CHICAGO — The incidence of vegetables on restaurant menus has increased 11% during the past three years, according to the market research firm Technomic, Inc. Not only are vegetables more prevalent, they are on the cusp of menu innovation as chefs are developing center-of-the-plate menu options featuring eggplant, cauliflower and zucchini.

The insights are included in Technomic’s report, “Category close-up: Vegetables.”

“An increase in the price of proteins has given chefs the opportunity to introduce inventive vegetable formats onto the menu,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic. “For example, operators have found a variety of uses for kale, and it has grown in total menu incidence by almost 400% over the past five years. Additionally, different preparation methods, like roasting Brussels sprouts or caramelizing root vegetables, have had a big influence on the way vegetables are menued.”

While protein prices are playing a role, Technomic noted consumer interest in health and wellness also is driving the trend. For example, the research firm cited data showing that 64% of consumers surveyed agree that it is important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition, up from 57% three years ago. In addition, 65% of consumers surveyed agreed that restaurants may offer healthy food without sacrificing taste.

This past June, during Technomic’s annual Trends and Directions Conference, Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, said the food service sector is in the midst of a “vegetable renaissance.” She called the restaurant chain No. 7 Subs in New York “best in class” when it comes to innovative ways vegetables may be offered on menus.

With four locations in New York, the No. 7 Sub menu features sandwiches such as the Zucchini Parm, which includes fontina, sweet onion and pickled jalapeños; a broccoli sandwich with lychee muchim, ricotta salata and pine nuts; and General Tso’s Seitan that has roasted green peppers, mayonnaise and fried shallots.

Adding vegetable-centric entrees to menus also allows restaurant operators to capitalize on consumer interest in fresh products. Survey data from Technomic shows that 87% of consumers believe fresh foods are healthier, and 87% say that fresh foods taste better.

“Our new Category Close-Up report on vegetables reveals their growing prominence on menus,” said Kimberly Perman, senior manager at Technomic. “Increasingly, vegetables are being offered prime real estate on diners’ plates. No longer reserved for the perimeter, vegetables are featured more often in center-of-plate arrangements and, when done right as sides, are stealing the spotlight from protein-based entrees.”