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Messiah College bowl
This gluten-free rice noodle bowl with enoki mushrooms, pork belly, shrimp and wakame is made at Messiah College with products from a local Asian market.

The bowl-ed and the beautiful

Grain bowls, noodle bowls, acai bowls and pitaya bowls are hotter than ever. Here’s how to make bowls that get noticed with bright colors and knockout flavors.

Bowls are big. As the Wall Street Journal recently declared, “bowls are the new plates.” Bowled items on menus increased by 31 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to FONA International.

The trend is about more, of course, than just putting food in a bowl instead of on a plate. Global flavors, cool ingredients and picture-perfect presentation are must-haves for the new “it” bowls.

“The next wave of bowls we are seeing are prepared with a widening array of authentic global ingredients that transcend more typical Asian and Latin flavors,” says Gerry Ludwig, CEC, professional trend tracker and corporate consulting chef for Gordon Food Service. He points to Indian spices, green chili sauce, turkey meatballs and intensely sautéed onions as bowl components to watch.

In an onsite setting, bowls are especially powerful because of their ability to be many things to many people: Want spicy? Vegetarian? Packed with super foods and protein? You got it. And when your bowls are mindfully assembled into Instagram-worthy edible masterpieces, you’ve reached the next level. Here are some ideas, ingredients and strategies operators are using to bowl their customers over.


“Customization is key here…if a student requests something special, it’s very easy to accommodate because the bowls are made as we go through service,” says Executive Chef John Cook with Chartwells at the University of Miami (UM).

The most gorgeous, most popular bowls served at UM’s Mahoney-Pearson dining hall are vegan and vegetarian bowls, according to Cook.

“With trends gearing towards flavorful bowls, it’s important to keep our students engaged,” Cook says, adding that while the vegan and vegetarian population has grown a lot on campus, carnivores are diving into the creative bowls as well.

Favorite bowls include the “plant-iful” bowl with butternut squash, kale, beans and quinoa topped with sweet pepper glaze, a Peruvian-inspired grain bowl with quinoa, black beans and avocado topped with yucca fries and the lemon-polenta bowl with stuffed portobello mushrooms.

Bowls at Boston College are quick works of art with pops of color.

The great thing about bowls is how easy and quick it is to make changes that make all your diners happy, including a bowl adjustment at Boston College (BC).

When a new veggie-focused bowl concept, Harmony Bowls, at BC’s Eagles Nest location wasn’t quite hitting the mark (only serving about 80 bowls per day at a location where 1,600 customers are served daily across six stations), the dining team reached out to students and discovered the missing component was customization.

“Each Harmony Bowl was a specific menu item that couldn’t be customized,” says Beth Emery, RD, director of dining. “We asked students for feedback and they asked for more animal protein to be offered.”

Digging deeper, the BC dining team found that what students really wanted was to build their own bowls.

Boston College's dining team has got the bowl game covered. Along with acai bowls, these savory bowls are a delicious way to get dark leafy greens, cruciferious veggies and tons of flavor, all in one place.

So the dining team visited some cool new fast-casual bowl spots around the city of Boston for inspiration. The result is a redesigned build-your-own-bowl concept that starts with a base of quinoa, brown rice or marinated kale. The next layer of choice: cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts, corn, butternut squash, barbecued black beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and red cabbage.

Then, customers can choose a bit of fire-roasted chicken thighs or mac ‘n cheese on top. This idea of “meat as a condiment” or, as Emery describes it, “healthy vegetables with a treat,” comes from The Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change initiative, in which BC participates.

Now the station is more nimble, able to meet students where they’re at, whether they are looking for vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or “great healthy veggies with a treat” (the small scoop of mac ‘n cheese), Emery says. With 20 grams of protein and 18 grams of fiber, this is a power-packed bowl. And sales have powered up too since the fine-tuning process, now averaging about 300 bowls per day.

Bowls go to school

The customizable factor is also key in the K-12 world. At Greenville (South Carolina) County Schools, Director of Food and Nutrition Joe Urban created buzz for a new bowl concept with pop-up giveaways at the middle and high schools. The Greenville culinary team (which includes a few ex-restaurant professionals) had been noticing bowls trending in national magazines and social media. Plus, Greenville has a vibrant culinary scene of its own.

