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Produce Takes Its Place as a Main Dish

Produce Takes Its Place as a Main Dish

Meatless meals are on the increase as consumers try to watch what they eat. Meals centered on fruits and vegetables are gaining in popularity, spawning a wide range of recipes, from casual eats to formal dinners. Produce departments have the opportunity to grab more sales with this new place on the table for these new main-meal dishes. As plant-based eating continues to grow, many of today’s shoppers are looking for more meatless main dishes to include on their tables.

Key Takeaways

  • Cauliflower may be the most versatile vegetable as a main dish, due to its size and flavor.
  • Adding vegetables with protein, such as lentils or chickpeas, to a produce entrée can make it a satisfying main-dish alternative to meat.
  • Younger consumers such as Gen Z and Millennials are highly interested in produce dishes, which bodes well for future sales.

One-third of Americans consider themselves to be “flexitarians” — those who alternate between a produce-based and a meat-based diet, according to the New York Post. In fact, 60% of people are more likely to include at least one produce main dish on their holiday table than in the past, Chicago-based C+R Research has found. Shoppers will be stocking up on a variety of fruits and vegetables for the center of the plate this year, so be sure to offer options that will draw them in.

Home Plates

When I was a kid, cauliflower with cheese sauce was my introduction to this versatile vegetable, and I loved it. There are many dishes that use this vegetable as an ingredient. Cauliflower is also good raw, especially when dieting after the holidays.

Today, this cruciferous vegetable is riced, or made into mock mashed potatoes, and pizza crust. It’s high in vitamin C, fiber and other nutrients. Cauliflower’s peak season is fall, but it’s available year-round. The item usually has cream-colored florets, but also comes in natural colors of green (broccoflower), purple or orange. The taste is the same, but the colors are definitely different.

Cauliflower main-course dishes are limitless
Cauliflower main-course dishes are limitless

“Frieda’s Colored Cauliflower is a great option for holiday main dishes such as whole roasted colored cauliflower with salsa verde,” says Alex Berkley, director of sales for Frieda’s Specialty Produce, based in Los Alamitos, Calif. “Cauliflower continues to explode in popularity, and adding colored cauliflower to your produce set will keep you on trend with consumers.” The colors will make holiday tables special, while the orange and purple varieties are higher in antioxidants, she notes.

“Cauliflower is on its fourth year as a trendy produce item,” notes Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. “This humble produce item has been re-marked as a center-of-the-plate vegetable — plus it is gluten-free.” Schueller adds that the colorful varieties and new uses for cauliflower have brought it into the mainstream, and it’s no longer just a side dish.

Romanesco is a member of the Brassica family that includes cauliflower
Romanesco is a member of the Brassica family that includes cauliflower

Cauliflower main-course dishes are limitless, as are possible promotions. Offer customers recipes and samples of dishes in the produce department to boost sales. Whole heads of cauliflower can be sliced into “steaks,” and then topped with caper butter or a host of other flavors. Cauliflower steaks can also be roasted with a sear in the frying pan, and then finished in the oven, just like meaty steaks, or broiled in large, thick cuts. One recipe recommends two steaks per cauliflower head.

Grilled cauliflower steaks can be prepared with spicy rubs, or the whole cauliflower can be roasted, a dish on menus across the country, according to the Food Network. There are also dozens of recipes for cauliflower main dishes on the internet. It’s a good time to take advantage of cauliflower’s attractions for customers, with signage suggesting uses. Since this trend is still fairly new to supermarkets, it’s time to be on the cutting edge.

Most grocers are like Gelson’s Markets, based in Encino, Calif.: They really push beef, seafood and poultry programs, but don’t necessarily — at this point, anyway — consider produce as center of the plate. John Savidan, senior director, produce and floral at Gelson’s, admits that he hasn’t had requests from customers for this type of recipe, but guesses if the chain would do something in this area, it would be cauliflower steaks.

“Part of the allure of traditional proteins — turkeys, hams, rib roasts, etc. — is that they visually make a statement,” says Andrew Moberly, director, category solutions at Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon. “We are starting to see vegetables that are being prepared in ways that can have the same attention-grabbing presence.

“Whole-head roasted cauliflower with a few seasonings and your favorite oil can produce an impressive — and tasty — main dish,” adds Moberly. “Substituting romanesco can really create an exotic-looking dish.”

Romanesco is a member of the Brassica family that includes cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. It has bright-green symmetrical spirals of different sizes, which are actually individual buds of the plant’s flower. Romanesco tastes like cauliflower, but slightly nuttier or earthier. It can be served raw, lightly cooked or thoroughly cooked, and may be substituted in any recipe calling for cauliflower or broccoli.

What’s a Flexitarian?

