Dietitians Say Plant-Based Menu Options Important To Incorporate In Schools

Close to 6,000 school nutrition professionals from around the country gathered at the Annual National Conference of the School Nutrition Association, this year held in St. Louis, MO. Education sessions were held for members to share ideas and insights, while also providing the latest in skills and knowledge about school meal trends.

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An example of a vegetarian meal: bean chili, grilled cheese, side salad, fruit and milk.

The topic of meat alternatives and the growing school menu trend of plant-based protein options was the hot topic of one session. As parents introduce more students to vegetarian and vegan eating at home, students are becoming increasingly savvy and school nutrition professionals are responding.

Children are seeing more meat-alternatives in popular restaurants, especially since more have started to offer the plant-derived options such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat products. Districts are introducing plant-based protein options for a variety of reasons including environmental, religious, animal welfare, personal health, allergies and desires for new ethnic flavors.


By showing examples from two very different schools districts, Laura Benavidez, Director of Food & Nutrition Services for Boston Public Schools (MA) and Heather Torrey, Assistant Director for the Burlington School Food Project (VT), discussed how to implement more plant-based meals into school menus and provide further meal options for kids.

“This could be the only meal that these students get all day and we want it to be the healthiest possible, while offering every student an option,” said Benavidez. “It’s important to cater to all kinds of diets, otherwise students will bring food from home and not participate in the school meal programs available.”

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As a way to reach students of all backgrounds, Burlington Public Schools (VT) decided to incorporate the most common languages in their school literature, including menus.

In Boston, over 85 languages and 132 different countries are represented in their public school student base – creating a unique challenge to cater to a wide range of dietary and cultural needs. The same can be said for Burlington Public Schools, where more than 40 languages are spoken and a large refugee population requires schools to respond to better meal variety.

Plant-based diets focus on eating foods that are derived from plants, limiting or excluding food that come from animals. There are a variety of different diets that school nutrition professionals must take into account when creating a menu for students, including omnivores, flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan.

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Diagram shows the different kinds of diets using easy to understand emojis.

Torrey’s district in Burlington, for example, has hired an executive chef to bring in some of the areas most popular plant-based menu options, such as sesame encrusted tofu over salad, meatless mushroom meatballs and a vegetable curry stew using coconut milk. Using tofu, beans, legumes, lentils, chickpeas and tempeh, students are being exposed to a wide variety of protein through plant-based recipes.


Menu options that students might be familiar with outside of school can be translated into healthy school meal versions, like falafel, vegetable curry and bean salads. There are simple ways to incorporate more plant-based options into a school menu, according to Torrey, by grabbing onto the “low hanging fruit.” Schools, in many cases, are already offering plant-based items, but must market them as such and make sure their students and staff know exactly what they are eating. There are also easy ways to add plant-based options, such as veggie burgers and corn and bean salsa, to existing menus. There are ingredients that can be swapped to provide more veggie-friendly diets, like which stocks cooks use to create certain dishes. Tips were also shared to create labels that help identify vegetarian-friendly or non-vegetarian friendly options more clearly. An informed student population is a happy one!



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