According to a 2019 report by Datassential, nearly 40% of Americans say they are eating less red meat. Meanwhile, about half (49%) seek to eat more vegetables.
The start of a new year (or in this case, decade) is always a good time to look at trends and what they mean for our business. And going into 2020, few are more influential—for our health, the planet, or our menu development—than plant-forward dining. Plant-forward is a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. With plants as the star of the plate, animal products can appear in smaller portions, often as a flavoring or garnish.
“The plant-forward trend has proliferated across the dining scene, and it shows remarkable staying power,” notes Kevin Maguire, Aramark Director of Product Development. “Our own research has shown that 60% of consumers want to reduce their meat intake and 62% want to eat more vegetables. It’s a major driver of today’s menus.” Here we examine why the plant-forward trend has gone mainstream, and how we bring it to life across our locations.
Understanding plant-forward’s longevity starts with understanding its appeal.
“Consumers have different motivations for wanting to eat more plants,” says Christina Meinhardt, RDN, Director of Product Development for Aramark’s K-12 line of business. “It could be for ethical reasons, to reduce their risk for diseases like type 2 diabetes, to help the environment, to save money, or simply to feel better.”
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Meinhardt adds: “I see it firsthand in my current work with our K-12 clients, and we’ve seen great success in healthcare, higher education, and business dining as well.”
Notes Maguire: “It makes sense when you think about it—the students who drove this trend in the first place are now in our clients’ workplaces.”
A Range of Choices
These days, most consumers understand plant-forward eating to be a spectrum, instead of an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, roughly two-thirds of respondents in the Datassential survey indicated they aren’t interested in giving up meat entirely. (This is where the term “flexitarian” often comes into play.)
Popular products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are a noteworthy part of the plant-forward picture. A 2019 study by NPD group found that 90% of consumers who purchase plant-based meat alternatives are neither vegetarian nor vegan—and that the top consumers of these products are millennials.
But plants themselves are also enjoying wider appreciation. “There is equal consumer interest in embracing plants on their own merits,” Meinhardt observes. “There’s been a mental shift toward celebrating delicious plant-forward cuisine, not just avoiding meat.”
A Plant-Forward Menu Strategy
For us, the plant-forward approach offers endless opportunities for innovation. Taste is always the leading priority for our recipes: getting the flavor profiles right. Then you have the healthfulness: for example, helping guests eat more produce and whole grains. And there’s the novelty factor: giving consumers something new, even exotic to try (jackfruit, anyone?).
Today about 30% of our main dishes are vegetarian or vegan or include only a small amount of meat, eggs, and dairy. Top performers include the Spanakopita Quesadilla, a spinach and feta cheese quesadilla with tzatziki sauce; an apple and brie panini; and our Harissa-Mango Gardenburger® with mango chutney, harissa ranch spread, lettuce, and tomato on a toasted roll.
“We’ve been continuing to grow the number of menu items where plants are the hero, and communicating that to our guests,” says Meinhardt.
The marketing aspect is key, Maguire attests, because plant-forward dishes belong on the main stage. We want guests to be excited about the names, flavors, and ingredients—then perhaps notice the vegetarian, vegan, or plant-forward designation on the second read. “When consumers perceive a plant-forward dish as part of the regular menu and see it offered daily, they are more apt to try it,” he says. “As vegan food, in particular, becomes more mainstream, we’re seeing any stigma slowly fade away.”
The market is also coming around to the idea that plants can be a real treat. Healthy, indulgent eating has invaded even the unlikeliest of places: football stadiums. Five of our clients have been recognized among PETA’s top 10 NFL venues for vegan-friendly eats. From chickpea “tuna” salad to Buffalo falafel, we help our partners design their menus to appeal to every fan.
The Tale of the Twisted Beet
One of our newest restaurant rotations is a case study in plant-forward’s growing popularity. Launched just in time for Earth Day in April 2019, The Twisted Beet features plant-forward takes on comfort food classics such as the Chicken and Chickpea Hummus Bowl and Creole Beyond Sausage® Plate. The concept offers up to four signature plates with the opportunity to customize and a variety of complimentary sides (think Cauliflower Mac and Cheese).
Maguire and Meinhardt were both involved in The Twisted Beet’s menu development which was made available to about 750 healthcare, higher education, and business client locations nationwide. “Our culinary team did a great job coming up with plant-forward recipes that deliver the flavors, textures, and heartiness you would expect from meat,” Maguire says.
He points to the Eggplant Meatball Sub as a prime example that pushes the boundaries of plant-forward dining. We roast the eggplant base with nutritional yeast and soy sauce for deep umami flavor, then cook it in a tomato sauce. With a taste and texture so similar to a traditional meatball, the sandwich satisfies vegan and carnivorous consumers alike.
Our plant-forward meals are not just good for the people we serve, they’re also good for the planet. Putting plants at the center of the plate with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains while ensuring sustainably sourced and humanely raised animal proteins, minimizes our environmental impact. By introducing more plant-based recipes to deliver on our consumer’s preferences, we’re also helping to prevent deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In the new decade, the plant-forward trend will continue to evolve alongside consumer interest in sustainability, global cuisine, and functional foods. We’re committed to keeping pace with this movement, putting plants at the center of the plate in new and often-unexpected ways.
“Plant-forward itself will stick around, but people’s eating habits are changing all the time,” says Maguire. “It’s up to us to make sure that we stay at the forefront."