NRA menu trend predictions for '14: Local, healthy, sustainable

Once again, the National Restaurant Association's crystal ball clearly showed "local" as the big food trend heading into the New Year. This year's "What's Hot" culinary forecast features 2014 menu predictions from nearly 1,300 professional chefs — all members of the American Culinary Federation.

Repeating its reign at the top of the trend list for 2014 is locally-sourced meats and seafood. Also, as with last year's forecast, locally-grown produce is No. 2.

Although kids' nutrition themes fell slightly on the prediction list for 2014, they still remain relevant in the top 10, as does gluten-free cuisine. Springboarding off the staggering growth of gluten-free menu items is non-wheat noodles and pastas, which debuted on the list this year.

Other themes to expect include sustainability and nutrition.

"Today's consumers are more interested than ever in what they eat and where their food comes from, and that is reflected in our menu trends research," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA's research and knowledge group. "True trends — as opposed to temporary fads — show the evolution of the wider shifts of our modern society over time, and focus on the provenance of various food and beverage items, unique aspects of how they are prepared and presented, as well as the dietary profiles of those meals."

The top 20 predictions

While locally-sourced meats/seafood and locally-grown produce remain at No. 1 and No. 2, the rest of the top 20 includes:

3. Environmental sustainability (up a spot from No. 4 last year)

4. Healthful kids' meals (No. 3 last year)

5. Gluten-free cuisine (up from No. 8 last year)

6. Hyper-local sourcing, such as restaurant gardens (No. 7 last year)

7. Children's nutrition (No. 5 last year)

8. Non-wheat noodles/pastsa, such as quinoa, rice and buckwheat (N/A from last year)

9. Sustainable seafood (even from last year)

10. Farm/estate branded items (N/A from last year)

11. Nose-to-tail/root-to-stalk cooking, reduction of waste

12. Whole grain items in kids' meals

13. Health/nutrition

14. New cuts of meat

15. Ancient grains

16. Ethnic-inspired breakfast items, such as Asian-flavored syrups and coconut milk pancakes

17. Grazing, or small-plate sharing and snacking

18. Non-traditional fish

19. Fruits and vegetables as children's side items

20. Half-portions/smaller portions

Top trends by category

The top predictions by category were also broken down by the chef panel and include:

Appetizers

  1. House-cured meats
  2. Vegetarian
  3. Ethnic/street food-inspired
  4. Ethnic dips
  5. Amuse-bouche/bite-sized apps

Side items

  1. Non-wheat noodles/pasta
  2. Quinoa
  3. Black/forbidden rice
  4. Red rice
  5. Pickled veggies

Main dishes

  1. Locally-sourced meats and seafood
  2. Sustainable seafood
  3. New cuts of meat (Denver steak, pork flat iron, trip-tip)
  4. Non-traditional fish (Arctic char, branzino)
  5. Half portions/smaller portions for smaller prices

Desserts

  1. Hybrid desserts (cronut, ice cream cupcake)
  2. Savory desserts
  3. House-made/artisan ice cream
  4. Bite-size/mini desserts
  5. Deconstructed classic desserts

Produce

  1. Locally-grown
  2. Unusual/uncommon herbs (lemon balm, lovage)
  3. Dark greens (kale, mustard greens, collards)
  4. Organic
  5. Heirloom apples

The top trends that were new to the list this year include:

  1. Grazing/small plate sharing, No. 17
  2. Hybrid desserts, No. 21
  3. Uncommon herbs, No. 25
  4. Natural sweeteners, No. 26
  5. Kale salads, No. 50

Ethnic flavors

As our palates are exposed to more diverse options, the ethnic flavors and cuisines expected to emerge in the New Year include Peruvian, Korean and Southeast Asian (Thai, Vietnamese). Other recently released trend forecasts have also identified Brazilian and Greek cuisines.

Ethnic/street food-inspired dishes, such as tempura, taquitos and kabobs, are on the NRA's watch list, as are ethnic condiments like chimichurri, Sriracha, chutney and soy sauce.

Thirst-quenching predictions

On the beverage side of the menu, house-made soft drinks have been identified as the top trend prediction. This is followed by gourmet lemonade, coconut water, specialty iced tea and dairy-free milk. In October, Rolie Zagnoli, managing director of the Zagnoli Trading Company, said most beverage trends are being driven by Millennials and that there is a balance in finding "trend forward innovations."

"You don't want to be too far out. Companies confuse real innovation with novelty. People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it," he said. To find the right balance, it's important to find key differentiators with products, and to "be students of the industry."

For operators with a beer/liquor license, onsite barrel-aged drinks are on trend, as are culinary cocktails (savory, fresh ingredients), regional signature cocktails, edible cocktails, micro-distilled/artisan spirits, local beers/wine, "New Make" whiskey, gluten-free beer and food-cocktail or food-beer pairings.

Heating up/cooling down

The NRA also identified the trends that gained — and lost — the most momentum this year. On a hot streak (up 5 percent or more) were:

  1. Nose-to-tail, 16 percent
  2. Pickling, 11 percent
  3. Ramen, 11 percent
  4. Dark greens, 10 percent
  5. Southeast Asian cuisine, 9 percent
  6. Pickled veggies, 8 percent
  7. Ancient grains, ethnic flour, fermenting, all up 7 percent
  8. Ethnic-inspired dishes, gourmet children's dishes, foraging, Nordic cuisine, non-traditional eggs, all up 6 percent
  9. Non-wheat noodles/pasta, Brussels sprouts and breakfast burritos, all up 5 percent

Cooling trends (those down 5 percent or more) include:

  1. Greek yogurt, down 11 percent
  2. Sweet potato fries, down 8 percent
  3. New cuts of meat, grass-fed beef, organic coffee, oatmeal, all down 7 percent
  4. House-made ice cream, liquid nitrogen chilling, molecular gastronomy, gelato, all down 6 percent
  5. Milk/juice in kids' meals, Sous vide, salted caramel, whole grain bread, foam/froth and brown/wild rice, all down 5 percent

Off the menu

Also included in the NRA's 2014 survey were questions regarding technology trends. Chefs ranked tablets, for menus and ordering, on top, at 27 percent, followed by smartphone/tablet apps for consumers (ordering, reservations, daily deals, etc.), at 26 percent.

Smartphone/tablet apps for chefs/operators (table management, POS tracking, recipes, etc.) was No. 3, with 19 percent.

Mobile payments was No. 4, with 16 percent, and social media/loyalty marketing was No. 5, with 13 percent.

The NRA surveyed 1,283 American Culinary Federation members October-November 2013, asking them to rate 258 items as a "hot trend," "yesterday's news," or "perennial favorite" on menus in 2014.

The full report is available here.

Read more about menu trends.

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