Why the Business Lunch of the Future Should Be Animal-Free

It's not your imagination: More people than ever are changing the way they eat. Shouldn't the meals we share with others change, too?

People at airport or mall restaurant tables

Explainer Health Nutrition

It’s not your imagination: More people than ever are changing the way they eat. Worldwide, allergies have been increasing across the industrialized world for more than 50 years, with food allergies in children increasing 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Vegan diets are on the rise, with plant-based foods growing into a $7 billion market, and plant-based meat and dairy replacements increasing by 200 percent compared to their animal-based equivalents. As the American population diversifies, the demand for kosher and halal foods continues to grow. 

Whether for health reasons, allergies, environmental or ethical concerns, or for cultural or religious food traditions, our diverse global population adheres to a wide range of dietary principles—and they take those preferences with them whenever they board a plane, attend a business meeting, visit the breakfast bar at a hotel, dine in a cafeteria, or meet friends at a restaurant.

It is challenging for them if their nutritional preferences are not reflected in anything that is served. And it is no less challenging for businesses that want to respond to clients’ requests, especially in today’s review-rich environment when just a few online reviews can greatly increase (or shrink) a restaurant’s profits

So what are businesses to do? The answer is Universal Meals.

The Universal Meal: One meal to accommodate a vast range of “special” diets 

Universal Meals is a simple set of guidelines that meets a wide range of requirements and can be implemented anywhere food is served. To accommodate vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free diners, people with lactose intolerance, most allergies, and the dietary component of Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Christians’ practices, Universal Meals guidelines stipulate omitting:

  • All animal-derived ingredients, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products;
  • Gluten, including wheat, barley, rye, triticale, and contaminated grains;
  • The eight most common allergens in the United States (milk, eggs, wheat, tree nuts, soy, fish, shellfish, and peanuts), plus additional common allergens celery, lupin, mustard, and sulphites; and
  • Alcohol.

These guidelines make the most of the fact that while people may be omitting certain ingredients for different reasons, it’s often the same ingredients that they’re choosing to avoid. As Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, Executive Director at Jewish Veg explains, “Many observant Jews will eat a vegan meal to comply with the intent of the kosher laws.” They’re avoiding meat, dairy, and shellfish to honor traditions that are different from a secular vegan’s but omitting the same ingredients all the same. Universal Meals makes the most of these overlaps. 

Who is adopting Universal Meals?     

It’s easy for restaurant owners, university food services directors, and other businesses that feed the public to see the benefits of using a Universal Meal recipe, rather than preparing special meals for each and every allergy, dietary restriction, or religious observance. 

So far, the businesses using Universal Meals have found them to be a helpful resource for accommodating a wide range of clients’ dietary needs. DC Vegan Catering in Washington, D.C., uses the veggie quiche bites as a go-to offering for baby and bridal showers—something their clients appreciate because it takes the stress of gathering dietary requests off of hosts’ shoulders when their guests RSVP. A major university is piloting the recipes at multiple locations in their campus system where on-the-go staff and students are offered healthy, tasty meals without having to pause to check all the ingredients in each dish. 

Through these pilot opportunities, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—the organization that developed the Universal Meals program—has been able to gather feedback and adjust recipes accordingly. For example, the veggie enchiladas didn’t hold up very well when served in big trays on the hot serve line, so they adjusted the recipe to create stacked/layered enchiladas… and now they’re a very popular item.

Where did Universal Meals come from?

For more than 30 years, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has been the leading voice promoting good nutrition and advocating for research that will save animal lives and advance human health. Its nutrition research has tackled critical health questions and has built credibility with policymakers, news programs, medical professionals, and health advocates who use its findings and expertise on a daily basis.

Physicians Committee founder and president Neal Barnard, MD, spends a lot of time on airplanes and in hotels and restaurants and figured his team’s nutrition expertise could vastly simplify accommodating travelers’ dietary needs. He launched the Universal Meals program to help influence menu offerings at restaurants, hotels, airlines, universities, hospitals, and other institutions, making life easier for consumers and food providers alike, while simultaneously shifting animals off of people’s plates—a move that reduces suffering around the world while also improving human health.

But Dr. Barnard wasn’t the first to recognize the usefulness of the Universal Meals concept. Back in 1993, during the Bosnian War, the American government’s Defense Logistics Agency developed a program called the Humanitarian Daily Ration. Their goal was to develop a package of food that would provide a full day’s sustenance (2,200 calories) to malnourished individuals subsisting in war zones. The components were designed to provide the “widest possible acceptance from the variety of potential consumers with diverse religious and dietary restrictions from around the world,” so Humanitarian Daily Rations contained no animal products or animal by-products (although minimal amounts of dairy products were permitted). Alcohol and alcohol-based ingredients were also banned.