“We love big, bold flavors and tend to develop a lot of international-themed dishes,” Urban says. “Our students are very food savvy.”

Bowls at Greenville Cty. schools, clockwise from top left: Korean barbecue rice bowl with ginger-sweet chili slaw, kimchi, scallions, red onion and carrots; mahi mahi rice bowl with kimchi, red onion, snap peas, pickled okra slaw and Thai chili hot sauce; carnitas rice bowl with corn, black beans, guacamole and pickled onion slaw; spicy shrimp bowl with wasabi-mushroom-lemon grass slaw, scallions, carrots and kale sprouts

The Greenville students are also obsessed with customizing their food, like most of their peers around the country. So many build-your-own concepts with a fun, fast-casual feel (tacos, mashed potatoes, burgers, pasta, fresh fruit) have taken off there. A build-your-own rice bowl bar with a rainbow of bright, bold, global ingredients is what’s next for the district, rolling out soon.

The assembly of the rice bowls will happen on the line, with staff handling the rice and proteins, and students adding their own slaw and toppings. For example, a half cup of brown rice is the foundation. Then, students choose trendy components to build the bowl like Korean barbecue pork, mahi mahi, shrimp or Tex-Mex carnitas.

To complete the personalized flavor adventure, students head to the cold bar for flavor-packed add-ons like kimchi, red onions, scallions, cilantro, pickled jalapeños and Asian power blend slaw (shredded kale, red cabbage, kohlrabi, golden beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots and broccoli). Composed bowls will also be available, with flavors ready to roll (see sidebar, p. 24).

More bowls to know

A Loyola University student, Joanna Messina, spearheaded Loyola/Parkhurst Dining’s acai bowl program last year as a marketing project. Already an acai bowl fan, Messina did more research into the beautiful, brightly colored fruit bowls with the super food ingredients. Acai bowls are now a strong part of the grab-and-go scene, made each morning, kept frozen and then topped to order with crunchy granola and fresh fruit.

These bowls, made at Loyola University's grab-and-go breakfast hot spot, were made to satisfy a growing hunger for morning acai.

At Boston College, the pitaya bowls are standing out with their neon-bright magenta color (thanks to dragonfruit, aka pitaya). The bright beauties can be topped with gluten-free granola, sugar-free vanilla syrup, blueberries, shredded coconut or cereal and they’re offered at the McElroy dining hall two days a week and have also showed up in miniature form at catered brunch events.

Pitaya is a tropical fruit found in Central and South America, and it’s available in powdered form, perfect for making bowls like this. GM Michael Forcier has been blending the pitaya powder with pea protein isolate (a vegan, plant-based protein powder without much flavor) to make the bowls more nutritious.

Boost the flavor on vegan and gluten-free bowls

Here a few tips from Northeastern University's (NEU) Campus Executive Chef Tom Barton:

In place of pulled pork, use mushrooms cooked down in barbecue sauce until they reach a syrupy consistency (trendy jackfruit would work here, too, but Barton says mushrooms are more affordable);

Instead of a dollop of sour cream to top a bowl, make hummus out of butternut squash and lemon juice;

Use caramelized onions, cooked down to a savory jam, as a condiment; and

Puréed artichoke hearts create an unexpected pop of flavor on top of bowls.

Bowls at the Café Crossing concept at NEU get powered up with components like edamame and seeds.

Grown-up grain bowls

Sophisticated combinations of ingredients like shishito peppers, amaranth and adzuiki beans are available at several Restaurant Associates (RA) B&I accounts and were created by Tim Buma, director of culinary innovation for RA:

Zen bowl: quinoa and amaranth with adzuki beans, butternut squash, sweet potato, broccoli, kale, kimchi, carrot-ginger purée and sesame seeds;

Monsoon bowl: vegetable tikka, spiced chickpeas, sprouted lentils, roasted eggplant, shishito peppers, red onion and cilantro; and

Guacamole bowl: guacamole, Chinese five-spice shrimp, corn off the cob, green and red peppers, pickled red onion, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, tortilla strips and grilled lime.

This sweet potato-broccoli bowl brings the zen to Restaurant Associates' B&I accounts.

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