A group of college students sit in a circle eating veggie and rice bowls

New Research: Making Plant-Based Meals the Default in Dining Halls Can Help Meet Climate Goals

By Megan Edwards,

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Presenting plant-based meals as the default option in university dining halls can reduce daily food-related greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 24%, finds new research conducted by the Food for Climate League.

Researchers used the psycho-behavioral concept of “defaults” as the primary tool for impacting students’ behavior. According to the study, “defaults are a type of behavioral nudge that make the desired choice the easy choice.” By presenting a person with a predetermined option, it takes the need to make a decision out of the equation, even if there are other options available.

Here’s how it played out: Tulane University, Lehigh University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute participated in a five-week experiment where a single station in each school’s dining halls was tasked with implementing control or plant-default menus on a random basis throughout the study period. On control days, a plant-based and a meat-based option were displayed side-by-side for students to choose from. On “default” days, only a plant-based meal was displayed, and a small sign was posted informing students they could receive a meat-based dish upon request. By visually hiding meat-based options and setting the plant-based meal as the default option, students were subtly encouraged to choose the plant-based dish.

After analyzing meal station data encompassing more than 15,000 servings, the researchers found that when the plant-default days were consistently implemented, the average take rate of the plant-based dish jumped from 30% to 81%. By simply presenting plant-based dishes as the norm, students were much more likely to choose the vegan dish instead of searching the dining hall for a meat-based option.

The Time Is Right

While eating meat is still a dominant social norm among college students, researchers noted that the current student body is a prime demographic for making the shift toward plant-based meals.

“University-aged Gen Z consumers are the most interested in consuming plant-based foods compared to any other generation—83% versus a combined average of 63% among Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers,” the study reports.

Student satisfaction on plant-default days scored a 5.14 compared with a 4.42 on control days where both options were presented, suggesting that setting a vegan dish as the norm influences students’ happiness with their meal choice. However, the satisfaction level differed between the type of plant-based dish served: Students expressed the greatest interest in dishes with processed plant-based proteins, followed closely by meat-based dishes, and expressed the least satisfaction with whole-food, plant-based meals. The study authors note that this trend is in contrast to other publications, such as the most recent Plant-Forward Opportunity Report, which shows that Gen Z eaters tend to prefer whole-food plant-based dishes over processed.

Researchers found that the visual presentation of plant-based dishes and the use of appetizing placard descriptions were also important factors in student enjoyment. Additionally, female students had a greater overall interest in incorporating healthier options into their diet and were more likely to be satisfied with a plant-based dish than male students.

Good for Students, Good for the Planet

College is often a time of deep foundational learning and habit formation, which means students’ dietary choices during those years could impact their food preferences—and subsequently, their health—for the rest of their lives. The researchers behind this latest study speculate implementing the plant-default menus more consistently over longer periods of time will encourage students to create a habit of eating vegan even in environments, even where meat-based options are more readily available.

Because the plant-based menu was only implemented at one station within each school’s dining hall, the study authors suggest expanding the program throughout all stations to further reduce greenhouse gases and help universities meet their sustainability goals. This style of default-plant-based menus can help other large facilities, such as hospitals, prisons, and office buildings, work toward being carbon neutral and promote greater health among the populations they serve.

Over the past year, many university dining halls have upped their plant-based offerings. In 2022, two food-service giants, Aramark and Sodexo, who provide meals to hundreds of campus dining halls around the country committed to implementing new menus where more than 40% of the meals are plant-based, citing emission-reduction goals. This latest report affirms that offering more plant-based options is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while still keeping students happy with their meal choices.

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About the Author

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About the Author

Megan Edwards

Megan Edwards is a staff writer and content producer for Forks Over Knives. She is also a certified RYT-500 yoga teacher who is passionate about cultivating holistic wellness through plant-based eating, mindful movement, and meditation. With a background in journalism and marketing, she supports both the online presence and quarterly print magazine for Forks Over Knives.
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