Are plant-based alternatives the answer to tackling the increase of food and energy costs?

CH&CO Independent’s managing director, Deborah Homshaw, and consultant nutritionist, Amanda Ursell, look at initiatives that are gaining pace on the high-street and whether they can be of benefit in a school environment

In the catering world, food and energy are the two major heavy-weights and when costs for one, let alone both, are on the rise, changes to what we eat and the energy we use comes under increased scrutiny. Keeping costs under control is easier said than done whilst also ensuring menus continue to remain nutritious, delicious and balanced.

Taking advantage of seasonal and local produce is just one of the ways to control costs but we’re seeing an increased focus on the high-street with plant-based alternatives. Many restaurants are starting to place these ‘alternatives’ on menus as the default and, by doing so, they’re naturally changing people’s behaviour and moving away from the negative features of the ‘option’ it is replacing.

We’ve already seen how some food and drink outlets have switched to offering ‘healthier’ drink options as their default and placing meat options out of easy sight. Coffee shops are also increasingly asking which type of milk people want rather than assuming everyone wants cow’s milk, so is no longer seeing oat and soya as the poor relations.

A recent Austrian initiative in a well-known fast-food chain has been trialling how customers change their behaviour just from the questions they’re asked. Having removed any references to the health benefits, cost implications or planet ramifications they’ve seen non-meat options being normalised.

Subtle changes like this are ‘nudging’ people towards healthier and more sustainable options, and in current times this is also having a positive impact on costs. Plants don’t tend to be more expensive than meat or fish. For us in independent school catering, the first challenge is getting the plant-based alternatives nutritionally right and age appropriate.

Charred sprouting broccoli stalk Japanese pancakes with okonomiyaki sauce


A plant-based menu needs to contain sufficient protein-based plant foods – for example, with pulses or tofu. If menus aren’t carefully audited nutritionally, you could find a plant-based default dish being promoted that has low protein benefit or simply insufficient quantities for the age-group that is being fed.

The second challenge comes with the use of plant-based products, from ‘veggie’ burgers and sausages to vegan ‘fishless fingers’. In many cases, they fall down not simply on the nutrition – fishless fingers often bear no nutritional similarity to fish fingers – but also on CO2e. When highly processed and then packaged and transported in the same way as processed meat products, they quickly start racking up a hefty carbon footprint.

The key, therefore, to successful integration of plant-based options is to start with the premise that it must be as nutritious as the option it’s replacing. And not just in terms of protein, but micronutrients from iron and calcium to omega 3s and B vitamins. You can’t simply rely on easy, highly processed alternatives.

In recent months, we’ve seen a keenness in many schools to move to more plant-based biased menus and reduce meat content, even in traditional favourites such as lasagnes – not only for cost purposes but also from an environmental point of view. But you don’t need to go the whole hog initially. There is much to be said for integrating plant-based ingredients, with a good nutritional pedigree into meat-based dishes, just as a chilli con carne naturally achieves. Upping the red kidney beans while reducing the mince is a good starting point to begin tipping the balance towards more plant-based menus. It goes without saying that where we have seen an increase in requests for vegetarian, vegan and plant-based options, our talented chefs and nutritionists peruse every ingredient to make sure the dishes are nutritionally replete for the age groups.

Undoubtedly, being agile with menus can only help with the current rise in costs and help sustain the planet, but it has to be done in a controlled way and in conjunction with looking at every aspect of catering such as kitchen energy usage and how this can be maximised by sharing and changing cooking methods.

Ultimately, the cost of not doing something is far higher than the cost of doing it – in other words, nothing can replace the need for nutritious, delicious balanced menus that support pupils’ development, learning and long-term wellbeing.


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