Restaurant And School Menu Trends Contribute to Overall 2012 Food and Beverage Industry Trends

Jan. 3, 2012
Culinary and restaurant experts predict the most popular trends on restaurant and school lunch menus.

When looking at trends, it's important to note what chefs are thinking. Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association and 1,800 member chefs of the American Culinary Federation, St. Augustine, Fla., predict in its What's Hot in 2012 survey that children's nutrition and local sourcing will be the hottest trends on restaurant menus this year. The chefs also identified smartphone apps (26 percent) and tablet computers (25 percent) as the top technology trends. In addition, 61 percent of chefs said they would consider launching a food truck as an entrepreneurial business venture.

Top 20 menu trends in order include: Locally sourced meats and seafood; Locally grown produce; Healthful kids' meals; Hyper-local items; Sustainability as a culinary theme; Children's nutrition as a culinary theme; Gluten-free/food allergy-conscious foods; Locally produced wine and beer; Sustainable seafood; Whole grain in kids' meals; Newly fabricated cuts of meat; Farm/estate-branded items; Food trucks/street food; Artisan spirits; House-made/artisan ice cream; Health/nutrition as a culinary theme; Non-traditional fish; Fruit/vegetable kids' side items; Children's mini-meals (i.e. smaller versions of adult menu items); and Culinary cocktails.

"The top menu trends we're seeing in our What's Hot in 2012 survey reflect the macro-trends we have seen grow over the last several years," said Joy Dubost, Ph.D, R.D., director of nutrition & healthy living for the NRA. "Nutrition – especially when it comes to children – is becoming a major focus for the nation's nearly one million restaurants, in tune with consumers' increasing interest in healthful eating."

When asked how to best follow the USDA's latest dietary guidelines of increasing fruits and vegetables in Americans' diet, 55 percent said offering a wider variety of vegetable/fruit side dishes on menus, 19 percent said using more produce in existing recipes, and 16 percent said following MyPlate's visual guideline of making fruits and vegetables half the plate. You can read abou the survey at and

Here, There and Everywhere
To appeal to customers in 2012, restaurant operators will use regional and imported menu options and double-sided menus, according to Mintel Group Ltd., Chicago.

Mintel Menu Insights, with a database tracking flavor, ingredient, marketing and nutritional claims from the 350 largest U.S. chain restaurants and 150 independent restaurants found five upcoming trends including:

  • American regionalism – Not only more aware of global cuisines, consumers are becoming more aware of regional specialties such as Kansas City or Memphis barbecue or New England chowder, and restaurants are looking at the regions and cities in the U.S. to identify the "best of" cuisine.
  • Double-sided menus – The trend illustrates that consumers want choices. Menus will continue to feature indulgent options, but they will be balanced with healthier, better-for-you options. Menus also will contain both premium and value-pricing items, and operators understand it's not either-or, it's both.
  • Consumer control – Consumers want the ability to control their dining experience. Customized ordering systems will continue to proliferate as will flexibility in menu design.
  • Slow it down – Fast-food restaurants will turn to preparation methods that take more time as consumers recognize that they want more from their dining experience than efficiency.
  • "Handmade" and "home-style" will appear on restaurant menus.
  • Importing ideas – Menu concepts and product testing taking place overseas will make their way to America. Chicken McBites, a miniature fried chicken dish served in Australia by McDonald's, is heading to the U.S. Given the importance of international markets for growth, this is one trend that will continue to growth beyond this year.

"Our trends are designed to give both restaurant operators and food suppliers a thorough understanding of what's coming in the foodservice industry," says Eric Giandelone, foodservice director. "Our trends are based on original consumer research, developments among restaurants and trends observed in other industries. Our goal with these trend predictions isn't merely to identify what's going to happen, but to deliver a roadmap on how to take advantage of these trends."
ABC'S of School Menuing
On the nation's schools front, the new USDA standards regulating what foods are served will result in gaps not being filled, according to a new study by foodservice consultants Chicago-based Technomic Inc., in collaboration with Aurora Insights. The standards focus specifically on increasing emphasis on sodium and calorie reduction, and more whole grains. School foodservice directors are searching for better food options in these areas, while also considering the preferences of their very picky eaters.

"School foodservice directors have a very tough job. They have to meet these tougher standards, but in a way that will maintain reimbursable meal participation rates," says Joe Pawlak, Technomic vice president. "Today's lower sodium and whole grain options are often rejected by students. Schools need manufacturers to innovate in these areas, offering more better-for-you foods that students will accept."

In addition to the new regulations, the K-12 segment has increasing special diet requirements. "Reflecting the general population, diet homogeneity does not exist in school cafeterias," says Sheri Petrich, president of Aurora Insights. "Foodservice directors plan multiple menus every day to meet special cultural and medical-related diets. Gluten-free diets are one of the fastest growing diets and one of the most challenging to menu."

When it comes to food, moms are willing to spend more -- especially since they're working hard to save money elsewhere, according to a consumer survey by the Organic Trade Association and Kiwi magazine, reports Marketing Daily. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of U.S. families now purchase some organic foods and 48 percent of parents believe that organic products "are healthier for me and my children" – and are willing to paying more for those products. We'll continue to see shifts away from overly processed items and artificial ingredients and increased spending on healthier foods.

OTA notes that the consumer survey findings are in line with those of its 2011 Organic Industry Survey (surveying companies that produce organic foods), which found that the organic industry grew by 7.7 percent in 2010, to more than $28.6 billion, versus growth of under 1 percent for total food sales.

Nearly half (48 percent) of parents surveyed said that their primary motivator for buying organic is their belief that organic products "are healthier for me and my children." Other motivators included concern over the effects of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics on children, and the desire to avoid highly processed or artificial ingredients.

Nearly a decade after federal regulations for organic were implemented, 72 percent of parents report being familiar with the USDA Organic seal -- up significantly from 65 percent in 2009.