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Plant-based Meal Options in CNPs

Includes definitions, background, health benefit information, how to take action, resources, online trainings, and policy guidance for program operators participating in the Child Nutrition Programs and interested in offering plant-based meals.


Many people, young and old alike, are choosing to eat vegetarian meals whether it is one day a week, one meal a day, or an entirely vegetarian diet. There are many reasons for choosing this option including health benefits and the impact on the environment. As a result, Child Nutrition Programs (CNP) are encouraged to offer plant-based vegetarian meals as part of their regular menu offerings. Because there are several types of vegetarian diets, including those who eat eggs and dairy and those that eat an entirely plant-based vegan diet, it is important for program operators to consider their student population when planning their menus. Program operators may be surprised how popular plant-based vegetarian menu items are with nonvegetarians as well. In fact, it has been reported that school districts that have implemented Meatless Monday have had an increase in participation and a reduction in meal cost on that day!

In California, Assembly Concurrent Resolution 16 (ACR 16) was passed in 2003. Referred to as the California Healthy School Lunch Resolution, the ACR 16 urges school food authorities (SFA) to develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that include plant-based vegetarian entrees. The California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division (NSD) is committed to working toward the goals of ACR 16, to make California a leader in creating and promoting healthier, environmentally sustainable plant-based vegetarian school lunches and providing nutrition education resources that include multicultural eating patterns and vegetarian/vegan eating patterns. This web page was updated as of August 2019.

Definitions on Vegetarianism

Before program operators can address the needs of their vegetarian populations, it is important to know that there are many types of vegetarians, depending on what they exclude from their diet. They include:

  • Lacto-vegetarian
  • Ovo-vegetarian
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian
  • Flexitarian (semi-vegetarian)
  • Vegan
  • Plant-Based

Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but avoid meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and egg derivatives such as egg whites or albumin.

Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but avoid meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, but no meat, poultry, or fish.

Flexitarians (semi-vegetarians) follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating plan, but occasionally eat meat, poultry, or fish.

Vegans or strict vegetarians do not eat any meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, or other dairy products. Vegans frequently avoid foods that include animal products as ingredients, foods flavored with meat extracts, baked items made with eggs or butter, and foods prepared with gelatin made with animal bones or casein (from milk). Vegans also avoid foods processed with animal products.

Plant-based is a diet based on foods derived from plants with a focus on whole foods, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fruits and the elimination of processed foods. It excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and foods processed with animal products.



The ACR 16: Nutrition: Vegetarian School Lunches (Nation), Resolution Chapter 62, Statutes of 2003 encourages SFAs to offer plant-centered vegetarian entrée options to meet the needs of their student population and to provide nutrition educational resources that include multicultural eating patterns and vegetarian/vegan eating patterns.

Lean and Green Kids External link opens in new window or tab. sponsored ACR 16 and a broad spectrum of organizations endorsed the resolution, including the American Cancer Society, California State Parent–Teachers Association, California School Boards Association, California Association of Student Councils, and the Animal Legislative Action Network.

The ACR 16 calls for daily optional plant-centered vegetarian meals to improve student health, protect the environment, and meet the needs of students who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for any reason. Specifically, ACR 16 urges the CDE to:

  • Develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that would provide daily, optional, plant-centered school lunches, prepared without meat and dairy products, and offered with a similar standard for variety, cycle of repeat, and availability as entrees with meat and dairy

  • Encourage school districts to voluntarily phase in these menu changes

  • Include information about multicultural and vegetarian and vegan eating patterns in the nutrition education materials and instruction

In November 2011, the CDE submitted the Vegetarian School Lunches report (PDF) to the Governor, the Legislature, and the Legislative Analyst’s office on efforts made to offer optional vegetarian school lunches. The report includes the full text of ACR 16, information on vegetarian diets and their health benefits, and statewide efforts to support plant-centered meal service and nutrition education in schools. The report also highlights some school districts that offer plant-centered meals.

The CDE is committed to supporting ACR 16 and to working closely with the program operators in the Child Nutrition Programs to offer healthy plant-centered meals and nutrition education resources.


Health Benefits

Compared to nonvegetarians, vegetarians tend to have a healthier weight and lower risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Vegetarian diets may include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fiber, and phytochemicals, which may protect humans from cancers and other diseases. Therefore, providing vegetarian options can offer health benefits to all students.

Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets Volume 116, Issue 12, pages 1970–1980 External link opens in new window or tab. (2016)


Take Action

The NSD urges all CNP Operators to consider the needs of their population as they plan their menus, including those who are vegetarians or vegans. Some recommended action steps are:

  • Identify leadership including: foodservice directors and key stakeholders (students, parents, school boards, industry leaders and advocacy organizations)
  • Survey student needs regarding plant-based meals
  • Use available online trainings to educate and train program operators on vegetarian/vegan diets
  • Consider implementing one meatless day weekly, like a Meatless Monday or a Lean and Green day or a daily meatless entrée option!
  • Download quantity recipes, cookbooks, posters, stickers, and other available resources to support your efforts

  • Provide nutrition education lessons regarding:
    • Unfamiliar or new foods (beans, tofu, and quinoa)
    • Multicultural eating patterns including plant-based foods
    • Vegetarian eating patterns

  • Assess new menu items for acceptance through taste testing and recipe evaluations to ensure a positive effect on participation in your meal programs
  • Create a fun day for tasting new foods (i.e., Taste it Tuesday or a Fear Factor Booth)
  • Promote new vegetarian meals in the cafeteria by giving out samples of the new meal the day of 
  • Seek assistance in implementing your vegetarian meal options:

    • Humane Society External link opens in new window or tab.
      The Humane Society offers free two-day, hands-on culinary experience workshops, 2-hour nutrition workshops, customized recipe development, assistance with marketing new plant-based vegetarian food options and much more.   

    • Dairy Council of California External link opens in new window or tab.
      The Dairy Council of California’s Local Community Nutrition Advisers can help assist with your smarter lunchrooms effort to increase consumption of new and healthy food options.
  • Educate, get support and buy-in, and use the following to support your efforts as advocates:

    • Parent-Teacher Organizations
    • School Board members
    • Teachers
    • Staff
    • Students
    • Local School Wellness Policy (LSWP) committee

  • Document your success in the school district LSWP. Sample Language could be:

    “The district will develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that will provide daily optional plant-centered school lunches. The district will also provide nutrition educational materials and instruction including information about multicultural eating patterns and vegetarian/vegan eating patterns.”
  • Send out nutrition education materials to parent/guardian through emails, flyers, handouts, or add to your newsletters or website
  • Post your new menus on your school district website
  • Phase in plant-based entrees over the next several years to increase variety and frequency of availability of vegetarian/vegan entrees (including those prepared without eggs and dairy products)
  • Share your successes with other school districts


Nutrition Education Lessons
Promotional Videos
General Resources

Nutrition Education Lessons

Resource Grades Description

Lean and Green Kids (LGK)
Daily Scoop web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Grade K–8
A series of fun, consistent and easy to understand daily nutrition tips for kids, grades K–8.Added to the daily school wide announcements or a teacher's opening routine, the Daily Scoop elevates plant-strong nutrition education to a daily practice, without adding more than 30 seconds to a teacher's busy routine! ​​​​​​​​​​​​To sign up for the Daily Scoop, use the Free e-delivery of the Daily Scoop form External link opens in new window or tab..
Grade K­–5
Nourishing Students Enrichment Activities for grades K–5 helps children understand where California fruits and vegetables come from and how they reach the table, including the phases of planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, and eating. The activities in Nourishing Students make after-school, out-of-school, and summer programs fun and memorable. They help children participate meaningfully in experiences that promote their health and broaden their understanding of food, the people who produce it, and its relationship to the natural world.
Coalition for Healthy School Food
Wellness Wake Up Call web page External link opens in new window or tab.
Grade K­–5 and Grade 6–12
The program includes 30 months of nutrition education messages with a different topic each month. No additional burden to teachers—takes 30 seconds or less per day to implement.

The Center for Ecoliteracy
Abundant California External link opens in new window or tab. curriculum

Grade 3–5

Curriculum developed for grades 3–5 about the food system through the lens of California crops. The classroom lessons connect to learning standards and reinforce the excellent work that is being done by our food service leaders throughout the state to serve more freshly prepared food. Lessons can be downloaded free of charge and used any time.



Resource Description
Humane Society United States (HSUS)
Forward Food Recipes list External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
Provides 100 plus healthy, delicious, meat-free plant-strong recipes with grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits created by their classically trained chef.  
HSUS, Forward Food 
K–12 Schools recipe list External link opens in new window or tab.

