plant-based meals

Plant-based meals are now a menu must-have

By Riana Topan

The skyrocketing interest in plant-based meals has moved the industry from a “trend” to a global movement, and the growing market shows no signs of slowing down.

Canadian consumers have demonstrated a consistent appetite for plant-based options, especially plant-based proteins, in recent years, with over 6.4 million people reducing or eliminating their meat consumption.

Moreover, 67 per cent of Canadians report that they consume plant-based foods frequently and the plant-based market is reportedly now worth $1.1 billion in Canada. Health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, taste, and price are cited as the reasons, according to research from Dalhousie University in 2018 and 2021.

Dozens of new plant-based start-ups have launched in the past couple of years, offering innovative products like milk made from millets, buckwheat, or sesame seeds, and new varieties of plant-based seafood. Several leading quick-service chains including A&W, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Pizza have introduced high-fidelity plant-based burgers, chicken, pepperoni, and ground meat.

Many of the changes implemented by the restaurant and foodservice industries are motivated by sustainability goals and a desire to reduce the sector’s impact on the planet. In this regard, a shift to plant-based meals is a high-impact decision.

Plant-based dishes have a carbon footprint that is up to 85 per cent lower than dishes with animal products, and serving just 1,000 plant-based meals would save an estimated 1,600 kilograms of CO2 – equivalent to the emissions that would be generated by driving the distance from Chicago to Paris.

Of course, the changes are also market-oriented. Guests expect to see healthy, sustainable, and veg-friendly offerings on menus, and they are more likely to select a restaurant that is responsive to those preferences. By maintaining a robust set of enticing plant-based options that appeal to vegetarians, vegans, flexitarians, and omnivores, an operation can win the support of diverse sets of diners. The fact that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands offers additional incentives to operators.

Thanks to social marketing research and real-life case studies, we know that there are several proven ways to nudge clients towards new plant-rich and planet-friendly choices at your establishment:

  • Give dishes names that reflect the food’s provenance, flavour, look, and feel; avoid terms like “meat-free”, “vegan”, “vegetarian”, and other labels that suggest a dish is restrictive or unsatisfying (such as “low-fat” or “healthy”).
  • Integrate plant-based options into regular menus rather than placing them in a separate section or a separate menu, so that they are presented as options intended for everyone and not just those following a special diet.
  • Since diners make decisions primarily based on taste, ensure that plant-based dishes look and smell appetizing, and feature them with appealing visuals onsite and on your website and social media.
  • Include thoughtful environmental messages on restaurant menus, to reinforce customers’ understanding that a small change to their food choices like choosing a plant-based meal can lead to a big difference for the climate (e.g., saving greenhouse gases equivalent to the energy used to charge a cell phone for two years).
  • Finally, present veg-friendly fare first on a menu or in a buffet and give guests the option of adding animal proteins if they want. Making the plant-based option the default or first choice is a great way to help plant-forward options succeed.

With the food landscape rapidly evolving, restaurants and foodservice operations can set themselves up for success by embracing plant-based foods. There are countless options to work with and more being launched every month. And, animal-free meat and dairy products are now being made through cellular agriculture and fermentation, and once available commercially they promise to provide chefs with a new range of ingredients to play with, without the downsides that come with conventional animal proteins.

Riana Topan is a campaign manager with Humane Society International/Canada, where she runs the Forward Food program, which helps institutions across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment, and human health.