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Vegetarian Meal Options in CNPs

Includes definitions of vegetarianism, background, health benefit information, how to take action, resources, online trainings, and policy guidance for program operators participating in the Child Nutrition Programs.


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.

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 provides information on helpful resources.

Lean and Green Kids 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 vegetarian school lunches, prepared without meat and dairy products, and offered with a similar standard for variety, cycle of repeat, and availability as meat and dairy options

  • Encourage school districts to voluntarily phase in these menu changes

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

In November 2011, the CDE submitted the California Department of Education ACR 16 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 SFAs to offer healthy plant-centered meals.

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 External link opens in new window or tab. Volume 116, Issue 12, pages 1970–1980 (December 2016)

California Food Guide—Chapter on Vegetarianism External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) California Department of Health Care Services and Department of Public Health; 2008

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. Some recommended action steps are:

  • Learn about the different types of Vegetarians or those who prefer plant-based diets

  • Survey student needs regarding vegetarian meals

  • Use available online trainings to educate and train program operators on vegetarian diets

  • Consider implementing one meatless day weekly, like a Meatless Monday or a Lean and Green day

  • Phase in plant-based vegetarian entrees over the next several years to increase variety and frequency of availability of vegetarian entrees, including those prepared without eggs and dairy products

  • 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 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 you smarter lunchrooms effort to increase consumption of new and healthy food options.

  • Download quantity recipes, cookbooks, posters, stickers, and other available resources to support your efforts

  • Educate and get buy-in from:

    • Parent-Teacher Organizations
    • School Board members
    • Teachers
    • Staff
    • Students
    • Wellness policy committee

  • Promote and assess new menu items for acceptance through taste testing and recipe evaluations External link opens in new window or tab. to ensure a positive impact on participation in your meal programs

  • Send out nutrition education materials to parent/guardian through e-mails, flyers, handouts, or add to your newsletters or Web site

  • Post your new menus on your school district Web site

  • Share your successes with other school districts


General Resources

The Humane Society External link opens in new window or tab.
The Humane Society Forward Food, Food Service Web page offers the following free resources to food service:

Ten Healthy Eating Tips for Vegetarians External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a colorful handout with ten tips on eating healthy as a vegetarian

Tips on Choosing Vegetarian External link opens in new window or tab.
The USDA ChooseMyPlate Web page provides tips for vegetarians to help ensure all recommended nutrients are met.


What's Cooking External link opens in new window or tab.
The USDA What's Cooking Web page provides a recipe finder for standardized and quantity recipes.

The Humane Society 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:

The Vegetarian Resource Group External link opens in new window or tab.
The Vegetarian Resource Group Web page provides quantity vegetarian recipes.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food External link opens in new window or tab.
The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food offers quantity vegetarian recipes for school lunches.

Taste Testing and Evaluating Recipes

Taste Testing and Evaluating Recipes External link opens in new window or tab.
The USDA Taste Testing and Evaluating recipes Web page provides resources on promoting and evaluating your taste tests.

Promotional Videos

Lean and Green Kids YouTube Video External link opens in new window or tab. (Video; 4:59)
This Lean and Green Kids YouTube video is about the education, outreach, and advocacy of Lean and Green Kids, a Children's eco-health organization based in Oceanside, CA

Broccoli Song YouTube Video External link opens in new window or tab. (Video; 2:30)
This fun YouTube video can be used to get staff and kids excited about eating vegetables, especially broccoli!

Online Trainings

Powering Up with Plant-based Programs External link opens in new window or tab. (Series 1 of 3)
Learn why more than 200 school districts across the country and dozens in California are increasing their plant-based menu offerings to complement the national nutrition standards while meeting student demand. Hear from a panel of school food service professionals who have successfully served plant-based entrees that appealed to all students, while enjoying the health, environmental, and financial benefits. Updated November 2017

Powering Up with Plant-based Menus and Marketing External link opens in new window or tab. (Series 2 of 3)
As a follow-up to Powering Up with Plant-based Programs, school districts will hear a more in-depth discussion on menu planning and marketing ideas that can increase participation and excitement, while promoting sustaining healthy habits to students. Hear from a panel of food service professionals who have made plant-based entrees a success with students of all ages. Discover recipe ideas, menu concepts, and culinary training programs that can be easily implemented in your programs. Updated November 2017

Plant-Power in the Kitchen External link opens in new window or tab. (Series 3 of 3)
U.S. Department of Agriculture professional standards mandate continuing education for all child nutrition staff. Hear from child nutrition professionals from California school districts who have conducted plant-based culinary training to meet professional standards, how the trainings were conducted, how their teams responded, and how those trainings have made a lasting impact on their menus. Learn strategies that will generate support from your team that will translate to student satisfaction. Updated November 2017

Serving Vegetarian Meals in School Nutrition Programs External link opens in new window or tab.
This one hour Webinar covers topics such as: Why vegetarian meals are needed in schools and why the CDE and University of California, Davis, conducted a survey on what schools are doing, what some California school districts are doing now, and how to get started serving vegetarian meals and options. Updated February 2016

Nutrition 101: A Taste of Food and Fitness, 2nd Edition External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
This one hour long, self-paced, online module by the Institute of Child Nutrition gives a basic overview of nutrition related to vegetarian diets. Updated in 2011

Policy Guidance

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the CDE issued the following policy memoranda related to offering Vegetarian Options and accommodating disabilities. When merited, the CDE will release a subsequent management bulletin (MB) following the USDA policy memoranda to include state specific policy guidance and/or further explain or clarify the topic.

Since being a vegetarian is a personal preference, not a disability, the CDE policy is that 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 vegetarian offerings on the lunch menu.
Release Date Issued By Subject Reference Number
September 2017 The CDE Crediting Tofu and Soy Yogurt Products in the Child Nutrition Programs CNP-09-2017
April 2017 The USDA Accommodating Disabilities in the School Meal Programs: Guidance and Questions and Answers External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) SP 26 2017
March 2017 The CDE Modifications to Accommodate Disabilities in School Meal Programs SNP-02-2017
September 2015 The CDE Smoothies in the Child Nutrition Programs Revised CNP-11-2015
August 2013 The CDE Salad Bar Alternatives After the Point of Service USDA-SNP-19-2013
November 2012 The CDE Vegetarian Options in School Meals NSD-SNP-17-2012

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


If you have any questions regarding this subject, please contact Mandeep Punia, Nutrition Education Consultant (NEC), by phone at 916-323-6037 or by e-mail at or Julie BoarerPitchford, NEC, by phone at 916-322-1563 or by e-mail at

Follow @CDENutrition on Twitter.


Questions:   Mandeep Punia | | 916-323-6037
Last Reviewed: Thursday, February 15, 2018
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