Skip Navigation
 

What TV dinners and avocados can teach us about our food norms

Plant Based Trends

February 9, 2022

 
 

Status quos around food often feel set in stone. In the U.S., to be called American can feel synonymous with “meat lover.” Eggs for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, roast chicken for dinner — we grew up in an era where an animal product must be part of every meal. However, America won’t always be a “meat and potatoes” nation. Our history reveals that social norms around food change all the time.

Beef: it’s not always what’s for dinner

If you grew up in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, you might remember the days when you’d drink gallons of Squeezits every summer, get a Pudding Pop from the ice cream truck, or stop by McDonald’s for some spaghetti and meatballs. These, just like thousands of other one-time mainstays, have quietly dropped off shelves and menus as American tastes and culture have changed.

But what about some of our more enduring and iconic foods and drinks? It’s hard to imagine a beverage that is more central to the U.S. diet than soda. And while there is no doubt that soda — particularly Coke — is still very much a mainstay of American culture, per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks dropped to its lowest level in 30 years in 2015, and has been declining since. One way to interpret this development is that consumers are realizing that something they care about deeply — their health — is more important than sticking with the fizzy drinks they love.

Another bite of food-related Americana is the TV dinner — a frozen, usually microwavable meal that can be prepared and eaten quickly. Over the past several years, TV dinner consumption has decreased among Americans as well. According to market research from Mintel, this decline is due to the perceived cost-ineffectiveness, a preference to cook instead, and skepticism about the health claims of frozen meals. Here we see a similar story to soda’s; it’s not that Stouffer’s and Banquet will be bankrupt anytime soon, but rather that the priorities of American consumers are shifting toward healthier, fresher meals.

American appetites are also rapidly evolving away from certain animal products. Take, for example, meat from young calves — also known as veal. According to the USDA, the veal consumption pinnacle was in 1944, when the annual per-person amount eaten was a substantial 8.6 lbs. In 2020, however, Americans ate only around .2 lbs of veal per capita. Perhaps this steep decline was sparked by a growing understanding of the immense cruelty behind veal production, or that this cruelty is inflicted upon such young animals (calves are often slaughtered between 16–18 weeks of age).

Interestingly, cattle killed for beef aren’t that much older when slaughtered: they usually don’t make it past two years of age. Maybe, then, this repudiation of veal among Americans could make its way to the steak at the center of our plates. Recent data already points to the beginning of such a trend, as more consumers become aware of the ethical and environmental implications of raising and killing tens of millions of cows each year.

From alligator pears to avocado toast: the rise of new food norms

And just as dishes that were once popular are no longer the center of our plates, foods that are in vogue now haven’t always been that way. Consider the avocado. Although these versatile green fruits have been consumed for thousands of years, they’ve recently seen a staggering increase in consumption, accompanied by an increase in ridicule (especially in their toast form). Between 2012 and 2016, avocado imports increased by 21 percent. This is a far cry from the early 20th century when avocados were called alligator pears and experienced poor sales. Over the past decade, the avocado has swept in as a hipster staple and profoundly impacted American cuisine.

Another culinary cultural shift can be found in caviar, the modern delicacy associated with over-the-top wealth and extravagance. It’s hard to imagine a food that is more commonly seen as a sign of excess in our culture than the salt-cured roe of sturgeon, but the history of caviar in the United States is a bit more complicated. In the 19th century, caviar was widely available because sturgeon were so plentiful. Its abundance made it popular as a bar food that functioned similarly to the modern pretzel: to get people to buy more drinks. However, over the years, a decline in availability — and political decisions like a 2005 ban on beluga caviar — have paved the way for modern norms around this unique food. Nowadays, caviar — especially when seen in popular culture — usually signifies a degree of preposterous snobbishness, and something inaccessible to most.

Avocados and caviar have etched out specific niches for themselves in our culture, but another food — or rather, beverage — is set to debut as a new centerpiece of American culture: plant-based milk.1 Recently, after successful pilot testing, Blue Bottle Coffee opted to shift to oat milk as their default, as opposed to cow’s milk, in all Southern California cafes. In 2021, Guilder Cafe in Portland worked with my team at the Better Food Foundation to remove their dairy milk default and found more consumers chose plant-based when they were not nudged toward dairy milk. And a Starbucks in Shanghai has decided to shift to oat milk as their default, to mitigate emissions associated with dairy farming. These examples show how plant-based milks are outgrowing their “alternative” title as they’re pulled to the center of menus. The data backs it up: in 2020, plant-based milk grew twice as fast as its dairy counterpart and was purchased by nearly 40 percent of American households.

A new, plant-based default

Norms and defaults are constantly evolving. In the 1890s America, you could walk into a bar and get a handful of caviar as a free snack while you ordered a drink. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, few knew about the harms of sugary sodas and salty TV dinners. As trends, tastes, economics, and concerns for our health and the environment change, foods wax and wane in our culture.

In the midst of pandemics and uncertainty, we have an opportunity to effect such a change for the better: to usher in a sustainable, healthy, and resilient new food norm. Encouraging restaurants, businesses, universities, conferences, and events to serve plant-based meals by default will help nudge people towards more sustainable and inclusive options, while still preserving choice by allowing diners to opt in to meals with animal products if they wish. In fact, research suggests that implementing defaults in foodservice settings can increase the selection of plant-based meals by up to 60 percentage points. And this shift is already happening. According to a consumer survey, nearly one-quarter of consumers globally are trying to limit their meat consumption.

So perhaps the future of food doesn’t have to be a hamburger default world; perhaps there’s a not-so-distant future where plant-based foods are the norm.

Endnotes
1. 

Before its recent time in the limelight, plant-based milk had been enjoyed by humans for many centuries. As noted by historian Ken Albala, almond milk “shows up in pretty much every medieval cookbook.” Some northeastern indigenous people, including the Wabanaki, were known to use plants for milks and butters as they didn’t farm animals. But only when the 21st century rolled around did these milks creep into mainstream American culinary life, as canned soy milk was produced in large quantities in Vernon, Ohio, because World War II made it too difficult to continue operations in China.

Latest News

See All News
DefaultVeg

Mar 24, 2024

Hundreds of Universities Are Moving Toward a Plant-Based Norm

Sodexo has massively expanded plant-based dining at its nearly 400 universities following its trial of DefaultVeg menus.

Press Release

Mar 14, 2024

Sodexo Launches Massive Expansion of DefaultVeg Pilot, Making Plant-Based Meal Service a Norm at Campus Eateries Across USA

DefaultVeg expansion to almost 400 campuses serving 1 million students coincides with a newly published study showing that consistently offering plant-based meals as the default option is highly effective at encouraging students to choose them, cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

DefaultVeg

Mar 12, 2024

DefaultVeg Menu and Leaders Featured at “The Future of Federal Food Purchasing: Transforming Policy & Practice” Summit 

The Better Food Foundation’s powerful plant-based-default strategy makes its way to the two-day food procurement summit hosted at George Washington University.