So why create a whole new Universal Meals program? Why not just encourage more public sites to use Humanitarian Daily Ration recipes?

As Dr. Barnard explains, “Those aren’t exactly meals anyone would want to eat. They’re designed to have a shelf life of three years even if kept at 80-degree temperatures. They cost about one-fifth of what a military ‘MRE’ costs. And they’re designed to withstand being thrown out of airplanes without the benefit of a parachute.”

So to design Universal Meals recipes that even the most ardent foodie can enjoy, Dr. Barnard left the Defense Logistics Agency behind and turned to the CIA. Not the Central Intelligence Agency, mind you—the Culinary Institute of America.

Developing enticing, practical recipes

Any business tasked with feeding people doesn’t just want to provide food that clients can eat; it aims to offer a delightful feast for the eyes and the taste buds. To develop delicious meals that suit Universal Meals guidelines, are easy to prepare at scale, and are appealing visually, the Physicians Committee enlisted the help of some of the best chefs in the world: the Culinary Institute of America, an institution known for superb cuisine.

Chefs worldwide can trust that any recipe developed by the Culinary Institute of America will be delicious and appealing to consumers. Its expertise in the world of restaurants and commercial dining is unrivaled. All it takes is for someone to taste one of their recipes—say, a hearty veggie wrap with mushroom bacon for breakfast, roasted vegetable enchiladas with salsa verde for lunch, and southern-style gumbo or Thai lemongrass curry for dinner—and it becomes abundantly clear that no sacrifice in flavor, texture or enjoyment is required when consuming Universal Meals-compliant dishes.

A support team of additional chefs, including Santa Monica-based Spork Foods, has also developed and tested recipes, including melt-in-your-mouth fluffy golden waffles, hearty veggie burgers with lemon kale rice, and mushroom risotto arancini with chickpea salad. Celebrated restaurateurs like Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff, owners of Washington, D.C.’s James Beard Award-nominated Equinox have even developed Universal Meals recipes and allowed the Physicians Committee to share one of them—Israeli pickled vegetables with green garlic falafel salad—with the world. The options are limited only by chefs’ imaginations. Hospital- and university-based chefs are also testing the recipes, to make sure the recipes are practical for use in large-scale cafeteria settings. 

Taste and compliance with Universal Meals guidelines, rather than healthfulness, were the primary priorities as chefs developed the recipes. But without even trying, it turns out that Universal Meals are extremely healthy, too. In a forthcoming scientific paper, a Physicians Committee dietitian used the Alternative Healthy Eating Index scoring system, a method designed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health to compare the nutrient quality of various dishes, to better predict chronic disease development, to calculate the AHEI score for a full day of Universal Meals-compliant recipes. Scoring 88 (out of 110 points possible), the Universal Meals were vastly healthier than the average American diet (which scores between 33 and 41). It’s exciting to think that by accommodating diners’ special needs through Universal Meals, restaurants and other institutions can improve their health at the same time.

As a physician-led, evidence-based health organization, the Physicians Committee already had in-house credibility and experience in the field of nutrition. But to make sure that Universal Meals also incorporated appropriate cultural and religious mandates and were easy for institutions to produce, Dr. Barnard and his team recruited a diverse panel of experts, including the leaders of religious groups, allergy specialists, and restaurateurs who understand firsthand how commercial kitchens work, and how to design meals that will be easy for hotels, airlines, restaurants, universities, and other institutions to adopt.

Making Universal Meals a universal practice

For Universal Meals to be adopted by as many businesses and institutions as possible, and to help consumers understand what Universal Meals mean for them, the Physicians Committee has developed a comprehensive toolkit, including: 

  • Menu guidelines in an easily understandable format;
  • Practical and enticing recipes for every meal plus dessert, including many that have been scaled for institutional use (50 servings);
  • Experts and allies to increase public confidence that their nutrition, health, religion, and cultural mandates have been taken into consideration in all Universal Meals recipes; and
  • Additional media and tools (such as flyers and table tents that can be used in cafeterias or adapted for consumer education in in-flight magazines, and a resource called “Easy Swaps” that helps chefs learn how to convert their own recipes into Universal Meals-compliant versions).

The toolkit is available for no charge, and Physicians Committee staff are available to answer questions and help along the way.

You can help make this vision a reality

As institutions adopt Universal Meals, the benefits are enormous. Businesses can ensure that clients feel well cared for. Imagine being a flight attendant who never again has to say, “I’m sorry, if you wanted a vegan meal, you would have had to order it 48 hours in advance.” Universal Meals means everyone feels welcome, and never having to say you’re sorry. 

Do you have connections to businesses that could benefit from adding Universal Meals recipes to their repertoire? Are you actively involved with a hospital, a university, or some other institution where Universal Meals could be helpful? The Physicians Committee would love to hear from you at [email protected].

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