What Vegetarians Want to See on Your Menu

With so many tender faux meats and dairy-free cheeses available, the standard salad doesn't cut it anymore.
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According to Rachel Meltzer Warren, author of 'The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian,' above all else vegetarians want meals that are hearty and full of flavor. (Photo: Rachel Warren)

No matter how extensive a restaurant menu is, most chefs will tell you they can’t please everyone. But there’s one group of diners you shouldn’t ignore: vegetarians. A recent Harris Poll found that while just over 3 percent of Americans never eat meat, fish, seafood or poultry, 37 percent of respondents choose vegetarian meals sometimes or always when dining out.

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Kristin Lajeunesse, author of ‘Will Travel for Vegan Food,’ said meat-free diners are seeking out restaurants with flavorful bar bites, small plates and snacks. (Photo: Phillips Payson)

If you think simple steamed veggies are enough to draw them to your restaurant, think again.

“Too many restaurants think that a vegetarian meal means ‘throw together all of the vegetables you have on top of some pasta and call it a day,’” said Rachel Meltzer Warren, author of “The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian.” “Salads are another overdone vegetarian option. A good salad can be delicious, but there’s so much more to vegetarian cuisine than a plate full of raw veggies.”

The benefits of adding thoughtful vegetarian and vegan options to your menu go beyond appealing to a broader customer base, said Kristin Lajeunesse, who dined at every vegan restaurant in America for her book, “Will Travel for Vegan Food.”

“The thing about the vegan community is once we find a place that has great vegan options, we are not only loyal, we tell everyone we know and we post pictures everywhere. You’re going to get more support and posts on social media if your [vegan] food is just as delicious and picturesque as the non-vegan meals,” she said.

Here’s what vegetarians and vegans want to see on your menu.

Faux meat

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Use plant-based proteins, like marinated tofu, as a substitute in faux chicken dishes. (Photo: Elena Veselova/Shutterstock)

Mock animal proteins has come a long way from cardboard-textured veggie burgers and TVP (textured vegetable protein). An abundance of meatless “meat” products now sold in grocery stores and to restaurants, like seasoned “chicken strips,” hickory barbecue “riblets” and veggie burgers that “bleed,” have bolstered vegetarians’ expectations of plant-based proteins.

“Faux meat is always exciting because it’s an indication the restaurant might know what they’re doing,” said Lajeunesse. “Chefs can create a faux chicken dish that’s made from seitan or tempeh or marinated tofu.”

Warren added that faux meat is also a tempting option for omnivores who want to cut back on their meat intake when dining out.

Organic soy

Soy is a staple in many vegetarians’ diets. But some of these diners are noshing exclusively on organic soy products, said Warren.

“So many chefs default to soy foods, like tofu and edamame, when crafting vegetarian options. But with concerns about the safety of genetically modified soy, many vegetarians, who may eat soy more often than the average consumer, prefer to stick with organic, which by definition cannot be GMO.”

If you choose to go organic with soy-based ingredients, be sure to highlight it on your menu. Some diners will be pleasantly surprised to see it.

Dairy-free products

It’s easy to default to meals filled with cheese to please vegetarians. But concerns about health and ethics, along with lactose allergies, are driving diners toward dairy-free alternatives, like almond milk, coconut-based yogurt and cheese made from nuts.

Vegans, of course, shun dairy. “But even for people who are comfortable with dairy in their diets, the amount of cheese in vegetarian options on menus can be overwhelming,” said Warren. “Chefs are better off offering nondairy entrees to suit all plant-centric eaters. You’ll also please the lactose intolerant crowd, as well.”

You can set your restaurant apart by creating an over-the-top dairy-free treat, said Lajeunesse.

“It would be luxurious to get a scoop of dairy-free ice cream with a dollop of soy or coconut whipped cream. That would be amazing; it would be the highlight of the menu,” she said.

Veg-friendly snacks

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(Photo: leonori/Shutterstock)

Meat-free diners are seeking out restaurants with flavorful bar bites, small plates and snacks, said Lajeunesse.

“We’re really all about our tacos as of late. Spread on the guac, get black beans in there and then a good, hearty faux meat, like Gardein ground crumble. You don’t need to do anything fancy to them, maybe just add a little lettuce, corn kernels and salsa — perfect.”

She predicts mini burgers will also be a hit with plant-based diners in the near future. “Sliders are making a comeback. Even though they might be a relatively common thing in non-vegan world, they’re seen as exciting little bites on a vegan menu.”

Complete meat-free meals

Above all else, vegetarians want to see menus with healthy, satiating meat-free meals that explode with flavor, said Lajeunesse and Warren.

“Too many vegetarian meals on menus simply remove the meat and are left with little nutrition-wise but carbs, leaving plant-based eaters unsatisfied after a meal. Most vegetarians would be thrilled to see more meals that haven’t forgotten about satiating plant-based protein like beans, nuts and tempeh,” said Warren.

Of course, use your skills as a chef to make them tasty. “Creative use of spices and seasonings, like smoky pimenton or chipotle, earthy miso paste and rich tahini can take plant-based ingredients to the next level,” Warren noted.

And serve up a satisfying portion. Lajenuesse said it’s a myth that vegetarian diners don’t eat as much as omnivores.

“I eat a big hearty meal. I want a burger, fries and coleslaw. I look for good hearty stuff with lots of flavor.”

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