Health on the menu: meeting student expectations

College students eating at table
Photograph: Shutterstock

Today, the word “healthy” falls on a spectrum of descriptions that prioritize various elements of nutrition. With the challenges of 2020 came changes in consumer behavior—stay-at-home orders led to an increase in snacking, and many looked to food for comfort from their daily stressors. At the same time, these circumstances served to reinforce the importance of nutrition in combating underlying health issues and fighting illness.

Even though definitions of health continue to evolve, focusing on key strategic areas can help college and university operators meet their customers’ expectations. Students will have general wellness issues top-of-mind this year, with the intersection of healthy foundations, immunity and food benefits playing a major role.

First off, it’s important for operators to find a balance of healthy and indulgent offerings on the menu. What consumers say about their restaurant preferences can be applied to noncommercial outlets, too: 34% of consumers say they’re more likely to visit restaurants that offer some healthy options, even if they don’t end up ordering a healthy choice, according to Technomic’s Q2 2019 report, Healthy Eating & Plant-Based Alternatives. This can easily be accomplished through ingredient swaps, such as using beans in place of meat, or using coconut milk instead of traditional dairy. Or, operators can offer a choice of side dishes—roasted brussels sprouts or a spicy fruit slaw can be just as craveable as french fries. Giving students the power to choose can help set them on the right path.

Next, operators should consider the popularity of “lifestyle” dieting, including such themes as keto, paleo, flexitarian, vegan and the Mediterranean diet. Recent consumer surveys from the International Food Information Council show that 43% of Americans were actively dieting in 2020, up from 38% in 2019 and 36% in 2018. Though the particulars of each of today’s top diets differ, they do share a common focus on foods that are considered natural, clean and simple. Menu items that showcase familiar whole-food proteins, low-sodium options and plant-based sauces, for example, can appeal to a wide range of customers.

Finally, the additional of functional ingredients is a great way for college and university operators to increase the healthful appeal of their menus, with a seemingly endless array of flavorful possibilities. Datassential SNAP data from 2020 indicates that ingredients and foods such as turmeric, ginger, avocado and salmon were on the rise even before the pandemic and continue to demonstrate strong growth. Simple additions of nuts, seeds, spices, produce or herbs can increase healthful appeal across the menu.

For more tips on creating healthy menus, click here.

This post is sponsored by Custom Culinary