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Are Vegetables Replacing Meat in Restaurants?

After seeing consumers become more and more aware and concerned with what chemicals and additives are in their food, restaurants are ditching many of the bad-for-you ingredients from their menus. A recent survey found that 36 percent of diners worry about chemicals in their food. As restaurants scramble to sanitize their menus, one food group that is becoming more of a star in the process is vegetables.

Both consumers and restaurants are focused on removing GMOs, artificial ingredients, preservatives, antibiotics, and growth hormones from food. This even includes fast food chains. You may see fast food restaurants touting their use of eggs from cage-free chickens or getting rid of ingredients that have been genetically modified.

With vegetable spiralizers becoming a staple in many kitchens, chefs are experimenting with vegetable ribbons to replace pasta, and pasta overall will become more vegetable-heavy. However, pasta isn’t the only dish coming in second to vegetables. In 2016, be prepared to see vegetables not only push animal protein to the side of the plate but sometimes completely off of it.

Why is meat losing popularity?

  • Ever-increasing beef prices
  • Concerns over hormones in meat
  • Consumers looking to intake more and more antioxidants
  • Health and diet concerns
  • Increased popularity of farmers’ markets
  • Locavore food trends
  • Increasing number of “flexitarians” amongst vegans and vegetarians

All of the stars have aligned to place vegetables at the forefront of restaurant menus. A big draw for restaurant owners is that vegetables are more seasonal than animals, which helps to keep menus fresh and exciting by rotating the offerings. Buying seasonally also reduces food costs.

It’s not just traditional vegetable fare that has increased in popularity. Vegetables have opened the door to “root-to-stem” dining, which follows the lead set by meat of “nose-to-tail” eating, where chefs use every part of the vegetable, including the trimmings that usually head for the trash or compost bin. Peels transformed into flavored oils and eggplant mayo made with pods of shelling beans are just two examples of inventive ways chefs are using every part of the vegetable. Every part of the vegetable is now fermented, roasted, or smoked and used in other dishes.

The movement of root-to-stem dining is pushed in part by food waste becoming a major concern of both the U.S. government as well as chefs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environment Protection Agency issued a joint statement that set a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. A whopping 133 billion pounds of the nation’s food supply is considered food loss and waste, and the statement calls for an effort to “feed people not landfills.”

Vegetable-forward restaurants are not selling food that tastes like punishment. The meals taste excellent while being composed mostly, or entirely, of vegetables that are colorful, satisfying, and still pair well with wine.

AL’s Place in San Francisco, named the best new restaurant of 2015 by Bon Appetit, is paving the way for vegetable-centric restaurants by moving meats from the entree section of the menu to the side dishes. Even White Castle offers a veggie slider on its menu.

In addition to vegetables, diners can expect to see more dried beans, peas, and lentils on their plates and restaurant menus.

The ascension of vegetables and focus on reducing food waste are the result of over ten year’s worth of government, consumer, and food and environmental activists’ concerns that are finally reaching the mainstream. As sustainability issues become more visible, diners can also expect to see a shift in the types of fish and species offered to them.

Part of the shift from meat-centric to vegetable-centric dishes can be attributed to generational shifts, as well. Millennials now outnumber baby boomers, and their influence has an impact on the way everyone else eats. Restaurants are interested in how and what this group of consumers eats in order to effectively market to them. They learn how to cook from a variety of sources like YouTube, cookbooks, and blogs. They care about the environment, the ethical treatment of animals, and their community. They take advantage of food delivery services instead of going out or going grocery shopping, and they utilize meal kits that deliver prepared ingredients. The millennial generation may drive the way restaurants operate, but fortunately, it is for the benefit of everyone’s health and the environment.

Restaurants and diners can expect 2016 to be the year of the vegetable. Thanks to a heightened awareness of the chemicals and processes that go into the meats we eat, as well as a shift in health and diet concerns of consumers, vegetables have what it takes to be the star of restaurants’ menus. Restaurants can enjoy the cost-saving benefits of buying vegetables seasonally, as well as the ability to consistently offer fresh items on their menu.