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Plant-Based Foods Are On My Favorite Restaurant Menu?

Restaurants around the world have come up with creative ways to incorporate meatless proteins into a variety of dishes and cuisines in response to growing consumer demand.

With issues of climate change and sustainability becoming increasingly urgent, many experts advise us to try to limit our consumption of meat, so plant-based foods are becoming more common these days on restaurant menus. The trend toward plant-based menu items originated with a veggie burger, but now plant-based options are becoming available in all sorts of categories.

Plant-based entrées are grabbing press headlines and social media shares. Managers are reporting that plant-based menu items are attracting new customers. Restaurants are capitalizing on this excitement by piloting new and interesting protein-rich, plant-based menu items. The latest announcements reflect trends emerging out across the restaurant world, from to-go and fast-casual eateries to fine-dining establishments.

Offering plant-based menu items helps restaurants cater to a diverse range of customers. Plant-based entrées can differentiate one restaurant from its competitor by generating interest to a restaurant’s menu, infusing innovation and creativity, and aligning a brand with customer values around health and environmental sustainability. Indeed, rich plant-based foods like legumes and grains offer restaurants several benefits including lower costs, a longer shelf-life than animal products, and less price volatility.

A recent Gallup study found that 41% of people in the US have tried plant-based meats — and of those respondents, 60% said they were likely to continue eating them. A Technomic report found that 59% of consumers say they eat meatless meals at least once a week, and 33% are actively trying to reduce their meat consumption.

While shipments of plant-based meat replacements have surged since the pandemic, the rise actually began in earnest more than a year before, according to reports from the Good Food Institute, which tracked plant-based offerings on menus at major US restaurant chains annually in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Consumers’ increased interest and consideration of plant-based foods has led to positive upward trends in the market. The plant-based meat industry is estimated to reach more than $35 billion in 2027 — up from $11 billion in 2019. Innovative alternative protein companies, which include plant-based meat, egg, and dairy as well as fermentation and other methods, raised $3.1 billion in funding in 2020 — more than any other year in the industry’s history.

More food companies — from small upstarts to established brands — are looking for ways to join in the sustainable eating movement. Conversely, restaurants that hesitate to offer plant-based options are falling behind on a popular food trend and major market opportunity.

Which Restaurants Offer Plant-Based Menu Options?

Plant-based foods have hit your local restaurant and offer a wide range of options that extend beyond a Meatless Monday to tasty, nutritious, planet-healthy selections.

  • The Impossible Whopper, which uses the Impossible Burger, is now a staple at Burger King.
  • The Cheesecake Factory offers several plant-based options, including vegan Cobb salad, Korean fried cauliflower, pasta pomodoro, avocado toast, spinach and mushroom flatbread, lasagna, French country salad, and their version of the Impossible Burger.
  • Del Taco’s menu features a comprehensive list of Beyond Meat options such as burritos, tacos, bowls and even a crunchy tostada. Their Epic Beyond Fresh Guacamole Burrito is totally vegan and contains 44 grams of protein. They also have more traditional vegetarian and Crunchtada Tostada.
  • Dunkin’ has a vegetarian Southwest Veggie Power Breakfast Sandwich on its menu — a MorningStar Farms Black Bean Patty layered with a loaded egg white omelet and topped with aged white cheddar cheese on a multigrain thin. Dunkin’ was an early advocate for plant-based milks, which means almost all of their beverages can be made with either oat, almond, or coconut milk.
  • Want some plant-based pepperoni? Head off to Little Caesars.
  • Panda Express has many vegetarian and vegan options, including Eggplant Tofu, Veggie Spring Rolls, Super Greens (broccoli, kale, cabbage), and Chow Mein. They’re piloting Beyond Meat Orange “Chicken” at select locations in NYC and SoCal.
  • Panera’s Baja bowl, Mediterranean grain bowl, tomato basil cucumber salad, ten vegetable soup, Greek salad, and strawberry poppy salad are all vegetarian options that can be modified to be vegan-friendly.
  • Red Robin offers 2 vegan friendly burger patties: a house-made veggie patty made with quinoa and ancient grains and the Impossible Burger.
  • Peet’s Coffee is selling a vegan breakfast sandwich made with mung-bean-based Just Egg.
  • TGI Fridays claim-to-vegetarian-fame is their Loaded Beyond Burger, which comes grilled and topped with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, and Friday’s sauce.
  • Wendy’s features a Spicy Black Bean Burger layered with tomatoes, onion slices, romaine lettuce, chipotle jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, and a spicy chipotle sauce.
  • The Long John Silver’s seafood chain tested plant-based crab cakes and fish fillets at 5 locations in California and Georgia this summer.
  • Starbucks has many plant-based options. Their Impossible Breakfast Sandwich subs for traditional sausage, egg, and cheese. Vegetarian protein boxes include fruit and cheese, chickpea bites with avocado, egg and Gouda, and peanut butter and jelly. Their beverage selection allows you to choose among a variety of plant-based milks and an expansive menu of naturally dairy-free drinks including Refreshers and lemonades.

plant-based foods

Final Thoughts About Plant-Based Foods & Restaurants

By reducing the amount of meat we eat and striving for a more sustainable diet, we can each help to reduce the damage to the environment.  Sustainable eating is about choosing foods that are healthful to our environment and our bodies. Several reports and studies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on climate change and land, recommend reducing meat consumption.

The FAO and WHO describe several notable features that contribute to sustainable eating:

  • Eat lots of whole grains, legumes, nuts, and an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Allow moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish, and small amounts of red meat
  • Reject foods that use antibiotics and hormones in food production
  • Choose reusables over plastics and derivatives in food packaging
  • Start to adopt ways to avoid food loss and waste

Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made a broad variety of familiar-looking items available, and diners have responded positively. Beyond Meat‘s plant-based foods contain proteins, fats, minerals, flavors and colors, and carbohydrates from plant-based sources like peas, beans, potatoes, and brown rice. Impossible Foods’ meat made from plants is on the menus of renowned chains and local favorites, including Little Bao’s steamed buns, Dos Toros’ quesadillas, Veganos Kitchen’s pizza, and Millie’s Cuban Cafe’s picadillo sloppy joes.

Hats off to@MeatlessMonday for their extensive research on restaurants and plant-based menu choices.

Images provided by Impossible Foods and Starbucks

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


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