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A Culinary Institute of AmericaHarvard public health school initiative wants to change eating habits by altering the typical menu mix
<p>A Culinary Institute of America/Harvard public health school initiative wants to change eating habits by altering the typical menu mix.</p>

Next-gen menu mix: more plant proteins, less meat

<p>The rationale for making big changes to restaurant menus looks good on paper. But will customers play along?</p> <p><a href="/trends/food-trends">&bull; See more Food Trends articles</a></p>

Menu engineers have already shown their methods can influence which dishes restaurant customers will order and how much they will spend. Now health and nutrition experts hope to leverage these techniques to change the lifelong eating habits of meat-loving U.S. consumers.

It’s a tall order, but the potential payoff could be big. Deep thinkers from Harvard and the Culinary Institute of America say their strategy will help save the planet while simultaneously improving the health of those who live on it. Dubbed the “Protein Flip,” the idea is that restaurants will make drastic cuts in the amount of red meat they menu and offer dishes built around plant proteins instead.


This initiative comes from Menus of Change: The Business of Healthy, Sustainable, Delicious Food Choices.  It’s a collaboration between the CIA and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Harvard crew handles the health and sustainability angles; CIA’s job is to figure out how to make plant protein-forward dishes catch on in commercial restaurants. A white paper explains their thinking. 

If implemented as its backers envision, the Menus of Change initiative would deliver big benefits on two fronts. First, it would greatly reduce the environmental impacts of livestock production, shrinking greenhouse gas emissions while using significantly less water to produce an equivalent amount of plant protein. At the same time, public health would benefit mightily by a drop in the incidence of chronic disease among those who no longer consume a red-meat based diet. An unstated bonus for operators: Food costs would likely go down, too. 

"Those who care about the planet our grandchildren will inherit should make reduction of red meat a high priority," says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard’s public health school and chair of the CIA-Harvard Chan School Menus of Change Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.

"This can also reduce our risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, and premature death," he adds.

It’s hard to see a downside here—unless, that is, you run a restaurant. Then you’re asking customers to stop eating what they love—burgers, steaks and other red meat items—and embrace dishes built on plant-based proteins instead.

Which is why the Harvard group paired with the CIA. The culinary school’s job is to help chefs and operators figure out how they can adhere to ‘Protein Flip” principles and still stay in business.

“We cannot simply take something away from diners and hope to be successful. We have to rethink the dining experience, our culinary approaches and assumptions, and related business strategies and opportunities,” the Menus of Change white paper notes. “Much of this is a value play: both in how we can create an added sense of financial value to offset, in this case, a reduction in animal protein portion size, as well as in how we connect with our customers about what we value.”

Part of the challenge here is that restaurant menus have a lot of red meat protein that would need to be flipped. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, beef alone accounts for 31 percent of the total foodservice protein market. Ninety-six percent of operators menu beef. 

But at least this gives the initiative a logical point of entry: ground beef, which accounts for 64 percent of the 7.92 billion pounds of beef sold in foodservice. Seventy-four percent of all operators use it.

That’s where Protein Flip proponents suggest chefs and operators start, perhaps offering a beef/plant protein blend. They cite three stats about plant-forward burgers:

• 77 percent of the operators the CIA surveyed have a burger on the menu with a significant percentage of the patty from plant or vegetable components, either blended with meat or strictly vegetarian.

• 60 percent said their nontraditional burger was the same price as other burgers or sandwiches.

• 70 percent saw success from putting a vegetarian or meat-blended burger on their menu.

But that’s just one item. The overall approach is to adopt a “next-generation menu mix.” That means 50 percent of the menu should follow these Protein Flip principles:

Protein Flip

(continued from p. 1)

• meat, poultry in a supporting role or as a side (two ounces);

• meat as a condiment (vegetables and plant protein as the stars);

• the aforementioned burger blend: beef (or other meat, poultry or fish) with mushrooms, other vegetables, grains and/or legumes;

• mixed grill: surf and turf re-imagined (with seafood, lot of vegetables and only a few bites of meat);

• whole-grain, vegetable- and legume-rich pastas, rice bowls, tacos, and other world flavors-inspired protein flips; and

• tapas, mezze and other plant-forward small-plate replacements for entrees.

The rest of the menu would then consist of 40 percent non-red meat options (pasta, seafood, chicken), five percent “smaller red meat options” and five percent “celebratory red meat options” (steak, prime rib, etc).

So operators could still offer red meat options on their menu, but do some menu engineering to steer customers gently to other choices. “Leveraging the protein flip concept doesn’t mean denying your customers a steak for that special occasion or going full-on vegetarian (unless you want to),” Menus of Change backers say. “Rather, like all good portfolio management, it’s about proportions, percentages, balance and diversification.”

It’s also about taste, texture and mouthfeel of the meat-light options. Chain concepts such as Seasons 52 and True Food Kitchen demonstrate there are plenty of thoughtful diners out there who will respond to health-oriented menus if dishes on them are well done. If you’re interested in trying something similar, check out page eight of “Protein Plays” for a toolkit that will help you get started.

Contact Bob Krummert: [email protected]

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