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Dairy: The plant-forward menu’s favorite partner

Photograph: Shutterstock

From cookbooks to restaurants, the U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented trend toward celebrating the fresh appeal of produce. Consumer focus on health and sustainability has compelled diners to choose more plant-forward options, and the movement has inspired restaurants and chefs to update their menus to accommodate the trend.

This trend toward plant-forward dishes is beneficial for both consumers and restaurant operators. For diners who want to eat healthier, plant-forward options are a great choice—packed with vitamins and minerals, they also offer healthy nutrients like calcium and protein. According to Technomic’s 2018 Healthy EatingConsumer Trend Report, 71% of consumers consider foods high in protein to be healthier, and by adding dairy to a dish, chefs have a tasty way to increase the protein and calcium content. Offering high quality cheeses in plant-forward dishes also means operators can charge a little more for these dishes. Take vegetable lasagna—this entree offers diners the healthy vegetables they’re looking for, while cheese and dairy-based sauces provide the protein they need for a balanced diet. For operators, calling out the specific cheeses used in a dish, like mozzarella and Dry Jack, signals to diners that the dish has been made with premium ingredients and is worth the cost.

More on the plant-forward trend

Younger diners are leading the charge when it comes to plant-forward dining—consumers under 40, especially millennials and Gen Z, are expected to stick with this trend.What’s more, diners who seek out plant-forward options aren’t necessarily following a specialized diet free from animal products. According to Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood and Vegetarian report, 49% of consumers say they are likely to order dishes described as plant-based—more than items described as meatless (44% would be likely to order) or meat-free (44%). Diners who don’t consider themselves vegan or vegetarian still may be looking for plant-forward options from time to time. Whether they’re just trying to eat healthier overall or are following a “reducitarian” approach and are eating less meat (rather than none at all), plant-forward choices are ideal. These dishes offer the veggies diners want without being completely meat- or dairy-free—it’s the perfect balance.

Taste is, of course, the deciding factor when diners choose plant-forward options. Other concerns involving health, diet, ethical consumption, socially responsibility and sustainability, while important, are less vital. As a result, restaurants need to adapt to these desires, offering delicious, vegetable-forward menu items.

That said, vegetable-forward menu items don’t simply need to be salads or stir fries. Instead, restaurants have developed unique vegetable dishes that are first-rate and interesting, so that diners don’t feel like they’re sacrificing flavor or variety.

Enhancing plant forward options with dairy

Veggie burgers have come a long way in recent years, and modern diners want more. Topped with unique cheeses, meat-and-vegetable blended burgers or plant-forward burgers are taken to the next level. But vegetable-based menu options go far beyond burgers. The REAL Makers Campaign from the California Milk Advisory Board highlights chefs who prepare innovative menu items using California dairy in an interesting way. Dishes highlighted have included “Stuffed” Mexican Pizza, from chef Brandi Key of Tasting Room in Houston, and Rujak Burrata, from chef Erwin Tjahyadi of Bone Kettle in Pasadena, Calif. Check out all of the REAL Makers videos, including the Rujak Burratta and the Stuffed Pizza, here.

By pairing California cheeses with fresh produce in plant-forward menu options, diners get the interesting dishes they’re looking for with the nutritional profile they need. For example, an entree of cheese-stuffed squash blossoms atop creamy risotto satisfies those looking for a meal that features seasonal produce, while a mushroom burger topped with arugula, frizzled onions, fig preserves and brie offers diners an indulgent, rich option that’s still plant-forward.  Adding dairy to dishes amps up the protein level—and with consumers citing protein as one of the most important nutrients they look for when they want to eat healthfully, according to Technomic’s 2018 Healthy Eating report, operators can call out that increased protein for a sales boost.

California cheeses and butter add the flavor, texture and crave-appeal diners want, all while giving operators the chance to enhance the selling power, profitability and value of their menus. With a range of products available for a myriad of dishes, California dairy offers restaurants the edge they need to remain competitive as plant-forward cuisines proliferate.

This post is sponsored by California Milk Advisory Board