How menus have evolved in 3 decades

In looking back over the menu pages in FoodService Director, a lot has changed in the last 30 years—and a lot hasn’t. In the first few years of publication, 30 yearsstories focused on breakfast innovation, seasonal ingredients, international cuisines, vegetarian dishes, snacking and comfort foods. Fast-forward to 2018, and these themes are still trending on noncommercial menus. But the way they are executed is very different.

Transparency now rules every facet of the menu, from purchasing to preparation and presentation. In 1988, most foodservice kitchens were hidden behind closed doors, accessible only to kitchen staff and delivery trucks. These days, open display kitchens are the norm, and many operators are transitioning from processed foods with long ingredient lists to fresh or minimally processed foods that are free from antibiotics, GMOs and artificial colors and flavors.

Today, chefs cook food to order at action stations set up across segments, in hospital cafeterias, senior living dining rooms, college dining halls and corporate dining venues. Or the kitchen sets up extensive self-service bars filled with ingredients and preparations and labeled with detailed descriptions. This mix-and-match approach encourages customization—something today’s customers are seeking.

Authenticity is also a priority, especially when preparing global cuisines. Operators have gone way beyond the mainstream Italian, Chinese and Mexican dishes that used to define “ethnic” to now include emerging Mediterranean, Asian and Latin cuisines from niche regions of the world.

Healthy eating has also veered off in a new direction. Back in the ’90s, low-fat and low-cholesterol defined better-for-you foods. Today, it’s less about cutting back and more about adding health-boosting nutrients and ingredients to the diet. These include gut-protective probiotics, disease-fighting antioxidants and muscle-building protein—all of which occur naturally in a nutritious diet. Although keeping a lid on calories and sodium is still important to many FSDs, today’s consumers are interested in the foods that promote wellness and well-being.

On trend 30 years ago:

  • Home meal replacement                                                                  
  • Vegetarian
  • Frozen, heat-and-eat entrees
  • Purchasing by fax
  • Meal plan passes/tickets
  • Three meals a day
  • Breakfast in the morning
  • Kitchen-composed dishes
  • Meals on plates
  • Peanut-free menu items
  • Vending machines

On trend now: 

  • Meal kits
  • Plant-based
  • Fresh, scratch-made
  • Computerized ordering
  • Debit cards for meals
  • Grab-and go and snacking
  • All-day breakfast
  • Build-your-own customized dishes
  • Meals in bowls
  • Menu items free of seven allergens (Dairy, eggs, tree nuts, gluten or wheat, seafood, soybeans and peanuts)
  • Salad robots


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