The Humane Society Forward Food, Food Service web page offers the following free quantity recipes and menus: Kindergarten through grade 12 compliant recipes External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), Child and Adult Care Food Program Recipes External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), and Cycle menus for Kindergarten through grade 12 schools External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

Chef Ann Foundation
Plant Forward Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.


Chef Ann Foundation tests all recipes on The Lunch Box in school kitchens and lunchrooms. Students have tasted and approved these recipes, so you can feel confident serving them in your lunchroom. The recipes include the ingredients, instructions, and contribution to the meal pattern!

Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Offers recipes that go with the fun, easy and free nutrition education resource for teachers to highlight each Cool Bean of the Month.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
What's Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides a recipe finder for standardized and quantity recipes.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food
Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Offers quantity vegetarian recipes for school lunches.

The Vegetarian Resource Group 
Vegan Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides quantity vegan recipes.


Promotional Videos

Resource Description

Vista Unified School District’s  
Fear Factor Taste Challenge video External link opens in new window or tab.

Scroll down to the Fear Factor Taste Challenge, this is one of many ways to engage students in conversations about nutrition and inviting them to try a variety of foods! This video has a Halloween theme!

LGK Promotional YouTube video External link opens in new window or tab.

This LGK YouTube video is about the education, outreach, and advocacy of LGK, a children's eco-health organization based in Oceanside, California.

Rocket Surgeons
Broccoli Song YouTube video External link opens in new window or tab.

This fun YouTube video can be used to get staff and kids excited about eating vegetables, especially broccoli!


General Resources

Resource Decription
A report that spotlights a growing movement of school districts using their massive purchasing power to provide plant-forward and climate-friendly food. The report shows how just one recipe shift can make a huge impact. The report, which is based on interviews with 35 school food professionals, provides valuable resources External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) and detailed strategies, examples and best practices from 18 school districts on how to boost student participation rates and increase appreciation of healthier, plant-forward climate-friendly food. For a quick summary, see the executive summary External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

Offers free resources to food service staff to support offering plant-based meals in schools including: Brochures External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), Postcards External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), Logos External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), Posters External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), Stickers External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), and Toolkit External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF).

Offers posters with plant positive messages featuring beans! Some posters include Plants are Powerful Food, Beans the Lean and Green Protein, Cool Beans, and more.

Coalition for Healthy School Food 
Store web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides downloadable music and posters that promote eating fruits and vegetables.

USDA Ten Healthy Eating Tips for Vegetarians External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
tip sheet

Provides a colorful tip sheet handout with ten tips on eating healthy as a vegetarian.
Provides tips for vegetarians to help ensure all recommended nutrients are met.

Friends of the Earth
Scaling Up Healthy, Climate Friendly School Food
Resources External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

Recipes, grants, and resources for Climate-friendly School Foodservice.

Rye Smiles for Life
Beginners Guide to Vegetarianism External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides 10 tips for following a vegetarian diet.
A list of the CN Labeled Plant-based Foods. Please note: Food service staff must verify the foods are on the U.S. Department of Agricultures authorized CN labeling program. To confirm, visit the USDAs USDA/USDC Authorized Labels and Manufactures web page External link opens in new window or tab. .

Online Trainings

Course Number Course Name Training Topic Target Audience
Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff
Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff
Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff
The Center for Nutrition and Schools

Serving Vegetarian Meals in School Nutrition Programs External link opens in new window or tab.

Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff


Policy Guidance

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the following policy memoranda related to offering plant-based options and accommodating disabilities. When merited, the CDE released a subsequent management bulletin (MB) following the USDA policy memoranda to include state specific policy guidance and further explain or clarify the topic.

Since being a vegetarian or vegan is a personal preference, not a disability, program operators are encouraged, but not required, to offer vegetarian or vegan entrées to meet student needs. The ACR 16 encourages frequent offering of plant-centered offerings on the lunch menu.

Realease Date Issued by Subject Reference Number
April 2019

September 2017

April 2017
March 2017
August 2013

To view all MBs related to School Nutrition Programs, visit the CDE School Nutrition Programs MBs web page.



If you have any questions, please contact the CDE NSD by phone at 800-952-5609 or by email at

Subscribe to the School Nutrition Program Mailing List.

Follow @CDENutrition on Twitter.


Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Friday, November 22, 2019
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