All Articles Food Consumer Insights The growing trend of flexitarianism presents simple steps to drive big change in plant-forward menus

The growing trend of flexitarianism presents simple steps to drive big change in plant-forward menus

Through the lens of consumer behavior, the industry has opportunities to make small shifts to encourage plant-forward eating.

4 min read

Consumer InsightsFoodRestaurant and Foodservice

Menus of Change flexitarian opportunity for plant-forward menus

The Culinary Institute of America

Consumers are increasingly open to flexitarianism, and foodservice providers are in a position to be changemakers in creating healthier, more sustainable, plant-forward menus, according to speakers at the 2024 Menus of Change session titled “Nudging the Plate: Harnessing Behavioral Research and Consumer Insights to Shape Plant-Forward Preferences.”

From the World Resources Institute‘s no-regret techniques to encourage plant-forward dishes to examining the role digital media plays in shaping consumer perceptions and expectations about plant-forward foods, research from WRI and the 2024 edition of Datassential’s Plant-Forward Opportunity report, produced annually in collaboration with The Culinary Institute of America, Food for Climate League, and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, presented strategic techniques for improving food decision-making and explored American consumers’ lifestyle habits and attitudes towards plant-forward eating and cooking, offering the industry actionable tactics to create healthy and sustainable menus. 

Flexing on flexitarianism

According to the 2024 edition of Datassential’s Plant-Forward Opportunity report, consumers expressed a desire to eat more plant-forward foods, including fruits, veggies, nuts, and whole grains, and nearly half of people surveyed said they aspire to eat less meat in some way. The key, however, appears to be inclusion of some meat and not eliminating it entirely, catering to the flexitarian approach.

“Half of consumers are very interested in plant-forward options that reduce the amount of meat, but vegetarian or vegan dishes don’t hold the same appeal, even when incorporating global flavors or preparations,” the report stated. “And yet, 43% of consumers are very interested in vegetarian dishes inspired by world cuisines – with another 28% indicating they are at least somewhat interested in such dishes – suggesting a promising strategy for culinary innovation and menu experimentation.”

The tactic of reducing the amount of meat and increasing the amount of vegetables in a dish is one of the 18 no-regret techniques to champion plant-rich options highlighted by WRI. Divided into 6 categories – price, promotion, presentation, placement, people and product – Edwina Hughes, head of Coolfood, World Resources Institute, shared an example of the product technique that was trialed at Dutch corporate canteens with six sandwiches, where the chef decreased the amount of meat by 20-50% and increased the vegetables by 200% and it was found that consumer satisfaction with their meals did not go down.

“So what’s really important about executing this technique is visibility of all of the ingredients and spreading them out evenly so that your guest is still getting a taste of the premium out of every bite,” she explained.

Digital media as a plant-forward influencer

One factor that has influence over how consumers feel about plant-based foods or a plant-forward diet is digital media, said Huy Do, research and insights manager at Datassential.

“We asked them, ‘Based on things that you’ve seen on digital media sources, between pairs of statements and adjectives, how would you describe what plant-forward foods are?’ and … most consumers based on what they see on digital media say that plant food or fruits are really happy and nutritious. They say that it’s really fresh, they say that it’s culturally relevant right now. Digital media actually has a really great level of influence and persuasive power over consumers’ health, wellness and food choices.”

While digital media has contributed to the perception that plant-forward foods are healthy and adventurous, it has also created a halo that plant-forward foods are more expensive, Do said, with over two-thirds of consumers saying that based on what they have seen online, plant-forward foods do have a reputation of being more expensive.

“But there is a real opportunity here to leverage these platforms further to convince and influence consumers,” Do emphasized, highlighting strategies such as using video and image-based platforms to provide recipes and leverage expertise. 

Beyond using digital media as a tool, foodservice operators should look to involve front-of-house staff in recipe testing and plant-based messaging efforts, and loyalty programs can also help encourage plant-based choices, panelists agreed.

The number of opportunities to increase plant-forward eating behavior in consumers is vast, as presented by the panel during this session at Menus of Change, and understanding consumer behavior and preferences will continue to shape industry practices, which can be done in concert with offering delicious, nutritious, climate-friendly food. 

“I would encourage you to accelerate, double down, go even faster,” said Hughes of the World Resources Institute. “We need to make more progress, and you’re the changemakers who can make this happen.”

Recent related stories:


If you liked this article, sign up to receive one of SmartBrief’s Food & Beverage newsletters. They are among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.