Growing Ideas: ‘Green’ menus for a healthy profit

A small step on your plate, a giant leap for the planet

Awareness about the benefits of a healthy diet is on the rise. But what about when we dine out? Are restaurants and catering companies helping us to make good choices? Can they be convinced to provide more healthy and sustainable options?

Joris Heijnen has the answer: you show them that greener menus are not only good for the environment but also for the bottom line. In 2011 Heijnen set up Variation in the Kitchen, organizing workshops and cooking competitions in the hope of inspiring chefs to create healthier and more sustainable meals. But inspiration alone didn’t cut it. “Chefs are entrepreneurs,” explains Heijnen. “They don’t only want to serve a great meal – they need to make a profit as well.”

So Heijnen partnered with Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, to identify opportunities and threats. He has already helped to make eighty food companies across eight hundred locations more sustainable. Now Heijnen is advancing his vision for the restaurant sector with a fresh name and business model: Greendish.

The power of economic thinking

“Chefs are under immense pressure and do not always have the time and focus to create healthier and more sustainable dishes,” Heijnen says. “At Greendish, we use independent scientific research to show that chefs can make a profit by taking a different approach.”

Take food waste. “Throwing away food is the same as throwing away money,” he posits. “Make that clear and restaurants and catering companies are convinced. At the same time they’re reducing CO2, water and use of land. I believe in the power of economic thinking to improve the world.”

Less meat, more veggies

The Greendish team sits down with customers to evaluate their menus: what ingredients do they use? Can these be more sustainable, for example, by buying certified or local produce? What is the meat to vegetable ratio? “We help chefs discover that guests are just as happy eating slightly less meat or fish,” says Heijnen. “Hotel and restaurant chain Van der Valk is a great example. In just three months, at three different branches, they doubled the amount of vegetables they used while reducing meat by 12.5 percent. The guests were still satisfied, eating more vegetables and leaving less meat on the plate.”

Heijnen shares a key tip: “A business can give its customers a nudge to make the healthier choice. It can be as simple as the order of a buffet or the layout of a menu. If the vegetarian dishes are listed at the bottom of the menu under a heading vegetarian, hardly anyone will choose them. But if the vegetarian options are listed among the other courses, more people will pick them.”

“Don’t put the vegetarian dishes at the bottom of the menu”

- Joris Heijnen, Greendish

Dishing out healthy ideas

“Our aim is to make healthy and sustainable food available to everyone,” says Heijnen. “Small changes to your plate have an enormous impact on the planet.” The idea is that if food businesses change their offerings, people will eat healthier and more sustainably as a matter of course. “That is a better strategy than trying to change people’s thinking.”

Greendish does not only work for restaurant chains and catering companies but also for cities and provinces. The city of Rotterdam is one example. “We guided sixteen food providers to a healthier selection. Once 20 to 30 percent are on board, it influences the rest of the sector.”

Sharing data, growing influence

Greendish recently redeveloped their business model. “Instead of doing everything for our customers, we will make our knowledge available to them through online platforms and apps,” explains Heijnen. “We’ll be sharing our data so that restaurants and cities can see how they are performing compared to the rest.”

“We want our approach to be easier to scale and more affordable, so that it becomes available to everyone. That is how we can exert the greatest influence.”

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in the sector.