What Will Influence Menu Innovation in 2021?

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Originally printed in the November 2020 issue of Produce Business.

In the opening general session of the recent Produce for Better Health Foundation Have A Plant Nation Virtual Influencer Event, Datassential researcher Marie Molde presented data showing that more than a third (35%) of consumers agree that leading a more healthful lifestyle is more important now than before the pandemic began. Restaurants across the country are paying attention to this insight and seeking ways to meet consumer demand for “better for me” menu options.

Datassential research with menu R&D professionals shows the number one strategy for menu innovation for 2021 will be adding more plant-forward options. Datassential consumer research shows diners are most excited about new menu items that draw inspiration from world cuisines, especially Asian cuisines, most of which are plant-forward cuisines that provide endless inspiration for using fruits and vegetables in appealing ways.

Molde notes that Japanese food and Korean barbecue are trending. “I think we will continue to see chefs experimenting and incorporating even more produce in global dishes, with plant-based twists like veggie noodles in ramen or pho, plant-based sushi rolls and acai bowls with lots of delicious fruit.”

If you’re wondering whether there are specific produce items gaining interest from chefs, Molde has this to share. “Right now, trending varieties of fruits and vegetables include specific varieties of familiar staples, such as Delicata squash, flavorful global preparations such as elote corn, and varieties that add a pop of Instagrammable color to dishes such as watermelon radish and dragon fruit,” says Molde. “That said, 58% of Americans want to increase their intake of plant-based foods, so happily the potential for all types of produce in menu innovation is very high.”

Jeff Miller, founder and president of Cutting Edge Innovation and former vice president of product innovation and executive chef for Dunkin’ Brands, believes there is a big opportunity for formats that provide customization for consumers seeking “better-for-me” options. “Bowls can be used across a variety of cuisines from Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian to Californian. They allow you to create a healthy base with blends of grains and pulses, add your desired protein, and then top that with a variety of delicious and colorful fruits and vegetables.”

Plant-forward is the future, innovation is how foodservice wins, and we need to be sure to take a flavor-first approach.

— Marie Molde, Datassential

Miller also thinks snacks are a big opportunity for menu R&D. “Consumers’ daily routines have been and will continue to be in flux. Snacks or mini meals that fit with unpredictable schedules or new on-the-go routines are an opportunity to use more fruits and vegetables, especially when included in hand-held formats.”

Miller recommends produce leaders to think broadly about consumers’ definitions of health and wellness. “I think most consumers are looking at this as mental, physical and emotional health,” he says. “They’re seeking foods that provide function, satiety, adventure, excitement, great taste, and, of course, comfort. But comfort doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Ask yourself what fruits and vegetables solve these three needs — mental, physical, emotional — and innovate around them.”

Molde offers these additional insights. “Plant-forward is the future, innovation is how foodservice wins, and we need to be sure to take a flavor-first approach,” she asserts. “In the past, new fruit and vegetable-centric menu items have been positioned as ‘health first,’ and flavor became an afterthought. As a result, consumer interest in the items was low. The first rule of innovation with plant-forward is it must be delicious and craveable. The fact that it’s a produce-centric item is almost secondary. Flavor has to come first.”

The PBH event emphasized the importance of behaviors that have a positive impact on produce consumption. One of the simplest ideas shared during discussions with foodservice leaders came from Regena Gerth, the nutritionist with Bloomin’ Brands, parent company of well-known brands like Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Gerth said her company’s corporate R&D team now gives restaurants standardized recipes for vegetable side dishes, allowing each restaurant to provide a consistent and delicious flavor experience with vegetables versus leaving the execution up to a line cook. What a wonderful example of focusing on behaviors that have a positive impact on flavor!

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 consultant for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a member of the Texas A&M AgriLife External Advisory Board and a member of the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Horticultural Advisory Council. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller