Elevate your holiday celebrations with plant-powered menus

By Makayla Dewit

The holiday season has arrived, and restaurants and food service establishments are eagerly gearing up to host and cater holiday events, ranging from festive gatherings to New Year’s celebrations. Are your holiday menus plant-powered this year?

Considering the immense global impacts of our food choices, it is important to recognize that those who prepare and serve food have an incredible opportunity. They can make their menus more sustainable, ethical, and healthier by focusing their offerings on vegetables, fruits, grains, and plant-based proteins. From scrumptious grain bowls to showstopping seitan roasts, there is no shortage of delicious plant-based dishes that will impress your guests – and not just those following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

RELATED: Plant-based dishes appeal to a broad array of diners

One of the significant advantages of opting for plant-powered menu choices is the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your events. A report from the Centre for Biological Diversity estimated that for events with 500 attendees, serving plant-based meals can save 10 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the emissions from 22,000 miles driven by cars. In addition, the transition to plant-based meals would spare five acres of farmland, prevent seven tonnes of manure pollution, and conserve nearly 100,000 gallons of water.

While it has been reported that 67 per cent of Canadians consume plant-based foods frequently, some of your guests may require a gentle nudge to try something outside of their comfort zones. A study published in the Journal of Public Health suggests a subtle yet effective strategy to encourage plant-forward options: make the vegetarian dish the default option at events while still offering meat-based. The study showed that approximately 80 per cent of the event attendees opted for the vegetarian option when it was the default.

This finding is being put into practice in the real world. In an experiment conducted by the Food for Climate League within the dining hall of three universities, researchers tested the strategy of plant-based defaults in nudging eaters toward more climate-friendly, plant-based meals. When plant-based dishes were the default option, 81 per cent of students stuck with a plant-based meal, up from 31 per cent of students when plant-based dishes were not the default. Researchers also found that food-related greenhouse gas emissions declined, on average, by 23.6 per cent on plant-based default days.

Here are some things to keep in mind to keep your prices low and to encourage guests to choose your plant-based dishes this holiday season:

  1. Cost-effective ingredients: Opt for recipes that incorporate beans and legumes, not only for their rich protein, iron, and fibre content but for their affordability compared to animal proteins. Consider delicious bean and legume-based dishes, such as white bean and basil bruschetta, roasted beet and garlic hummus with cumin-spiced pita chips, or a mushroom and lentil wellington. Soups are also a great choice, offering delicious comfort through the colder weather.
  2. Appetizing descriptions: Craft names that highlight your dishes’ delectable flavours, origins, or key ingredients instead of merely labelling them as “vegan.” This makes plant-based options sound more appealing and addresses the misconception that they may lack flavour or satisfaction. Rather than “vegan tacos,” try using descriptive copy like “crispy black bean tacos with tangy rainbow slaw.”
  3. Normalize their presence on your menus: Integrate plant-based dishes seamlessly into your general menu, rather than in a separate one. Research out of the London School of Economics found that listing vegetarian dishes in a separate section of a menu suppressed ordering of those dishes by 56 per cent.
  4. Highlight the environment: Educate and inspire your guests by highlighting the environmental benefits of plant-powered dishes. A recent study by the World Resources Institute suggests that incorporating sustainability messaging on menus can significantly increase the adoption of plant-powered options. For example, including the message that “swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years” roughly doubled the percentage of vegetarian dishes participants ordered.
  5. Chef’s recommendation: Elevate the status of your plant-powered dishes by showcasing them as the “Chef’s Recommendation,” or as the daily special. This personal endorsement adds credibility and encourages diners to explore these options.

Go plant-powered this holiday season with more plant-based dishes on your menu. Whether serving your guests a caramelized onion and lentil shepherd’s pie, butternut squash and apple galette, or chocolate and blood orange cashew cheesecake, you can please their palettes while benefiting their health, animals, and the planet. Get your guests feeling festive and trying something new when they visit your restaurant this season.

Makayla Dewit is the Forward Food program specialist at Humane Society International/Canada, which helps institutions and businesses across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment, and human health.