Vegetables and grains have stepped into the spotlight, thanks to the “flipping the plate” trend, but protein is still an important part of a balanced diet. Sources including meat, cheese, nuts, and meat alternatives such as tofu and tempeh can and should still be on the plate—albeit as a side dish or topping rather than the main event.
“Whatever we do [as FSDs] needs to be rooted in the culture, and today’s culture is all about healthy eating and plant-focused meals,” says Chris Studtmann, executive chef at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “A recipe is an idea; culture is stronger. If you follow the overarching culture, you can’t go wrong.”
The upside of downsizing protein
Today’s customers are open to education, Studtmann says. “Students are all talking about refueling, antioxidants, muscle recovery—athletes’ type of diets, even if they’re not athletes.” He partnered with Northwestern’s dietitian to hold cooking demos and classes for students, explaining how beets, for example, offer protein but also help muscles absorb more oxygen—a benefit animal protein doesn’t provide.
Studtmann, a 6-foot-4 ex-football player who considers himself a flexitarian, explained to students, “If I can eat this way and keep satisfied, anyone can.” In addition to hands-on demos, he suggests winning customers over by promoting the value of a healthy, balanced diet in marketing materials.
Comfort meals can introduce the idea of meat as an add-on
At Northwestern, Studtmann and his staff eased customers into the idea of meat as a garnish. They began with a classic comfort food: mac and cheese. Students made it a meal by choosing from add-ons such as fancy cheeses, cooked vegetables and bacon. “We never do this cold turkey; changes have to be gradual,” Studtmann says. “Any major move that isn’t led by a customer’s decision can be taken the wrong way.” Soon mac and cheese gave way to noodle bowls, flatbreads and healthy grain bowls that offered mostly veggie options with one or two meat add-ons.
Invite experimentation—with a nudge from staff
Jennifer DiFrancesco, chef and unit manager at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., credits “our very knowledgeable staff” with the success of the school’s Pitchforks vegan station—and with encouraging diners to experiment by adding a bit of meat and protein to the plate.
“Our people were out there saying, ‘You can have a meal that’s 90% plant-based, and it’s OK to go over to the grill and add some chicken,’” DiFrancesco says. “People will make their own choices, but we try to present as many options as possible—and we can guide them to balanced choices.”