The Easiest Way to Add Plant-Based Substitutes to Your Restaurant Menu

I remember about 15 years ago, before “plant-based” was even a thing, I was encouraged to go dairy-free by my chiropractor who was also a nutritionist. At the time, I had a ton of inflammation in my body and was trying natural ways to reduce my pain before popping an Advil. And since dairy products is on the list of foods that feed inflammation, I decided I would start there. There weren’t too many plant-based substitutes back then, but I was okay with leaving the cheese off of my sandwich or tacos. Skipping the cheese on my pizza wasn’t fun, but doable. However, everything changed when I was running late to work one morning and went to order my vanilla latte from Starbucks. 15 years ago, the only option that Starbucks had for me was soymilk. Reluctantly, I went with it. And as the barista began making my drink I gave myself a pep-talk, convincing my taste-buds that it wouldn’t be so bad. Wrong. The second that my latte hit my lips, I quit omitting dairy. I just couldn’t do it!

As a very “all-or-nothing” kind of girl, this just wasn’t gonna work. My coffee addiction has still remained to about 2 generous cups each day. And it wasn’t until about 2 years ago that I was finally able to make the switch to dairy free. Why? Flavor. For a committed coffee drinker, changing up my coffee meant starting my morning on a negative note. And if I couldn’t give my all to my dairy-free due-diligence, well, I couldn’t do it at all. I watched as the almond milks rolled in, and that wasn’t my thing either. Nothing could quite capture the creaminess that I enjoyed in my coffee. And it’s crazy to say as a nutrition professional and former trainer, but I didn’t care as much about my inflammation as I did about the flavor in my coffee! (All of my former clients reading this, listen, it was a “do as I say, not as I do” kinda thing, ok?)

Finding the Right Plant-Based Substitutes

However, all this came to a stop when I tried oatmilk! I skeptically bought a carton of oatmilk thinking that it was going to fall flat just like the rest. I shook it up and went to pour… and there was foam! That was thrilling. Then I watched as my coffee turned into the beautiful caramel color that I look for every morning to create the perfect cup of joe. And the taste was there too! For me, it wasn’t about the health component. Coffee always has and always will be a grounding ritual for me. Waking up? Coffee. Upset? Coffee. Happy? Coffee. And I know many of you are the same. How could I trade the experience that my coffee gave me for a crappy substitute. Now, I may be a little bit obsessed, but chances are, there are foods that you’re real protective of as too. Well, as it turns out, same goes for your customers. So, given that our society is going plant-based in a combined effort to improve our health post-COVID and save our environment, what is the easiest way to add plant-based items to your restaurant menu? Preserving flavor. The catch is, unless you have been eating plant-based for some time, or you’ve really made the effort to source and cook with plant-based alternatives, finding the right replacements can be really hard. And you know as well as I do that flavor will determine the success or failure of a dish. The question is: how much can you afford to experiment when there’s a million plant-based substitutes to work with? Wish you could cut straight to the best?? Now you can!

All that being said, here’s a quick list covering some of the top plant-based substitutes that can be swapped 1:1 for animal products, helping you preserve that flavor and appeal to your newly plant-based diner. If you read this far, you know what I’m going to begin with.

And here it is — proof that Oatmilk is the creamiest plant-based substitute for coffee, ever. (At least I think so).

Swap #1: Plant-Based Milk

If I didn’t explain it beautifully enough in the previous paragraphs, I’ve failed as a writer. Oatmilk maintains the creaminess of a traditional cow’s milk and is also available in full fat, low-fat, and fat-free, just like traditional milk. Just this feature alone makes oat-milk a top contender in the plant-based milk category. Whether you are re-creating a latte, adding creaminess to a soup, or creating baked goods, oatmilk can be used 1:1 while maintaining it’s structure and texture under multiple cooking methods (it also makes for amazing ice cream!). I highly recommend Chobani OatMilk for creaminess and Oatly as a close second.

Swap #2: Plant-Based Cheeses 

I’ll admit, cheese was the next most difficult ingredient to replace. Nothing could quite capture the melt of a pizza cheese, the tangy bite of a sharp cheddar or the creamy density of a fresh mozzarella. Save for one. The Miyoko’s brand of cheeses has been surprisingly well-made. Most times, plant-based cheeses are mixed in with meals to add the cheese flavor but are unable to stand alone. Whether you are creating a bruschetta or serving a sharp cheddar on a plant-based pub burger, these plant-based cheeses hold their own.

Another great brand we can get behind is “Follow Your Heart”. Their cheese slices are fantastic for a classic American cheese taste on a burger or for a cheese dog. Daiya is likely a brand that you’ve heard of as well. And while they make for great texture substitutes, they are a bit heavy on the “nutritional yeast” flavor (this is usually what lends that cheesy-taste). So we recommend Daiya for use in recipes that have plenty of other ingredients or for restaurants that cater specifically to Vegans and Vegetarians whose palate is likely more tuned to that nutritional yeast flavor.

Swap #3: Plant-Based Meats

You might expect us to hop right on the “Beyond Meat” train with this one, and while they are great for burgers, we have a few additional suggestions that take the cake for meat-forward meals. Farmland’s meatballs make for great plant-based substitutes and hold up extremely well for marinara sauces; they absorb flavor beautifully. Gardein beefless ground and Impossible grounds go neck-in-neck for tacos, quesadillas, beef ravioli stuffing or anything that requires ground beef. Beyond comes in strong as a sausage substitute for sandwiches and other sausage forward dishes.

If you can keep these brands in mind for the easiest 1:1 swaps in the milk, meat and cheese categories, you’ll have plant-based swaps nailed while maintaining flavor that your plant-based newbies will love. Tune in for our next article on easy plant-based swaps by subscribing to our articles page. And for more tips on creating plant-based options for your menu, check out our instagram page @my_smartmenu . Give us a follow!

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