Nostalgia and holistic wellness take center stage in college dining

Aramark recently published the results of its annual dining and hospitality survey, which indicated that trends from the past are making a big comeback.
College students eating
Aramark cited nostalgia, mindful eating, inclusive eating and sustainability as major trends in the college dining space. | Photo: Shutterstock.

Nostalgia has been a major trend in the foodservice industry for quite some time, and now more than ever, it’s making a big splash in the college dining space. That's according to Aramark’s 2023 dining and hospitality survey, which had nearly 70,000 responses. According to the results of the survey, old-time nostalgia and, conversely, new-age holistic health are top of mind for today’s generation of college students.

Trends from the past reemerge

Aramark found that this year’s data presents a shift in recent dining trends, however, there were some similarities to the past year’s results. Namely, the focus on connectivity is still very much apparent on college campuses, helping students to feel relaxed and welcomed in their dining environments.

Something new this year, however, was a desire for practicality and routine with a focus on simplicity, which reminds diners of the early 2000s, which they associate as a time with less social stress and pressure, according to a press release.

To fully tap into this trend, the foodservice provider has leaned heavily into student feedback, through multiple avenues.

“In order to build a deep partnership with a campus, we need to understand what students connect with emotionally, what associations of comfort, home, and security are linked with their hospitality experience,” said Jack Donovan, president and CEO of Aramark Collegiate Hospitality.

Students always have access to Aramark’s on-demand Voice of Consumer surveys, and the foodservice provider also conducts periodic industry student polls throughout the year. The dining team also involves student audience groups in their data gathering processes. Groups like the Council of Student Advisors and HBCU Emerging Leaders, are often looked to for insights.

The National Restaurant Association Show, which provides insights to major trends in the foodservice industry, spotlighted a variety of nostalgic food items on the show floor this year. Some recipes were reimagined childhood staples, like a Tutti Frutti cereal milk latte, or menu items that are exact-replica blasts from the past like Lunchables and bagel bites.  

Health and wellness remain a priority

While nostalgia may be seen as a still-emerging trend for college dining, Aramark’s survey revealed that there are also some similarities to the trends of recent years. One of which is wellness and mindful eating. According to the survey, more than a third of students related mental wellbeing to mindful eating. In addition, students often look to protein, fresh fruits, vegetables and fresh made-to-order foods as their favorite meals on campus.

Aramark Collegiate Hospitality has hosted several events around the “Take 15” program, which encourages students to take 15 minutes away from screens to practice mindful eating, exercise or an activity, or rest and relaxation.

"The Take 15 space includes board and card games, tables, and pillows and a rug to sit on,” said Gabrielle McDonough, registered dietitian for Aramark Collegiate Hospitality, in a statement. “We hope that by giving the students an actual physical area, that they are reminded by their environment to relax and take a break."

Aramark also recently launched “Eat to Excel”, a dietary performance program designed for athletes.  

And the importance of holistic health (and the role food plays in it) has been popping up more and more in college dining as of late. Texas Christian University, for example, recently revamped its nutrition education program to take a more holistic approach to spread education in all areas of health including wellness, healthy eating, sports nutrition and mental health.

Inclusive eating

Another big trend in this year’s results was the idea of inclusive eating. Foodservice operations have been placing more of an emphasis on providing options for all diets, regardless of allergies or restrictions. 36% of survey respondents said they have food allergies or dietary restrictions, making this an important issue for a good proportion of students.

Aramark has leaned into this trend by working with MenuTrinfo, a nutritional food allergy company. The company provides an audit called AllerCheck, which requires that each location be audited and certified once a semester. Aramark Collegiate Hospitality currently has 123 AllerCheck certified locations. In addition, all managers across Aramark accounts are encouraged to take AllerTrain training.

The concept of inclusive eating has also been gaining momentum at colleges and universities. The University of Miami recently expanded its Universal Meals program, which is a weekly plant-based offering that avoids the nine major allergens.

Sustainable dining continues to shine

Survey respondents indicated that reducing food waste, donating surplus food and recycling and composting were the top three concerns for students when it comes to dining sustainability.

Many foodservice providers have established some sort of waste reduction goal. Aramark for instance, is committed to reducing waste by 50% by 2030. The company plans to accomplish this by utilizing both front and back of house composting, ingredient upcycling and hosting waste awareness events.

FoodService Director’s recent State of C&U report, which reveals insights to trends in college and university foodservice also found that reducing food waste continues to be a major trend in sustainable foodservice. 89.5% of respondents to FSD’s survey stated that reducing their operations food waste is a focus area for them.

Creating or contributing to a food recovery network is another way to address both waste and food insecurity. Aramark has heavily leaned into this strategy, donating over 730,000 pounds of surplus food and more than 60,000 meals swipes.



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