College and university students are buying in to one of today’s hottest food trends—plant-forward dining. Many students want to eat more vegetables, grains and less animal protein—at least occasionally, if not at every meal—for reasons such as health, animal welfare or sustainability.
“We’ve seen a growing demand for more vegetarian and vegan options on campus,” says Alan Cushman, manager, business development, for hospitality services at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Cushman says that even in meat-and-potatoes-loving West Texas, where Texas Tech is situated, students seek out dishes such as roasted tomato and veggie pasta, made with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and sautéed fresh mushrooms, onions, summer squash or asparagus, and mac and cheese with a kick, a creamy, cheesy blend of noodles, red peppers, jalapenos and green onions. Additionally, the campus’ build your own pasta station offers the likes of pasta with spinach and broccoli topped with vegetarian marinara sauce.
“Those dishes are popular because that’s the kind of food they are used to eating at home,” says Cushman.
Indeed, the realization that exciting meals can be based just as easily on produce and grains as they can with meat is rippling throughout the food scene, from home tables to restaurants to the campus dining halls.
This trend is driven in no small part by the vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian eating styles that until recently were considered fringe behaviors, but are now mainstream enough to influence the foodservice industry.
“We’ve reached a tipping point for vegetables,” declares the 2016 trend report by Baum + Whiteman, food and restaurant consultants based in New York City. Veggies, in fact, are “pushing animal protein to the side of the plate…or entirely off it.”
In fact, according to Baum + Whiteman, veg-centric restaurants are dishing up produce-centric meals “that are great to look at, satisfyingly memorable and compatible with wine.”
Above all, produce-forward cuisine must please the taste buds to be successful, reports Ed Glebus, CEC, assistant director and executive chef of SDSU Dining at San Diego State University in California, which handles about 30,000 meal transactions per day.
“The old-school thinking was that customers want a lot of meat, but when you put out really good, tasty food, they don’t even miss it,” says Glebus. “For example, grilled eggplant has great texture and is smoky and satisfying in pasta. As long as it is flavored correctly and seasoned right, they love it and they come back for more.”
Dishes that are popular at SDSU, which has raised its use of produce and grains and reduced meat portions, include penne with sausage, spinach and red peppers and baked rigatoni with fresh mozzarella, grilled eggplant, fennel and spinach.
At the University of California, Berkeley, lasagna rollups are a big hit at the residential dining wellness station. A popular comfort-food classic with a twist, the dish is made by layering squares of lasagna pasta with a mixture of sautéed vegetables, vegan cheese substitute and herbs. The pasta is then rolled up and served with vegan marinara sauce.
“It is a vegan dish, and they go crazy for it here,” says Jose Martinez, senior executive chef, Residential Cal Dining, which serves 10,000 to 15,000 students per day.
The campus’ macaroni and cheese bar, which offers regular and whole-grain pasta, cheese sauce and roasted vegetables, as well as more indulgent additions such as bacon and cheese, is popular with students as well. “They love to customize their plates,” says Martinez. “That is something they go crazy for.”