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Roots_bowls3__sodexo_nicholls_state_u (1).jpg
Sodexo’s Roots concept at Nicholls State University has lots of cool plant-based components and whole grains for a customizable bowl experience.

Food service chefs craft plant-based food with something for everyone

Here are several ways onsite food service chefs are planting menu ideas with potential to grow. Plus, the real nutritional buzz on plant-based eating from a top Sodexo dietitian and a study by UCLA’s dining team and a PhD student on the effects of plant-based menu items on the carbon footprint.

It’s an exciting time to develop a menu with plant-based choices. Paradigm-shifting ideas of inclusivity and acceptance are infusing many areas of the current culture, including food choices and the way we eat.

The idea of “flexitarian” eating leaves more room for interpretation on the chef’s part, while allowing the diner to change things up and beat boredom at the same time. Replacing meat with plant-based protein or just plain plants opens up a conversation: Should cauliflower replace steak? That’s not for us to decide; the best way to serve customers is to “meat” them where they’re at.  

UCLA sticks to its plant-based plan

Like many colleges across the country, UCLA has had its share of disruptions due to the pandemic, going from serving 32,000 meals per day to just about 7,000. But the ideology of Menus of Change—a set of principles and a pledge with a research angle and a focus on plant-based eating and sustainable foodservice practices—keeps the plant-based/low carbon footprint dream alive, says UCLA Senior Executive Chef Joey Martin.

“Even through this pandemic, this has been ingrained in us; we’re in it for the long haul,” Martin says. “This is just part of our culture and we’re not wavering from it.”

Impossible-Burger_at_UCLA.jpgPhoto: At UCLA, students have a real concern for carbon footprints in their diet. The dining team partnered with a PhD student to track Impossible burgers at one dining venue.

Currently on Martin’s radar: bright purple roasted cauliflower contrasting with a velvety smooth white bean soup, Mediterranean charred carrots on a bed of hummus with pomegranate seeds and chickpea fries, aka panisse, a crispy alternative not so much to French fries, but to fried mozzarella in terms of look and feel.

The UCLA dining team researched the Impossible burger, a “fake meat” alternative that’s not so different from a beef burger in terms of calories and nutrition, but different when it comes to the carbon footprint.

A collaboration between UCLA Dining and PhD student Hannah Malan in the fall of 2019, the study added Impossible meat with taco seasoning to the line at a dining location with marketing fanfare. Malan’s dissertation outlines an increase in low carbon footprint food choices by 50%; an 8% decrease in the mean carbon footprint of each entrée sold and, considering all entrees sold that fall, the decrease of about 16.4 metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of driving 42,000 miles. Learn more about UCLA’s carbon footprint initiatives here.

“The focus is on the carbon footprint,” Martin says, adding that he has found that students prioritize a low carbon footprint above healthy eating. So, where earth-saving measures have been taken—for instance sofrito being added to the Mexican concept—a low-carbon icon badge lets students know.

The real buzz on plant-based food, according to a dietitian

Understanding why your customers are looking at plant-based eating and what you can tell them if they ask you about it. Cordialis Msora, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who’s also on Sodexo’s healthcare team, has some insight into why plant-based eating is on customers’ minds—and why it should be if not, especially during the pandemic.

“In addition to being higher in calories, diets that are rich in meat and animal products tend to contain more cholesterol and saturated fat than those that are mostly plants,” Msora says. “Furthermore, whole and/or minimally processed plant foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes contain a wonderful mix of disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants that support the immune system and fight inflammation. Plant-rich or plant-forward diets are associated with a reduced risk of chronic health conditions that include obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.”

UCLA-Plateia-Day511778.jpgPhoto: UCLA’s Mediterranean-inspired roasted carrots go to show that the rainbow of veggies is one of their greatest strengths.

Knowing that and getting people to eat more plants is the bridge for foodservice to cross. Msora says Sodexo’s mission is to make healthy eating “the easy choice,” and finding ways to keep favorite flavors in the mix. She points to the beef-and-mushroom meatloaf and vegetarian paella as examples of flexitarian twists on traditional favorites.

“But,” Msora stipulates, “recipes alone are sometimes not enough. People need a nudge. To get people to try the flexitarian lifestyle, some facilities have offered a four-week challenge filled not only with nutrition education and tips on flexitarianism but also practical ideas on how to make the eating pattern a part of everyday life.”

Bowls are the way

Sodexo’s team at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., has found more students opting for plant-based options on campus as the pandemic goes on. Roots, a station in Galliano Dining Hall, offers sauteed-to-order whole grains, pastas, roasted veggies, beans, herbs and meat alternatives.

close_up_veg_TexMexBowl_AkronChildrens (1).jpgPhoto: At Akron Children’s Hospital, bowls have been a great way to pack more plants onto the menu.

Since opening in spring 2018, Roots has served over 100,00 meals and uses about 350 lbs. of fresh fruits and veggies weekly, along with 100 lbs. of various whole grains. Options include cool items like baby chickpeas, bamboo rice, black quinoa, red jasmine rice, okra and black beluga lentils.

Bowls are also making plant-based eating easier at Akron Children’s Hospital, where customization makes the difference, according to Mike Folino, director of support services there.

“I think another important aspect is providing an option that is not only vegetarian, but meets nutritional needs as well,” Folino says. “Because of this, it’s important to incorporate whole grains, beans and other protein sources.”

The ease of cheese

What makes the “vegetarian” label easier for chefs? The fact that, unlike “vegan,” vegetarian can contain cheese. And if your customers can eat cheese, then by golly they should. At Ohio University, Executive Chef Tim Bruce created a salad using panko-and-herb-crusted goat cheese as a centerpiece on a plate of watermelon radishes, mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, red onion, pine nut and roasted tomato vinaigrette.

Bruce, who owned a Chicago restaurant for five years, also uses goat cheese for fried green tomato Napoleon with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and yellow tomato coulis, a vegetarian entrée

And UCLA’s Martin has taken advantage of California’s proximity to—and affinity for—the mighty avocado, with his take on avocado toast: caprese style with crumbled bits of feta cheese throughout, little accents of creamy saltiness.

Contact Tara at [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie.

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