Q1. Why should caterers look to put more plant-based options on their menus?
Brian: Plant-based options are on the increase and caterers are challenged to meet the ever-changing lifestyle choices of the public, no matter what area of hospitality you work in. There are, of course, health benefits to increasing your vegetable intake and within hospitals we have for many years been promoting a variety of fruit and vegetables - at least 5 portions a day.
However, as a nation we are still struggling to achieve five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Plant-based eating would increase this significantly, but we do need to ensure these products are of an appropriate nutritional standard, especially in hospitals (ie. products that are not high in fat, sugar and salt).
Q2. How have you tackled this challenge?
Brian: At the moment hospital caterers have looked at choices within staff restaurants, enhancing options and testing uptake. Changing to plant-based options on a patient menu is more challenging, as we deal with immunocompromised and undernourished patients, often with very specific needs. Within Scotland, for example, there is the National Catering & Nutrition Specification for Food and Fluid Provision in Hospitals, and this document dictates the minimum nutritional content a menu must meet. It is very hard to ensure adequate protein to meet Food in Hospital Standards without using meat substitutes.
Q3. Can savings be made by introducing such changes?
Brian: Not sure that savings are the primary concern. While many hospital caterers are challenged to work within the confines of a budget, ultimately it’s about providing a quality product that meets nutritional guidelines while offering choice.
Q4. How have you promoted new dishes and menus?
Brian: Many hospitals are promoting meat-free days within restaurants and, where dishes are popular, adding them to their recipe portfolio.
Q5. What has been the feedback from customers?
Brian: Reports back from members are showing some positive signs in the short term. Longer term we do however need to consider our rationale? If it is about sustainability there are more ways than entirely shunning meat to eat sustainably.
If it is about health – what is the definition of health? In hospital the majority of patients are undernourished and it seems we are making an already difficult job much harder for ourselves by eliminating products that we can use to support these patients.
Are we talking about improving the choice for plant-based eating? If so, again what would the definition for this be? It could mean increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in hospital recipes rather than making everything vegan.
At the moment I’m not sure we really have the data to support going wholesale down this road? What do our (ill) patients really want?
Q6. What’s next?
Brian: I think longer term our members need to have closer engagement with our colleagues in the British Dietetic Association (BDA). When we develop recipes they need to be nutritionally analysed. This ensures that when it’s being considered to be put on a patient menu cycle it’s balanced to meet the specific requirements of age, food preference and special diets, length of stay, nutritional risk. This is a complex process and we know that vegan diets can be deficient in calcium, iron, omega 3 fatty acids, iodine, B12 and selenium.
There is also a requirement for an appropriate and effective education programme to be in place to ensure support exists for a plant-based diet ensuring good health is maintained. We also need to ensure we engage our client base and continue to educate our staff both in production and front of house.