Putting new proteins on the plate

Meat alternatives can save money and make menus healthier and more sustainable.

Protein is an essential building block of any menu, but the usual sources can put a big dent in an operator’s food budget. To control food costs and meet consumer demand for healthier options, some foodservice directors are menuing plant-based protein alternatives and cutting back on beef in favor of other animal sources. While beef costs have somewhat moderated this year, the meat still is priced higher than other proteins.

goat sambal

At Google’s New York City campus, Regional Executive Chef Mike Wurster is “focused on reducing animal proteins by 30 to 50 percent.” So, he’s created recipes for burgers that use cauliflower, quinoa, beans, amaranth, chickpeas, mushrooms and kelp to replace all or part of the meat at his location’s Highline Café. His menu includes four burgers: a blended beef burger, such as the Roasted Portabello, Jalapeno and Beef Burger (35 percent plant-based); a poultry burger, like the Curried Cauliflower and Chicken Burger (50 percent plant-based); a 100 percent plant-based burger that combines vegetable pulp from the cafe’s juice bars with chia seeds and several grains; and a simple grilled fish burger that’s a blend of sustainable seafood.

Wurster’s effort to cut back on animal proteins not only yields health benefits, it helps meet Google’s goal of shrinking its carbon footprint. “We are trying to be a better partner for our food systems,” he says.

Goat meat also ranks high on the sustainability and nutrition scales. As a smaller ruminant mammal, a goat’s diet consists mostly of grass, creating a smaller environmental footprint and emitting less methane than a grain-fed cow. Goat also has 38 percent fewer calories, 53 percent less fat and 60 percent less saturated fat than beef, according to USDA nutritional data.

At Stanford University, which serves 12,000 meals a day at 11 dining facilities, Chef Nijo Joseph served up Australian goat sambal with traditional accompaniments—roti, rice and pickled vegetables—at a Chef’s Table lunch at Arrillaga Family Dining Commons to a group of visiting culinarians. While the sambal was a special-event item, Joseph uses goat on a rotational basis, typically in a curry or another stewed preparation, and says he has gotten very positive feedback from students. 

K-12 students aren’t feasting on goat just yet, but Ann Cooper, director of food services for Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, where she serves 52 schools 13,000 meals a day, has created a menu that relies on plant-based proteins.

“Both for the health of our children and the health of the planet, I believe we need to increase students’ consumption of plant-based proteins and reduce the consumption of animal protein,” Cooper says.

She offers daily vegetarian items that follow the USDA  requirements to include 2 to 3 ounces of protein in every meal. This means she reaches for tofu in dishes such as Kashmiri rice with spicy tofu and a crispy tofu rice bowl. She also prepares housemade veggie burgers from black beans and corn.

To encourage kids to become more adventurous eaters, Cooper invests in fun. She hosts close to 200 events a year for her schools, including tasting days and Iron Chef competitions between students. “We really work with the kids to get them to try new things and expand their palates to get them to embrace a wide variety of foods,” she says.


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