Each fall the National Restaurant Association works with the American Culinary Federation to develop the What’s Hot? culinary forecast of the top food and menu trends for the coming year. Let’s look at how the top 10 food trends for 2018 highlight opportunities for produce on American menus.
1. New Cuts of Meat (e.g., oyster steak, Vegas Strip Steak, Merlot cut)
When a diner sees a new cut of meat with an unfamiliar name, a smart restaurant operator will pair that novel cut with a familiar vegetable side. Diners are only so adventurous. If they see a side dish they adore, they’re more likely to take a risk on an entrée they don’t know well.
2. House-made Condiments
This category can include anything from produce-based sauces, salsas and spreads to pickled fruits and vegetables. Think about dipping your house-cut French fries in house-made aioli, made with fresh garlic. What’s not to love about house-made condiments?
3. Street Food-inspired Dishes (e.g., tempura, kabobs, dumplings, pupusas)
Street foods often feature fruits and vegetables; so again, the sky’s the limit on potential for selling familiar and new varieties of produce to restaurants featuring street foods from around the world.
4. Ethnic-inspired Breakfast Items (e.g., chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes)
When you see the word “ethnic,” think “world cuisines,” of which many feature fruits and vegetables at breakfast. Here in the United States we tend to focus on fruit for breakfast, but kitchens across the globe feature vegetables in breakfast dishes. Think about Mexico; beans, tomatoes and chiles are used in classic breakfast dishes such as huevos rancheros. Now turn our attention to China, where a breakfast dish such as rice porridge will feature thinly sliced ginger and scallions as fragrant, vibrant toppings.
5. Sustainable Seafood
So many leaders in sustainable seafood talk about strategies for chefs to use lesser-known types of seafood on menus. But it’s just as difficult to get a diner to choose an unknown type of seafood as it is to get him or her to order an unfamiliar cut of meat. Here again, the wise restaurateur will feature familiar produce as side dishes to ease the stress and tension that comes with ordering something that seems “risky.” Would you like some roasted broccoli with your barramundi?
6. Healthful Kids’ Meals
Putting more produce on kids’ menus is not a new idea, but it’s one that more operators are doing thanks in part to the NRA’s Kids LiveWell Program. Launched in 2012, this program certifies kids’ meals that meet certain criteria. Full meals must include at least one-half cup of fruit and one-half cup of vegetables. To date, more than 42,000 restaurant locations nationwide are participating in this program designed to help parents identify the best meal choices for their children.
7. Vegetable Carb Substitutes (e.g., cauliflower rice, zucchini spaghetti)
This trend has staying power for many reasons. First, we have consumers who are still scared of carbs, thinking carbs are the enemy of a healthy weight versus total caloric intake. Second, we have a host of popular diets, diet books and weight-loss programs that promote eating vegetables in place of starchier foods such as bread, pasta, and rice. And third, we have innovative leaders in the produce industry who are creating value-added products that make choosing vegetable carb substitutes easier for home cooks as well as restaurant cooks.
8. Uncommon Herbs (e.g., chervil, lovage, lemon balm, papalo)
To move more produce onto menus with this trend, produce companies will need corporate or consulting chefs that can help suggest menu strategies and flavor pairings featuring produce to customers. And if you’re selling these herbs, help customers understand their use. For example, papalo is a wonderful substitute for cilantro. Lemon balm comes from the mint family and has a mild lemon aroma and flavor.
9. Authentic Ethnic Cuisine
Produce is featured prominently in so many cuisines of the world, especially ones where the culinary traditions grew out of using meat infrequently and local produce abundantly. Authentic ethnic cuisine also plays into the interest in plant-based and plant-forward menus. There are no traditional vegan diets in the world, but there are countless vegetarian cuisines and dishes ready for American menus.
10. Ethnic Spices (e.g., harissa, curry, peri peri, ras el hanout, shichimi)
This trend used to focus on chiles and spice mixtures, pastes and rubs that add heat to dishes. Now, this is branching out beyond heat and focusing on adding new flavors to familiar dishes. Spices are an easy way to make the familiar exotic, exciting and new. This trend provides endless opportunities to make produce more appealing on American menus.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. You can learn more about her business at farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.