Meat-Free Dining In The Health And Care Sector

Written by Sue Baic RD

A recent virtual roundtable celebrated the successful, on-going corporate partnership between Quorn foods and the British Dietetic Association (BDA). This year’s event explored dietitian’s experiences of meat-free dining in the care sector and their perceptions of challenges and future needs. A group of six specialist dietitians with a broad range of experience in food service and clinical roles from adult social care and hospital settings took part in the expert discussion, led by registered dietitian Sue Baic.

The roundtable highlighted a current and increasing need for nutritious, tasty and varied meat-free options for those in care settings, from vegetarian and vegan service users to those moving towards a flexitarian style of eating. This demand was felt to be higher in areas such as mental health and acute hospitals, compared with that in adult social care settings especially for older adults. It was noted that demand also comes from staff and visitors as well as from management and purchasers especially in larger care organisations.

Currently, meat-free options can make up to between 30 to 50% of the dishes on offer. Participants in this roundtable felt that having “Meat-Free” days - where only vegetarian dishes were on offer - did not sufficiently support the personal choice of service users. They felt options containing animal foods will always be needed on menus to support and respect the range of preferences and special dietary requirements. However, participants agreed that the showcasing of meat-free options via “dish of the day” promotions or in line with events such as “Veganuary” or “Nutrition and Hydration Week” could be useful for helping people to explore different options. In addition, there was general agreement on a need for clarity of menu descriptors of where meat-free alternatives were used in dishes for transparency and to avoid misidentification as meat. Within a care setting, often mealtimes can be one of the highlights of service users’ days and so retaining independence and freedom of choice around meal times will always remain paramount.

All participants felt that the main drivers in menu planning in the care sector are nutrition and health, with the environmental impact of dishes currently being reported as a secondary concern. However, factors such as the carbon footprint of food items including local and seasonal foods, land and water use, waste, and packaging are increasingly raised in procurement by larger chains of hospitals and care homes, and there seemed to be an appetite for food manufacturers to be able to provide this information when required.

Catering staff, dietitians and care home managers may all have input into planning meat-free dining, but decisions may depend on the skills and knowledge of the staff involved, as well as available kitchen equipment which can all vary considerably. There was a clear consensus that it can sometimes be difficult to achieve variety with meat-free options on menu cycles, so more recipe ideas from manufacturers would be largely welcomed.

Another key concern was the ability of some meat-free dishes with low nutrient density, lower protein quality and high bulk to meet nutrition standards for vulnerable service users who may have poor appetites and increased nutrient needs. Therefore, the quality of the protein must be carefully considered. In addition, the provision of meat-free texture-modified dishes that correctly aligned with the IDDSI framework was cited as a particular challenge that would be interesting to explore further.

Participants felt that meat alternatives with high-quality protein, such as mycoprotein, could help address some of these gaps in provision. They agreed there was a demand for familiar, traditional dishes with a meat-free twist, such as a vegetarian cottage pie, as well as more novel recipe options, but that taste was a key driver in choice.

In summary, it was felt that for most care settings the demand for meat-free dining, although currently a lesser priority, is likely to increase considerably in coming years from service users, staff and visitors.

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