More Plants, Better Meat: 7 of the Most Sustainable Foods to Put on Your Menu
Restaurants have a significant role to play in changing our diets to protect the resources of tomorrow. By designing menus to make sustainable, planet-friendly and nutritious options both accessible and appealing to the customer, we’re voting with our sourcing policies and their forks.
One of the 10 key focus areas of the Food Made Good Framework is ‘More Plants, Better Meat’. In this section, our aim is to increase the consumption of plant-based foods and reduce that of meat, supporting a transition towards a plant-rich diet that contains limited amounts of animal products. This is based on the idea that, if we are to eat meat, it should be of the best quality and raised in the best conditions possible.
With this in mind, this article explores some of the most sustainable foods you can put on your menu, with a ‘More Plants, Better Meat’ mindset.
The clever mushroom can be considered a true ‘zero waste’ food. With no seasonal cycle, mushrooms can be grown year-round with no requirement for pesticides, fertilisers or even sunlight, and needing very little in the way of land and water. They also have an extremely low carbon footprint. Mushrooms have a wealth of nutritional benefits, and their texture makes them a great natural substitute for meat.
Looking to reduce your food miles? Some restaurants are taking advantage of how easy it is to grow mushrooms and bringing their cultivation in-house – you don’t get more local than that! One great example is Fallow, London, where Head Chef Will Murray is growing his own mushrooms right in the kitchen, repurposing used coffee grounds as compost. These feature in a signature dish, a luxurious mushroom parfait.
Beans and pulses
There are plenty of compelling reasons why beans and pulses are an important part of a healthy, sustainable diet – but for one thing, they’re environmentally positive! Beans are a very low-impact source of protein, releasing 90% fewer harmful greenhouse gases than some animal proteins and requiring little land and water. They’re also ‘nitrogen fixers’, adding nitrogen to the soil around them through the mechanisms of a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria. In fact, many regenerative farms plant legumes like beans as ‘cover crops’ between successive production crops, since they nourish the soil to the benefit of other plant species and reduce or eliminate reliance on nitrogen fertilisers.
Since eating less meat can have an enormous difference in individual carbon footprints, including an all-natural source of plant-based protein like pulses on your menu can make a big difference by helping to support your customers in choosing meat-free or reduced-meat diets. Beans even contain vitamin B12, a vital nutrient that can be difficult to find outside of animal-based products. Take inspiration from businesses like Wahaca, who are guided by Mexico’s food heritage in featuring beans across much of their menu.
Seaweed is an incredibly healthy, nutritious ingredient that can provide fantastic umami and savoury notes. In addition, growing seaweed is an extremely low-impact form of aquaculture, requiring no need for fertilisers and generating no pollution. Seaweed even filters excess nutrients from our oceans – such as phosphorus and nitrogen, often an unwanted product of nearby fish farms as well as land-based agriculture and sewage facilities. Meanwhile, the forests of seaweed in our oceans do a fantastic job of trapping and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
From a social perspective, seaweed can offer an important additional source of income for fishing communities. This can help to discourage overfishing while supporting small family businesses, local economies and indigenous fishing practices.
Sourcing seafood sustainably can be a challenge, but bivalves like mussels, oysters and clams are a great environmentally friendly option. Unlike most methods of agriculture and aquaculture, farming bivalves has minimal impact – in fact, these filter feeders often improve the water around them to the benefit of their immediate ecosystem. This type of farming requires no land and no feed, and harvesting is targeted and straightforward: it doesn’t cause damage to ecosystems or bring in unwanted by-catch. In addition, bivalves build their shells using carbon dioxide, permanently capturing carbon from the ocean as they do so. With a high protein, vitamin and mineral content – and a meaty texture – mussels, oysters and clams are a fantastic addition to a modern menu. Choose local suppliers to support small businesses and serve your bivalves as fresh as possible.
Ancient grains and cereals
Cereals and grains rank low on GHG emissions and require less water than animal products. While industrialised production has seen an intense focus on monocropping modern, high-yield varieties of just a few cereals and grains – largely wheat, maize and rice – we’re seeing a promising renewal of interest in ancient varieties, also known as ‘landrace’ crops, which are better for both people and planet.
With widely varying gene pools, landrace populations are better equipped to deal with disease, pest outbreaks or climate shocks. Cereals like millets, teff, einkorn, amaranth and other varieties are tolerant of poor soils, drought and harsh growing conditions, and can adapt to different environments without reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers – providing a reliable source of food for vulnerable populations (and stable income for farmers) through periods of scarcity. Furthermore, even with lower yields, farmers of diverse landrace crops often see productivity and profit go up as they spend less on fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
These ancient grains also considerably more nutrient-dense than modern varieties, and – luckily for chefs! – often have better flavour.
Non-native species pose a huge problem for protecting biodiversity and maintaining precious localised ecosystems – in fact, in September 2023, a comprehensive follow-up report to a Global Assessment Report from IPBES found that invasive alien species are one of the five most significant direct drivers of biodiversity loss around the world.
While it’s crucial that we work to prevent the movement of these species in the first place, that’s obviously beyond the scope of the hospitality industry. However, we’re still left with those that have already made the journey – and that’s where restaurants can step in. Putting these non-native species on menus can spark new customer interest and demand, controlling populations and protecting local ecosystems in the process. As added benefits, working with ingredients that are new can unleash new creativity in your kitchen, while also differentiating your restaurant from competitors. This year, Silo in London ran a successful series of Invasive Species Supper Clubs, highlighting ingredients like Signal crayfish, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam.
More plants and better meat
We don’t believe that we all need to go fully vegetarian or vegan, or that restaurants need to remove meat from their offerings entirely – simply reducing the meat in our diets can have a huge impact. While we encourage restaurants to improve and extend their meat-free selection and make sure these dishes are as appealing and creative as the rest, we believe that sustainably produced meat does have a place at the table. What does ethical meat consumption look like? This is a complex question, but here are some things to take into consideration.
Did the animal’s life meet the highest standards of welfare? Was it reared as part of a mixed, regenerative and/or agroecological system without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilisers? Are you supporting small-scale, local agriculture? Could you choose more unusual heritage breeds, rather than the omnipresent commercially engineered ones that have been bred solely for high yield? Is every part of the carcase being used?
You can also look at this through the lens of menu design: can you reduce the amount of meat you buy to enable you to choose higher-quality options? Could you make plants the focus of more of your dishes, reducing the amount of meat used per serving? Can you serve more poultry and less ruminant meat? Have you considered featuring meat in starters and sides instead of making it the centre of your main course plates? Are you utilising cheaper cuts of meat, including offal? There are plenty of ways to ensure that the meat you do serve is better for both people and planet.
Make sure to follow our #EatForTomorrow campaign to discover more inspiring ways that our food choices can change the future. Don’t miss these incredible stories from around the globe – find us on Instagram and LinkedIn to tune in.
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