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?

More From FoodService Director

Sponsored Content
low sodium foodservice

From Furmano's.

Although salt often gets a bad reputation in the health and nutrition industry, a small amount of the nutrient is necessary for proper body functioning. It’s an essential mineral the body uses to control blood pressure, help muscles and nerves work properly and balance fluids. However, it’s important for consumers to watch sodium intake, because some studies have shown that it may increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

One group of people who are at high risk for too much sodium intake are elderly consumers, as the...

Industry News & Opinion

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is serving free meals to students in North Carolina who were affected by Hurricane Florence.

Students in the disaster area will be able to receive the free meals through Oct. 26. The government says that the meals will potentially benefit 31 districts and more than 284,000 students.

School districts will be able to serve meals that do not follow meal pattern requirements or meal planning through Oct. 19 in order to help administer the meals as effectively as possible.

“During a storm like this, the state may face...

Managing Your Business
school supplies

Students at School District 27J in Brighton, Colo., and Pueblo City Schools in Pueblo, Colo., returned to a shorter school year this fall . Both districts have switched to a four-day school week in an attempt to cut costs and help attract and retain teachers.

While the switch could have a positive outcome for the districts, the nutrition teams are facing challenges such as staffing , a potentially off-kilter commodities supply and concern over how to provide food to students on the extra day.

Open communication

On Monday when school is not in session, School District 27J...

Industry News & Opinion

More than 200 schools in Colorado participated in Colorado Proud School Meal Day, Alamosa News reports.

The day is meant to highlight Colorado agriculture as well as educate students on healthy eating.

At Mountain Valley School in Saguache, Colo., staff served tomatillos, collard greens, purple potatoes, beans, squash and pickled beets, while students at North Conejos School District in La Jara, Colo., enjoyed Colorado peaches.

In Sanford, Colo., students at Sanford Schools got to try local potatoes and were able to vote on if they liked them or not. A map of...

FSD Resources

Code for Asynchronous jQuery Munchkin Tracking Code