Taste Trends: 4 Ways to Elevate Events With a Plant-Forward Concept

September 18, 2023

Choosing to eat a more plant-based diet has been one of the biggest trends among consumers in recent decades, as it’s been proven to have health benefits and be better for the planet, offsetting the carbon emissions generated by the meat and dairy industry. 

As event professionals grapple with catering to the various dietary needs and restrictions of attendees, one of the best perspectives to take is a plant-forward yet balanced view that is nutritious and inclusive to all attendees while also being sustainable and leaving the planet in a healthier place, according to Tracy Stuckrath, founder and president of thrive! meetings & events and host of the Eating at a Meeting podcast.

“It’s not possible to be 100% plant based at events, but people are really looking to know what’s in their food and how healthy and purposeful it is going to be for them, the communities around them and the planet,” Stuckrath said, pointing to some of the many terms that now exist to define consumers’ dietary practices. 

Among those she uses in a slide deck during her presentations are climatarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, VB6 (vegan before 6 p.m.), vegan and vegetarian. 

No matter how people refer to their dietary principles, eating healthy is here to stay, and the events industry must continue embracing the plant-based trend to meet consumer demand and be more sustainable, according to Stuckrath. 

In the second of a three-part Taste Trends series spotlighting Stuckrath’s insights and tips on the latest F&B trends in events, she shared four tips on ways the industry can nourish attendees through a more plant-forward culinary concept. 

1. Incorporate Healthy Proteins Into Breakfast Offerings

While a fruit plate might be the first idea that comes to mind as a great vegetarian and vegan option, Stuckrath stresses the importance of being more creative and nutritionally minded when it comes to starting the day off on a healthy note. 

“Most people want protein with their breakfast, but don’t make it tofu,” she said. “Incorporate protein-rich grains such as a quinoa porridge, and overall, add something vegetarian but not just a fruit plate and skip the heavily processed vegan meat alternatives.”

Another healthy start to the day could be a vibrant smoothie bar with plenty of fruits, greens, protein powders and plant-based milk and a morning break station with fruit skewers, Stuckrath added. 

2. Lose the Dairy-Based Cheese and Focus on Plant-Based Appetizers

Dairy cheeses are one of the main ingredients for salads and many appetizers, according to Stuckrath, who believes the industry needs to zero in on having a healthier balance of strictly plant-based offerings. 

“The easiest way is to realize that not all of your salads need to have cheese on them,” she said. “I just did an audit of a catering menu and discovered that of the 300 items on the menu, only 20% were dairy-free, and out of 23 salads alone, only four were vegan because all of the others had cheese.” 

For appetizers, Stuckrath said it’s important to have options that don’t contain cheese, shrimp, beef or chicken. 

3. Go Heavy on Grains, Beans and Veggies for Main Dishes

Tracy Stuckrath

While the trendy “cauliflower steak” can be good if it’s done right, the latest plant-based trends in main dishes for lunch and dinner call for healthy grains and beans, according to Stuckrath.

“Millet is big, and it’s becoming the new quinoa because you can do more with it, and there are bean-based options such as a pizza crust called Banza, which is made with chickpeas, so you could do a fun make-your-own pizza night using that and vegan cheeses,” she said. “The main idea is incorporating something like a grain or a bean into the dish to give it the heartiness and protein that it needs and then adding vegetables to that.”

Although veggie burgers and the Impossible meat alternative have been trending in recent years, Stuckrath doesn’t believe these are healthy plant-based options, as they are usually loaded with GMOs and many “lab-grown meat” alternatives have even been banned in other countries.

“I was at an event recently where they served pasta Bolognese using Impossible meat, and about 80% of the attendees wouldn’t eat it,” she said. 

Stuckrath added that if meat is going to be served, make it the accompaniment to everything else, which should mainly be plant-based.

“Make sure all of your sides are plant-based, and you’re not serving heavy, cream-laced sides that are not vegan,” she said. “There are so many ways to do sauces without beef or chicken broth or dairy, and chefs have the skillset to do that by using nut-based or oat-based milks if it needs to be a richer sauce.”

4. Think Vegan Decadence for Dessert

Delicious sweets to cap off a meal can also be plant-based, according to Stuckrath. 

“There are so many great ways to use plant-based milks in desserts,” she said. “Oatly has a fantastic, plant-based soft serve ice cream, for example, and anyone can tell it’s not made with dairy, but it’s still delicious.” 

Stuckrath also said creating tasty desserts utilizing plant-based ice cream or plant-based whipping cream, along with fresh fruits and herbs, is another way to elevate the plant-based offering for a meal’s finale.

“Also, you could even ask a chef to do something really innovative by taking aquafaba, the liquid from canned chickpeas, and whisking it into a wonderful merengue,” she said. 

Endless Possibilities

As the plant-based culinary movement continues to evolve, so do the options for delivering unique plant-based culinary programs for events, according to Stuckrath.

“You don’t need all of these heavy things to get the same great flavors,” she said. “And while one of the biggest challenges with catering chefs is lack of time, I think it’s important to start being more thoughtful and thinking, ‘How can I use my skillset to rethink how I would make this dish?’ ” 

Stay tuned for the third part of this Taste Trends piece, in which Stuckrath shares her thoughts on the movement toward alcoholic-free beverages and ways to incorporate more of them into events.  

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