3 commercial menu trends showing up on K-12 menus

students eating lunch
Photograph: Shutterstock

From Bush’s Best®.

Imitating restaurant trends has long been a way to increase participation in K-12 meal programs. As consumer drive for ethnic flavors continues to ramp up—it was named as a top trend by the National Restaurant Association earlier in 2018—it’s no surprise that school meal operators are looking to bring those qualities to the lunchroom. And ethnic inspiration isn’t the only restaurant trend popping up on school menus. Plant-forward cuisine and customizable options are also proliferating.

Ethnic eats

A 2017 report from the School Nutrition Association found that nearly 60% of school districts offer menu items that emphasize international flavors, including Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern tastes. A big benefit of focusing on ethnic flavors in school meals is the opportunity to feature more vegetables and legumes, helping schools meet the rigorous nutrition standards that USDA requires.

If a district director or supervisor is looking to bring those ethnic trends to the cafeteria or trying to find ways to stretch protein budget through plant-based proteins while increasing the amount of vegetables offered during service, they need look no further than trending ethnic foods and flavors in the full-service restaurant segment. Although there might be a bit of culinary translation needed to gain student acceptance and meet regulations, the work can be worth it when it comes to participation numbers.

Plant-forward options

The union between grains and legumes has long been loved—after all, the two make a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids that are mostly found in animal proteins. Grain bowls, a trend in K-12 which mirrors what’s happening on commercial menus, provide an opportunity to give vegetarian students something exciting for lunch, and they can be styled in a variety of ways. This includes Mediterranean or Middle Eastern grain bowls with chickpeas, barley or bulgur and lots of fresh vegetables; Asian-style bowls with classic steamed rice, tofu, cucumbers and carrots; or Mexican-inspired burrito bowls with brown rice, black or pinto beans, salsa, cheese and more.

Customizable meals

With build-your-own salad, sandwich and stir fry eateries popping up all the time, it was only a matter of time before customizable meals made their way into school cafeterias. According to Technomic’s 2018 Sandwich report, 56% of consumers say that the ability to customize their sandwich is important to them, and according to Technomic’s 2018 Future of LSR report, 27% of consumers say that the ability to customize their order is important when they’re choosing where to eat. In the same vein, customizable meals are appealing to young consumers.

Made-to-order meals are popular in the school segment because students love having a say in what goes into their lunch. What’s more, because customizable meals are found on so many restaurant menus, they’re a familiar option for K-12 diners. Several ethnic dishes lend themselves to this style of service, including burritos, which can feature a multitude of beans and grains, along with cheese and vegetables; pitas stuffed full of cucumbers, tzatziki, hummus and falafel; and wrap sandwiches that might have ingredients inspired by ethnic flavors, such as a Thai peanut chicken salad in a spinach tortilla. From breakfast sandwiches to popular ethnic options to salads with a limitless number of topping options, customizable meals can be a big hit with young eaters.

Keep on taste-testing

It’s not always easy to get students to accept new menu items. Allowing them to take samples or taste-test an unfamiliar dish often will convince a student to purchase that meal. The small amount of food that’s provided through these taste-tests and samples is usually worth the cost that the program has to absorb in the long run.

Menuing ethnic eats in the K-12 setting doesn’t have to be difficult. By menuing foods that students are familiar with, such as wraps and other handhelds, grain bowls and more, as well as incorporating trending flavors and offering samples of new foods, operators may find that students are more willing to try new things than they expected. Best of all, some of these items, being vegetarian, help to stretch the protein budget within foodservice programs—and what’s not to love about that?

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