With the new year comes a plethora of predictions about the new food trends consumers are looking for on menus and at retail locations. Food trends reports are published by gurus with a variety of expertise in diverse customer audiences—from restaurant and hospitality professionals to market research firms to food media experts and beyond.
I know what you’re thinking: Not another 2015 food trends list. Don’t worry, I’m not creating yet another new list but rather culling through the lists already out there and looking at them through a different lens. As a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist, each year I gather these reports and hone in on the food trends I think bring creativity and variety to the food scene while also being health-supportive and environmentally friendly, aspects of food that are becoming more important to customers across all demographics.
After mulling through the reports, here are four trends that rose to the top and which are relevant in the foodservice arena. From K-12 public schools to college campuses, corporate dining and hospitals, operators are embracing these trends and implementing them from culinary, health and sustainability perspectives.
Most foodservice operators are trying to purchase locally and seasonally, but let’s face it, in most regions of the country the offerings aren’t as abundant in winter as they are in summer. Potatoes and carrots are winter staples in most foodservice operations, but what about their lesser known cousins—parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, kohlrabi and celery root? These root vegetables are rich in nutrients, make for great comfort food and enable you to support local and sustainable agriculture while offering greater variety on your winter menus.
According to Allison Knott, M.S., R.D., resident registered dietitian with FLIK International at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, in Chattanooga, her customers love the variety of root vegetables, which are served in soups, side dishes and even as part of a vegetable plate special.
“This not only meets the goals of FLIK by incorporating sustainable produce but also provides an opportunity for our customers to enjoy seasonal, local produce while enjoying a product that is nutritionally sound,” Knott says.
They’re also dirt cheap (pardon the pun) and “provide a colorful splash to the serving line at a time of year when everything is brown, beige and dark green,” says Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef for Swedish Health Services, in Seattle.
Fermented foods have been around for ages, as that was mankind’s way of preserving food. Today, fermented foods—such as tempeh, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha, a fermented tea—are making a comeback for their digestive health benefits, as they contribute good bacteria to our gut. In fact, there is preliminary research showing the makeup of our gut microbiota—the collective trillions of bacteria in our intestines—may play a role in inflammatory conditions, allergies and autoimmune disorders, as well as obesity and diabetes.
But making your own fermented foods can be labor-intensive. So how do you meet your customers’ demands?
According to Ann Cooper, food services director for the Boulder Valley School District, in Colorado, if you can’t do it yourself, purchase from local companies that are ensuring a product with the live cultures that provide the nutritional benefits your customers are seeking.
That’s exactly what they’re doing at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
“The connection to the local food movement is very important for our students and clients,” says Alex Williams, executive chef, dining services. To meet students’ mutual desires for fermented products and locally sourced food, UNC Asheville is purchasing kombucha and tempeh from local companies and serving it in its Wellness Café.
Small Plates, Plant-based Proteins
3. Small Plates
Small plates are a mainstay of many traditional food cultures and have been offered at ethnic restaurants for a while now, including Spanish tapas, Turkish mezzo and Italian antipasti. For many reasons, these small plates are now becoming a part of the fabric of American cuisine. People like eating communally and trying several tastes without being committed to an entrée. These small-bite portions can be a more economical way to experience food. And some prefer small plates for the reduced portion size or as a snack offering.
Small plates are currently being piloted at the University of Vermont, in Burlington.
“They are fitting for students that are on different schedules and maybe can’t make it to lunch and don’t want to wait until dinner to eat,” says Mary Righton Brown, M.S., R.D., campus dietitian with Sodexo at the university. “We want to provide something different in between lunch and dinner and add some variety to the day.”
“Munchies”—such as vegetable tempura, Vermont apple croissant bread pudding, griddled peanut butter and banana sandwiches and wings—are offered between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. at The Marketplace located in the Davis Student Center.
4. Plant-based Proteins
Health professionals have been advising the public to eat a more plant-based diet for a long time, as there is a mountain of evidence showing the health benefits. But plant-based eating goes beyond fruits and vegetables. Putting plant-based proteins—such as beans, nuts, seeds, soy foods and higher protein grains—at the center of the plate provides many benefits. They provide the protein our bodies need for metabolism and give meals staying power while also contributing fiber and phytochemicals, nutrients not available in animal proteins.
According to Laura Sexton, R.D., L.D.N., UNC Asheville’s registered dietitian for dining services, plant-based proteins are a food trend that is here to stay, and one they will continue to provide on campus. This is good news not only for students seeking healthy alternatives but also the operation’s bottom line.
“From a foodservice perspective, it is very cost-effective to produce [plant-based] foods without incurring the costs from serving more meat and dairy,” Sexton says. “If you look at it from a national or global perspective, [plant-based diets improve] the health of our population and our environment.”
Swedish’s Eisenberg agrees, adding that these reasons are all incentives for expanding from Meatless Mondays to serving a vegetarian entrée every day. “Plant-based proteins are cheaper than animal proteins and allow us to be more creative in how we coax flavors out of them or enhance the dining experience with them.”
But what if your customers aren’t requesting plant-based proteins?
“There are perceived obstacles that kids won’t eat plant-based proteins,” Cooper says. “You overcome that with education, and with education comes familiarity.”
Cooper and her team do tastings, “Iron Chef” competitions and chef demos as a way to interface with kids so they accept plant-based meals. And Cooper’s students are definitely accepting these meat-free options. Every day her team offers a plant-based protein on the salad bar, as well as a vegetarian entrée such as a quinoa black bean burger, falafel made with chickpeas and quinoa, bean burritos or an Asian tofu bowl. These options are not only plant-based but also offer a variety of ethnic flavors students come into contact with outside the school cafeteria.
As a registered dietitian with foodservice and nutrition education experience, I agree with Cooper’s approach, for both kids and adults. With education and exposure comes familiarity and with familiarity comes acceptance.
If you want your customers to accept these food trends that are good for their health, the planet and potentially even your bottom line, the key is figuring out the educational experiences and opportunities for exposure that make sense for your dining environment and customer base.