Want to get a head start on the next big dining trends? A quick glance at news headlines and grocery store shelves, as well as economic and demographic changes, offer tremendous insights into what will show up next on America's restaurant tables.
A Healthy Outlook During the next decade, changing lifestyles will have a growing influence on menu development, and health-related issues are leading the way, according to registered dietitian and nutrition consultant, Donna Shields. "Healthcare is big news these days," she says. "People are looking at the role of food in maintaining health and preventing disease."
Many menus already mimic the move away from processed foods to more natural ingredients. At the same time, food allergies and sensitivities are beginning to play a role in what's not being served. For example, gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, causes digestive issues for numerous people, Shields explains. This is driving interest in novel grains, such as quinoa. Other consumers now seek alternatives to cow's milk, creating an increasing number of recipes featuring soy, rice and other types of milk substitutes.
Probiotics and prebiotics are among the latest food trends, even showing up in pet food. "These products help balance the natural bacteria in the digestive tract," says Shields. "Probiotics include bacterial strains that help aid digestion." Yogurt is one such popular item, but an expanding range of merchandise now contains these ingredients. "Prebiotics -- think fiber," she says, "are non-digestible foods that help beneficial bacteria flourish."
Grocery stores - and not just those with a health food focus - already devote increasing space to these and other emerging products. "Savvy restaurateurs will pay heed to these developments," says the dietitian. Foodservice operators can easily introduce probiotics and prebiotics by adding them to smoothies and specialty beverages. Shields also suggests keeping soy, rice or almond milk on hand as an option to blend in drinks with creamy recipes or to simply stir into coffee for those who prefer non-dairy choices. "Chia seeds, rich in fiber and other healthy ingredients, can help thicken beverages," she says, "and flaxseed oil is another healthy additive."
The Bottom Line The economy, of course, is another societal trend that has had an impact on food served in restaurants. It goes beyond dollar menus and other marketing techniques. "Comfort food and simple preparations will continue to flourish into the near future," predicts Shields. "The big picture in life has been chaotic. Food is a source of stability and comfort, and we are harkening back to a simpler time."
Simple does not mean bland, however. "One ice cream manufacturer uses this to their advantage by promoting a line with a limited number of ingredients," she points out. "It's also possible to serve favorites like macaroni and cheese in a variety of preparations. And when it comes to beverages, less also can be more. You can make a great-tasting recipe with three quality ingredients and sell it as a homemade, custom drink."
Cultural Dynamics America's changing cultural mix is another trend that will forge its way into kitchens and produce an enticing new array of food selections. "Operators may want to consider a flavor strategy that delivers more menu variety with inspiration from ethnic dishes," suggests Shields. "Hispanic and Asian cuisines are probably at the top of the list, with Latin and South American influences following closely behind." Ingredients to keep an eye on include coconut and exotic fruits. In addition, thanks to new research into the beneficial properties of herbs and spices, "we also may see increased interest in cinnamon, ginger, oregano, red pepper, rosemary, thyme and yellow curry," she says.
"As we try determine what's next for restaurant menus, it's always wise to pay attention to complementary businesses, such as grocery retailers, as well as demographic megatrends," says the dietitian. "All those societal and cultural changes eventually filter down to the food."