Five expert tips for driving plant-based change in schools
June 3, 2021
Most of us recognise that we need to eat less meat and dairy for the planet. For years now, we’ve seen the UN, the world’s leading academic institutions, and environmental organisations all calling for a shift away from animal products and towards a more plant-based society.
We also know that a diet centred around plant-based foods offers numerous health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of a range of chronic health conditions. This includes childhood obesity, regarded by the World Health Organisation as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.
Knowing it is one thing, doing it another. So just how can we embrace more plant-based food successfully in UK schools?
For the last few years, we’ve worked with local authorities, multi-academy trusts, and catering companies, providing a range of services – all free of charge – with the aim of increasing the uptake of existing vegetarian meals and increasing the quantity and quality of plant-based food in schools (all of which has the wonderful added bonus of often saving money).
Working with over 1000 schools, we know that making small changes to school menus can make a big difference to children’s health and the health of the planet.
Here are our top 5 tips to increase the uptake of existing plant-based meals in schools.
1. Sell the dish and use the (v)
Put the same effort into selling all of your dishes, whether they contain meat or not.
So often we see meat-based dishes described beautifully with names that accentuate provenance, texture, taste, and key ingredients. For example, we might see a ‘Sri Lankan Aromatic Chicken Masala’ up against a vegetarian version of the same dish, simply called a ‘Veg Curry’.
Instead, give the plant-based option the same care, attention, and love as the meat-based dish. Make it seem as exciting and attractive as possible. Sainsbury’s increased uptake of their ‘Meat Free Sausage and Mash’ in their cafes by 76% simply by renaming it as ‘Cumberland Spiced Veggie Sausage and Mash’. Small tweaks to language can make a huge difference to uptake.
Research also shows that terms such as ‘vegetarian’,’ ‘vegan’, and ‘meat-free’ can be off-putting and restrict uptake to only vegetarians and vegans. Instead, just add a small (v), (ve) or (pb) at the end of the meal name. This is a more subtle way of identifying that the dish is vegan/plant-based or vegetarian and will increase uptake of the meal.
By using a small (v), (ve) or (pb), you are free to use more descriptive words in the meal name, that focus on:
- Flavour, for example Sweet and Sour, Spicy, Smokey, BBQ
- Texture, for example Sticky, Chunky, Crispy, Creamy
- Provenance, for example Italian, Mexican, Homemade, American-style, Cornish
- or are child-friendly, for example Marvellous, Rainbow, Cowboy, Monster
2. Create meaningful choice
Ensure that the plant-based dish is different to the meat-based one on as many days as possible. We call this creating a meaningful choice, which encourages everyone, regardless of their usual diet, to choose the plant-based option if they simply happen to prefer that meal.
For example, instead of offering pork and veggie sausages as your two main options, add a (plant-based) yorkshire pudding to your veggie sausages and you’ve created a Toad in the Hole! Or add some beans and you have a Cowboy Casserole. Either of these options gives the dish a new identity, and could tempt a lot of children who wouldn’t normally go for veggie sausages.
3. Think about positioning
We usually see meat-based meals listed on the top row of a school menu, and the vegetarian option underneath it. Mix it up instead. Try moving some of the vegetarian or plant-based dishes from the bottom row to the top. This creates a more even balance of positioning between the dishes and seeks to remove any unintended bias created by positioning. Research tells us that meals on the top row will be chosen far more often than those underneath it.
To aid this repositioning, rename your meal categories as ‘Option 1’ and ‘Option 2’, instead of ‘Main Meal’ and ‘Vegetarian Option’. Categorising the meat-based dish as the ‘Main Meal’ also implies that it is superior or normal and that the vegetarian option is inferior or niche – something we want to avoid.
Also, try to avoid separating the meat-based and vegetarian dishes by colour as this reinforces habits where children always choose the red dish or avoid the green dish.
4. Delicious food for everyone
Rethink your idea of plant-based or vegetarian meals as only for vegetarians or vegans. Meals that are 100% plant-based are the most inclusive, suitable for almost everyone, whatever faith and whatever their dietary requirements, including kosher, halal and dairy allergies.
5. Rename your meat-free day (or don’t name it at all)
The best and easiest way to help children to eat more vegetables, to reduce climate emissions, and to save money is by introducing meat-free days. We strongly recommend avoiding the term ‘meat-free’ as this implies that something is missing from a dish. So no more Meat Free Mondays! Instead, choose to either not brand the day or opt for a themed day, such as a planet-themed day.
Try mixing up the day. Go for a Tuesday one week, for example, and a Thursday the next. This helps to normalise the idea of eating healthier, more sustainable food any day of the week.
What is a planet-themed day?
This is an opportunity to help children to make the connection between the food we eat and the future of our planet. It is a themed day to raise awareness of the climate emergency and the role that children, teachers and parents can all play – starting with the food that we eat.
It should be a fun and thought-provoking day where children try out delicious plant-based foods that they will want to enjoy for the rest of their lives. Planet days are also an opportunity for interactive learning with activities such as a ‘design a poster’ competition, a class quiz, or a plant-based cooking class. ProVeg UK can provide useful materials such as factsheets and posters to help to raise awareness.
A planet-friendly day is an opportunity to serve only the most sustainable foods. That means 100% plant-based. Ideally, these will include beans and legumes (such as chickpeas and lentils), unprocessed wherever possible. Some meal ideas for your planet-friendly day menu include:
- Climate-friendly chickpea & potato curry with flatbread.
- Global Burger (veggie burger) with sweet potato wedges & BBQ sauce.
- Planet Pie (plant-based shepherd’s pie) with seasonal vegetables
Many of these changes are fairly subtle and simple but have the potential to make a huge difference in children’s opinions of plant-based dishes. Our School Plates programme can provide schools with menu consultation, nutrition advice and plant-based cookery training.
Want to watch the tips instead?
UK Director and Founder of School Plates, Jimmy Pierson, gives his top five tips in this video!