Five expert tips for driving plant-based change in schools
May 25, 2023
Most of us recognise that we need to eat less meat and dairy for the planet. With animal agriculture responsible for an alarming 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot ignore the connection between the food we eat and the climate crisis. But there is hope! Plant-based meals have an extremely low carbon footprint, and are an excellent way of helping schools to reduce their food emissions.
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 (childhood obesity, heart disease, cancer)
- increasing children’s fibre intake (most UK children suffer from fibre deficiency)
- increasing children’s intake of essential vitamins and minerals
Knowing all this is one thing – doing it is 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 free services to help schools develop healthier and more sustainable menus. Supporting 55 local authorities and 25 major catering partners, we help schools increase the quantity and quality of plant-based school meals, while also helping them save money.
We work with over 5,000 schools across the UK, so 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 (ve)
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 at the end of the meal name. This is a more subtle way of identifying that the dish is plant-based or vegetarian and will increase uptake of the meal.
By using a small (v) or (ve), you are free to use more descriptive words in the meal name, that focus on:
- Flavour: Sweet and Sour, Spicy, Smokey, BBQ
- Texture: Sticky, Chunky, Crispy, Creamy
- Provenance: Italian, Mexican, Homemade, American-style, Cornish
- Child-friendly: Marvellous, Rainbow, Campfire, Monster
2. Create real choice
Ensure that the plant-based dish is different to the meat-based one on as many days as possible. This 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 Campfire 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 veggie option underneath it. Mix it up instead! Try moving some of the veggie 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 veggie option is inferior or niche – something we want to avoid.
Also, try to avoid separating the meat-based and veggie 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 being 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, reduce climate emissions, and to save money is by introducing ‘planet-friendly’ 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. For example, go for a Tuesday one week 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
- Planet-friendly 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.