus.

Center-of-plate versatility

A few years ago, Rice chefs began showcasing plant-based foods as center-of- plate options in the university’s dining program. The versatility and flexibility of soy-based meat alternatives like PlantFare, a plant-based protein from Kerry Foodservice, made it easy to revamp student favorites, from breakfast tacos and burritos to shawarma pita wraps and Asian lettuce cups to chili and Bolognese sauce. “You can use the plant-based protein in just about any dish that you would ground beef,” said Kyle Hardwick, senior executive chef and assistant dining director for Rice University.

Depending on the traffic at each on-campus dining venue, Rice chefs try to ensure that they offer at least one plant-based center-of-plate option, but sometimes will feature as many as three. Venues with more diners can accommodate additional options, such as a gluten free section with a plant-based focus. “We want to be sure to appeal to more than just one sub-group of diners,” said Hardwick. “We want to make things that everyone wants to eat.”

While plant-based protein suppliers offer a host of recipes and preparation suggestions, the versatility of these products inspire chefs to do what they do best: create. Last summer, Hardwick, working with another Rice chef, tested about 40 plant-based recipes. Together, they fine-tuned plant-forward dishes, took pictures of their creations and made the recipes available to all the university’s chefs.

Craveable cuisine

While today’s students enjoy global flavors from far and wide, there’s nothing like comfort food to satisfy all. “Mac and cheese is a hugely popular item. If you put it on the menu, you know you’ll draw a crowd,” said Hardwick. With this in mind, he chose vegan macaroni and cheese as one of the dining program’s first plant-based options, using butternut squash and coconut milk to make the sauce.

It wasn’t just the vegetarians and vegans who were excited about it. Mac and cheese is a dish that is recognizable to all, and everyone wanted to eat it,” he added. “That’s what we like to see in a plant-based dish—something that is accessible to everyone.”

Instagram-worthy education

When Rice University began focusing on plant-based center-of-plate options in its dining program, its media department launched the hashtag #ourplantbasedjourney as a way to promote, entice and educate students about the bounty and benefits of plant-based cuisine.

A search of the hashtag on social media shows off beautiful food photography of plant-based cuisine on campus, as well as descriptions of the ingredients Rice chefs are using to create the dishes, such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, jackfruit and more.

Through this campus-driven social media, students also learn about the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, and how they can play an important role in changing the dining culture on campus.

Plant-based diets and an overall concern for wellness and better-for-you choices are on the rise, and plant-based proteins help operators fulfill diners’ desires for those options. With foods like PlantFare from Kerry Foodservice, diners can continue enjoying all the foods they love, with the added benefits of plant-based foods.

This post is sponsored by Kerry Foodservice

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