If you plan to promote a meatless day to customers, you might ask them whether they skip meat sometimes. If so, they’re flexitarians — people who don’t stick to one specific eating style and may combine produce-based and meat-based diets. In 2018, one-third of Americans considered themselves to be flexitarian.

More than one-half of Americans (52%) are trying to incorporate more plant-based meals into their daily lives, according to a report in the New York Post. Why are people choosing to “flex” their diets? Seven in 10 Americans believe that this change will allow them to eat healthier without depriving themselves of the foods that they love.

Here are the top five reasons consumers become flexitarians, according to the Post:

  1. To eat healthier without feeling I am depriving myself: 70%
  2. To feel better physically: 69%
  3. To feel better mentally: 57%
  4. To lose weight: 46%
  5. To set a good example for my children/others: 27%

A Variety of Main Dishes

Produce main dishes can consist of a variety of vegetables or fruit. Although fruit is often thought of only as a dessert at the dinner table, there are options for main dishes. For example, Purple Fruit Salad featuring plums, black grapes, and blueberries or blackberries, with an optional lime yogurt dressing, can stand on its own at a meal. Tropical Fruit Salad with coconut and lime is another fruit meal option.

Daymon’s Moberly notes that the types of produce seeing the biggest increase in popularity fall into two main categories. “First, produce items that most closely resemble what they are replacing, from a texture or preparation perspective — like mushrooms, jackfruit, eggplant, lentils, beans/legumes and veggie noodles,” he says. “Also, Vegetable Wellington is an interesting take on a traditional dish that wouldn’t fool anyone that it is not beef, but still has a great flavor.

“Second, items that are great in supporting functional health are used,” Moberly observes. Produce as a whole is healthy, but especially so for those seeking alternative proteins (legumes); more fiber (cooking greens, berries, artichokes); and lower fat/unsaturated fats (avocados, edamame).

“Consumers looking to significantly change their diet will be turning to these types of produce to maintain balanced nutrition,” he says. “Many of them are easy to incorporate into a main dish and are available in different formats at their local grocery store.”

Green salads are a long-standing meal for many. Warm vegetable salads, however, are a different meal altogether. Check for recipes like Warm Beet-Orange Salad, Eggplant Salad, and Crisp Roasted Cabbage.

Another stand-alone vegetable, cabbage can be chopped in large chunks and roasted, baked or boiled. “Whole roasted cabbage, similar to cauliflower, is easy to season,” suggests Moberly. “Roasting cabbage gives a much different appearance and texture than most consumers might expect.”

Delicata squash
Delicata squash

Squash, in its many varieties, can be the center of many main dishes. “Stuffed butternut, acorn squash and delicata squashes are a bit more traditional, but they do not lose the visual appeal and can be customized with a variety of ingredients to produce a delicious main course,” Moberly notes. The key to turning acorn squash or any vegetable into an entrée, according to Food Network, is adding protein, like tofu, lentils, chickpeas or beans, plus complementary ingredients to add extra flavor.

“Produce as a main dish is a trend that is here to stay,” Moberly asserts. “Despite the increased attention, it really isn’t all that new. What has really changed is consumers are considerably more aware of the health and ecological impacts of eating more produce. We are also seeing that plant- based proteins, and produce in general, are more popular with Gen Z and Millennials than Boomers. This should mean that consumer interest in vegetables and fruit will only increase as younger generations move into prime spending and decision-making years.”  

  • Meatless Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday . . .

    Meatless Monday is a national campaign designed to help put more fruits, vegetables and grains in Americans’ diets. In 2003, 222 pounds of meat was the average consumed per year for every person in the United States — double the recommendation, according to the Food Network website. Saturated fat and cholesterol intake were very high as a result, increasing the risk of a variety of diseases.

    The nonprofit Meatless Mondays initiative was launched in 2003, and is now accepted in more than 40 countries, and offered 20-plus languages. The initiative even has a Meatless Monday website featuring many recipes and free e-cookbooks for download, including “The Meatless Monday Pizza Collection.” Skipping meat at least one day a week is an easy way to teach youngsters about healthy diets.

    It is becoming more common now to have at least one day a week when meat, chicken or seafood isn’t on the menu. Here are some recipes from Eating Well magazine to give customers for meatless days:

    • Kale and Roasted Sweet Potato Hash: a one-pan meal
    • Cauliflower Tikki Masala with Chickpeas: an Indian dish in which chicken is swapped for cauliflower and chickpeas 
    • Thai Tofu & Vegetable Curry with Zucchini Noodles: a quick Thai curry recipe
    • Jackfruit Sloppy Joes: a meaty tropical fruit
    • Grilled Cauliflower Steaks with Almond Pesto and Butter Beans: quick but suitable for guests

About the Author

D. Gail Fleenor

D. Gail Fleenor is a contributing editor at Progressive Grocer.

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