As more Millennial parents choose alternative diets due to food allergies or personal preference, more of Gen Z (the kids in our cafeterias) are also eating along these same guidelines. Lifestyles like veganism, vegetarianism, and the gluten-free diet are not mainstream, but their growing popularity requires us to think about how school nutrition programs can be inclusive of these dietary choices. In order to do this, it is important to understand the differences, and why parents and their children are making these choices.

In part one of this blog series, we’ll review the differences between vegan and vegetarian, and learn how to provide healthy school meals that follow these guidelines. According to a report from international hotel and restaurant consultants Baum + Whiteman, plant-based food is the number one dining trend of 2018, and it’s here to stay. The percentage of Americans who identify as vegetarian or vegan is rising, so it’s important for school nutrition programs to keep up with these trends.

Veganism vs. Vegetarianism vs. Flexitarianism

Vegetarians don’t eat meat, but they do eat other animal products such as dairy, honey, and sometimes even eggs. Individual diets vary widely among vegetarians. Some people will cut out all meat except for fish; these people are usually referred to as “pescatarian.”

Veganism is usually at least partially driven by ethics, so vegans do not consume or use any animal products. In addition to abstaining from eating meat, they also refrain from consuming dairy, gelatin, and honey, and oftentimes, they do not purchase leather or fur goods.

If you’re having trouble understanding if a menu item is vegan, ask yourself: “Was this item part of an animal or a byproduct of an animal?” If the answer is yes, this item is not vegan.

There are also flexitarians; people who primarily have a vegetarian diet, but occasionally eat meats or fish. The word “flexitarian” is a combination of vegetarian, and flexible. This diet is a way of easing into vegetarianism or veganism, raising the chances of success for the transition. The overall goal is to have a more plant-based diet, but allowing for animal-based products in moderation reduces any pressure.

Why plant-based?

There are three main reasons why consumers are gravitating towards a plant-based lifestyle – health and nutrition, animal rights and ethics, and the environmental impact that animal agriculture has on our planet. Social media, celebrity influencers and documentaries like Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, and Fed Up are making consumer education about our food sources readily accessible and easy to understand. As Americans become more educated on how animal products affect our bodies, the animals involved, and the environment, more people choose to adopt the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

What about protein?

One of the most common questions that the meat-free population gets is “Where do you get your protein if you don’t eat meat?” It’s simple: veggie lovers get their protein the same way that other herbivorous animals (like cows) get their protein – from plants. Animal protein is recycled plant protein, so vegans and vegetarians get it straight from the source. There are plenty of plant foods that are great sources of protein that are also cholesterol-free (unlike meat). Beans/legumes, quinoa, whole wheat, nuts, and seeds are just a few vegan protein favorites.  Aside from these whole foods, other protein options such as tofu, mock meats and protein-enriched plant milks are also popular.

Plant-Based Options in School Lunches

It’s easier than you may think to offer appealing vegan or vegetarian lunch options in your cafeteria. Many traditional dishes can be made plant-based with just a few swaps. The USDA recognizes foods like tofu, nuts, seeds, mature beans and dried peas (kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans/ chickpeas, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils) as meat alternates. With all of these alternatives, there’s plenty of room to get creative with your dishes!

A Few Ideas

Chili: Replace the beef with black beans and/or kidney beans. Incorporating brown rice or quinoa cooked into the chili can thicken the dish and add healthy whole grains to the meal without sacrificing flavor. Skip the cheese (or find a dairy-free alternative) to make it vegan!

Tofu Scramble Breakfast Tacos: Instead of scrambled eggs, use scrambled tofu in your breakfast tacos. Give students the option to add black beans, fresh salsa, and other veggies for a healthy breakfast.

Buffalo Wraps: Instead of chicken, use chicken-free strips like the ones available from Beyond Meat and toss them in hot sauce just like you would with traditional buffalo wings. Offer pico de gallo, avocado, lettuce and other fresh veggies in the wrap.


If you’re struggling to come up with plant-based recipes, find vegan products, or need help planning your menus, check out these resources from The Humane Society’s Forward Food program.

Meat-Free Prepared Food Products

Scalable Meatless Recipes for K-12 Food Service

Meatless Monday Menu Ideas

Plant-Strong Toolkit for School Districts

Free Foodservice Trainings on Plant-Based Cooking

Have you implemented a Meatless Monday or vegan and vegetarian options in your school’s food service program? Comment below and let us hear about your successes and challenges!