ESS Increases the Availability of Plant-Forward Options for Service Personnel

15 May 2023

The Defence, Marine and Aerospace sector of ESS, part of Compass Group UK & Ireland, supports over 250 military establishments across the UK, from Cornwall to the north of Scotland. These include operational, headquarters and training environments.

ESS delivers catering, retail, leisure, cleaning, waste management, laundry, tailoring, administration and stores management alongside a variety of other FM services.

Last year the company served over 12.4 million meals within its Defence business.

With the introduction of its new menu in the autumn, ESS added over 70 new plant-forward recipes to the Defence food offer. The dishes are healthier for customers, better for the environment and still look and taste as authentic as they did before. 

Plant-forward is a principle that supports Compass Group UK & Ireland’s commitments around health and wellbeing and sustainability. To be considered as plant-forward, the meat content of each dish has been reduced by at least 30% with the total protein content being maintained or, in many cases, increased.

How Has This Been Achieved

Senior chefs from across the ESS business reviewed the company’s existing menu and reengineered all suitable recipes, replacing a proportion of the meat with a plant-based alternative.

The team looked at the make-up of every meal and trialled various plant-based proteins and ingredient combinations to preserve the essence of the original dishes. They considered key factors such as presentation, flavour and texture, ensuring the new range looks appetising and tastes great.

Each recipe was then analysed by ESS’ registered nutritionists to confirm that it meets the stringent nutritional requirements of military personnel.

30% of the company’s core lunch and dinner offer served in military messes is now plant-forward.

Scott Freeman, Culinary Director for ESS, commented:

“It’s important that we serve the food people want to eat, as well as providing them with the required nutrients to support their lifestyles. Through this project, we wanted to make our customer favourites healthier and better for the environment, whilst maintaining their appeal. In the development phase of this project, I tried out the recipes on family, friends and even the builders renovating my kitchen to ensure they satisfied a range of tastes!”

What Have Been the Benefits

The new plant-forward range is healthier, with an average 1g increase in fibre per dish and lower fat and saturated fat. More options now meet the company’s ‘Nutritionist’s Choice’ criteria which educates customers by labelling nutritionally balanced choices at the point of sale.

As livestock currently generates substantial volumes of greenhouse gases, the changes are supporting ESS and the wider Compass Group UK & Ireland business on its mission to achieve Climate Net Zero by 2030, as well as helping MOD on its sustainability journey.

A few of the recipes that have been reengineered include:

Beef Goulash

During testing the chefs observed that replacing a proportion of the original diced braising steak with beans would negatively impact the presentation of the dish, so they changed the meat cut to a brisket which is pulled and combined with butter beans.

The beef goulash now has 11% less fat and 5% less saturated fat than previously.

The associated emissions have been reduced by 0.79 kg CO2e per dish.

Lamb Keema

Here minced lamb is combined with green lentils to maintain the texture and protein content of the dish. To further boost the protein, more peas have been added as they are a great plant-based source.

The lamb keema now has 5% less fat and 9% less saturated fat than previously.

The associated emissions have been reduced by 1.46 kg CO2e per dish.

Beef Chilli Tacos

As the original taco recipe already contained beans, the chefs opted to replace a proportion of the beef with a combination of red kidney beans and vegan mince. This retains the classic taste and texture of the dish.

The tacos now have 9% less fat and 12% less saturated fat than previously.

The associated emissions have been reduced by 0.84 kg CO2e per dish.

Other customer favourites that are now significantly healthier for customers, better for the environment and still look and taste as authentic as they did before include spaghetti Bolognese, beef curry, Mexican enchiladas, lamb koftas, Thai green chicken curry and turkey and vegetable pie.

Leanne King, Head of Nutrition and Wellbeing for ESS, commented:

“Our culinary team have really pushed the boundaries of food innovation to maintain or improve the nutritional profile of these dishes whilst still ensuring suitability for a wide range of military personnel.”

 Anne Simonnet, Director of Sustainability – Compass One, added:

“Reducing the animal protein we use is absolutely key and is the action that will have the biggest impact in our journey to Climate Net Zero. To do so in a nutritive and delicious way is something the culinary team can be particularly proud of.”

Vegan & Vegetarian Offer

ESS is also committed to enhancing its vegan and vegetarian offer to meet with growing demand, and 27% of the company’s Defence core menu now caters for these dietary preferences. An example is the popular lasagne where vegan mince is combined with butternut squash to create a vegetarian meal that looks appealing and is full of flavour. As well as supporting the ethical preferences of some customers, these dishes provide substantial health and environmental benefits.

The company is partnering with the MOD Vegan and Vegetarian Network with the joint objective of ensuring service personnel have access to high-quality vegan and vegetarian food.   


In the past month, 38% of the Defence core meals sold by ESS were plant-forward and a further 7% were either vegan or vegetarian.

The menu recently won the prestigious MIDAS Sustainability Award at an event dominated by well-known high street brands.

Bob Gray, Managing Director for ESS Defence, Marine & Aerospace, commented:

“Plant-forward dining is becoming increasingly popular with today’s consumers who are concerned with both their own wellbeing and that of the planet. It’s important that we reflect these trends in the meals we’re providing to our military customers. I’m delighted that our chefs have developed this new range of dishes which taste great as well as delivering health and sustainability benefits. It’s really encouraging to see that almost half of our core meal sales last month were either plant-forward, vegan or vegetarian which demonstrates that we and our customers are on the journey together.”