Plant-Based Versus Plant-Forward Menus: Is There A Difference?

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuI have often written in this column that our words matter‭. ‬How we talk about our businesses and our products matter‭. ‬Many in the foodservice industry are grappling with the issue of how to describe their menus‭. ‬What are the best words or phrases to describe‭ ‬“better-for-you”‭ ‬menu options that provide greater nutrition while still delivering on customers’‭ ‬expectations for taste‭?‬

When you hear the phrase‭ ‬“plant-based‭,‬”‭ ‬what comes to mind‭? ‬For many‭, ‬this term conjures up images of vegetarian or vegan cuisine‭, ‬which is appealing to some‭, ‬appalling for others‭.‬

Conversely‭, ‬when you hear‭ ‬“plant-forward‭,‬”‭ ‬what comes to mind‭? ‬Do you visualize something similar or quite different‭? ‬These are questions foodservice operators are asking‭ ‬themselves and their customers as they continue to evolve their menus to meet the needs and demands of today’s customer‭.‬

As director of The Culinary Institute of America‭ (‬CIA‭) ‬Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬an innovative supplier-operator partnership focused on health and wellness imperatives‭, ‬including increasing use of fruits and vegetables on menus‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬I am working with‭ ‬members of the Plant-Forward Working Group to define the difference between the two phrases‭.‬

The term‭ ‬“plant-based”‭ ‬grew out of research on traditional dietary patterns in specific regions of the world‭, ‬like the Mediterranean‭. ‬The traditional‭ ‬Mediterranean diet consists of abundant plant foods‭, ‬including fruits‭, ‬vegetables‭, ‬legumes‭, ‬whole grains‭, ‬nuts and seeds with lesser amounts of dairy‭, ‬meat‭, ‬poultry and seafood‭. ‬The research showing associations between this and similar dietary patterns and improved health outcomes led many in the nutrition and public health community to recommend these‭ ‬“plant-based”‭ ‬diets‭. ‬But the devil is in the details‭, ‬and while the intent was never to promote vegetarian or vegan diets‭, ‬that’s the message some people heard and/or received‭.‬

Then some in the nutrition and culinary community started recommending‭ ‬“plant-forward”‭ ‬diets to illustrate how traditional dietary patterns emphasize plant foods and de-emphasize animal foods‭. ‬But this didn’t end the confusion‭. ‬Now people are starting to ask how much of the diet should be plants‭? ‬How often should I eat dairy‭, ‬meat‭, ‬poultry or seafood‭? ‬Do I need any‭? ‬

Whether we call it‭ ‬“plant-based”‭ ‬or‭ ‬“plant-forward”‭ ‬may not really matter‭. ‬We just need to get more produce on the plate‭.

When chefs are creating new menu options‭, ‬they are wondering how many of the ingredients should be plant foods‭? ‬Which plant foods‭? ‬Are some better than others‭? ‬Is fresh best‭? ‬And so it goes‭.‬

A common phrase in the culinary nutrition community embracing plant-forward cooking is‭ ‬“make meat the condiment‭.‬”‭ ‬The analogy is how Vietnamese cooks use a few strips of pork on top of a steaming bowl of pho‭. ‬You immediately see the pork‮…‬and‭ ‬then you start to notice the vegetables‭, ‬herbs and broth that make up the majority of the dish‭.‬

Members of the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative‭ (‬HMC‭) ‬are wondering how far they have to go with plant-forward menus‭. ‬Leaders‭ ‬in campus dining talk about the increasing demand for vegetarian and vegan fare‭, ‬while leaders in other segments of the industry say those options are less important to their core customers‭. ‬The typical burger and fries lover has no interest in a vegetarian burger‭. ‬But is there a more plant-forward way of giving that burger lover what he/she wants in a more healthful yet still appealing way‭? ‬That’s the challenge these foodservice leaders are addressing‭. ‬How can we give our customers what they want in a‭ ‬“better-for-you”‭ ‬way that will sell‭?‬

Collectively‭, ‬operator members of the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative serve more than 100‭ ‬million meals every day in this country‭. ‬Small changes in their menus can have a big impact on public health‭. ‬What if they add 10‭ ‬percent more fresh produce to their menus‭? ‬Or 25‭ ‬percent more produce as they continue to evolve their menus‭?

One concept an HMC leader tested years ago in a large chain restaurant was a slightly smaller burger‭ (‬3-ounce versus 5-ounce patty‭) ‬on a slightly smaller bun paired with a half portion of French fries and a small side salad‭. ‬Sadly‭, ‬the concept went into test market as the recession hit‭, ‬and it failed miserably‭. ‬Diners demanded value during the recession‭; ‬a smaller burger didn’t match customer expectations‭.‬

That same leader is now working for another major foodservice operator‭. ‬I’m confident she’ll get to try this concept again as a way to advance plant-forward menus in a manner that meets consumer expectations for flavor‭ ‬and appeal while offering a‭ ‬“better-for-you”‭ ‬option‭. ‬Whether we call it‭ ‬“plant-based”‭ ‬or‭ ‬“plant-forward”‭ ‬may not really matter‭. ‬We just need to get more produce on the plate‭.‬

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. You can learn more about her business at, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.