Think plant-based breakfasts, globally inspired dishes, fermentation and more! Sodexo Campus Director of Culinary Innovation Jennifer DiFrancesco shares insights
More plant-based options are coming to menus of hundreds of colleges and universities this fall. What can students anticipate? What will be new? Innovative? Culinarily diverse?
For insightful answers, on behalf of Meatless Monday, I reached out to Jennifer DiFrancesco, Sodexo Campus Director of Culinary Innovation. In her role, Jennifer drives plant-based developments and sustainability actions through Sodexo Campus menus with the goal of helping achieve the company’s commitment to make 33% of menu offerings plant-based by 2024.
In this Q&A, Jennifer talks about campus trends, addresses challenges for foodservice operators and offers effective solutions.
Jennifer, as director of culinary innovation for Sodexo Campus, you lead the development of enticing student menus. How did you land this exciting role?
I’ve spent over 20 years as a chef, working primarily with colleges and universities and, most recently, at the Humane Society of the United States. At the HSUS, my team worked with foodservice companies to develop plant-based menus for their unique business models. This is where I first had the opportunity to work with Sodexo. When the Director of Culinary Innovation opportunity became available, I wanted to help lead the way in creating delicious, trendsetting plant-based recipes on campus.
Could you tell us more about Sodexo Campus? How is it transforming plant-based dining on campus?
At Sodexo, our role is to be a trusted partner on campus, bringing deep consumer insights and a range of innovative services to align our offerings with unique campus needs and continuously evolving student lifestyles. Plant-based menus are a big component of this, especially as we continue to experience increased demand from students. Expanding plant-based menu options is also central to reducing the carbon footprint of both our campus partners and our company. Sodexo has a global goal through our Better Tomorrow 2025 commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 34%, and our supply chain and animal-based food purchases play a large role in this. The campus segment is leading the way in meeting company commitments to make 33% of menu offerings plant-based by 2024. Our chefs are already making great strides and Sodexo was recently awarded an “A” as the #2 ranking in the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) Protein Sustainability Scorecard.
What do you see as the top plant-based trends for campus dining this fall?
Plant-based breakfast is one of the things I’m most excited about! I see menus going beyond a traditional pancake, bacon, and eggs American breakfast to explore plant-based handheld sandwiches, hearty bowls, and sweet baked goods. While I love a good tofu scramble, alternative dairy, eggs, and proteins give chefs even more opportunities for plant-based breakfasts. Our new fall breakfast menus utilize products like JUST Egg to make Avocado Egg Flatbreads, Asian Ginger Breakfast Rice Bowls, and Peach Cobbler French Toast. I love that this breakfast evolution is making it easier for anyone to start the day with a variety of plant-based options.
Globally inspired dishes are also an important trend for the fall. Gen Z is the largest, most racially diverse generation in American history, which contributes to their demand for bold, global flavors. We’re working to not only make sure global cuisine is a big component of our menus, but also to make plant-based global recipes the menu default half of the week. Many fantastic global cuisines that our students know and love are naturally plant-based and are great models for menus.
At the recent Menus of Change conference, my panel discussion was also talking about trends in fermentation and cultivated meats and seafood which is giving me inspiration for the spring and beyond. There are so many exciting things to come for plant-based recipe development!
What key challenges to plant-based menu planning do foodservice operators face, and how can they address them effectively?
The unfamiliarity with plant-based ingredients like tempeh, jackfruit, or Impossible Beef can certainly make a recipe feel more intimidating. My role is to provide education along with new plant-based recipes, so our teams feel confident to both prepare a meal and speak to guests about it.
I also think the entire foodservice industry is challenged to re-shift our menu mindset around plant-based foods. Instead of planning a plant-based alternative to a meat option, we should aim to infuse delicious plant-based recipes throughout all offerings in a dining space. Protein diversification makes plant-based recipes commonplace and helps promote equitable dining while also engaging everyone in eating tasty food. We all can play a role in flipping this perspective.
What fun and engaging promotions can campus foodservice operators do to get students excited about plant-based meals and keep them coming back for more?
Samplings are still one of my favorite ways to engage students. Offering a sample encourages guests to try new foods or ingredients and lets teams have fun with it! Samplings also help educate staff, so they feel more comfortable and confident with these items which in turn helps educate our students.
Celebratory months or national food holidays are also a recurring way to highlight plant-based recipes and our chef’s passions for sustainable food. Go big and think outside the box! Offer a non-dairy sundae for National Ice Cream Day or a big platter of plant-based cookies on National Cookie Day. This is also a great way to keep plant-based students included in the celebration.
Could you give Total Food Service readers an example of Sodexo Campus’s crave-worthy student menus that will not only pique plant-loving palates, but also tempt carnivores and omnivores this fall?
This is the philosophy for all the plant-based recipes we’ll be offering this fall! The most important thing about any plant-based dish from pizza to tacos to desserts is that it should simply be delicious – the fact that it is plant-based is just a bonus. Our everyday recipe creation focuses on flavor, so the result is crave-worthy for both plant-based and meat-eating students.
Homestyle classics are some of my favorite recipes to focus on because they are the cozy and comforting meals people know and love. If you can tempt carnivores and omnivores with a plant-based mac and cheese or slice of pie, then that’s a real win!
Whether you provide food services to college campuses, K-12 schools or other large institutions, Meatless Monday can help you promote delicious plant-based options. It’s easy to participate; just encourage your diners to give up meat one day a week. We provide the following toolkits for free, and also have a variety of promotional assets available for download. Check out our materials at the website.
For free recipes, social media assets, health and environmental resources, visit MeatlessMonday.com.