Local, Sustainable, Gluten-Free Still
at Top of 2012 Restaurant Trends

by Melissa Diane Smith

Photo Credits: National Restaurant AssociationGood news for those of us who eat against the grain of the Standard American Diet: Trends we saw last year – locally sourced meat and seafood, locally grown produce, sustainable foods, healthful kids’ meals, and gluten-free cuisine – continue to be on the top ten list of restaurant trends for 2012. According to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey of more than 1,800 professional chefs, the top ten menu trends this year include:

  • Locally sourced meats and seafood
  • Locally grown produce
  • Healthful kids’ meals
  • “Hyper-local” items (such as items from restaurants with their own gardens)
  • Sustainability as a culinary theme
  • Children’s nutrition as a culinary theme
  • Gluten-free/allergy-conscious items
  • Sustainable seafood

“The top menu trends we’re seeing in our What’s Hot in 2012 survey reflect the macro-trends we have seen grow over the last several years,” said Joy Dubost, Ph.D, R.D., director of Nutrition & Healthy Living for the National Restaurant Association. “Nutrition – especially when it comes to children – is becoming a major focus for the nation’s nearly one million restaurants, in tune with consumers’ increasing interest in healthful eating.”

“Local sourcing of everything – from meat and fish, to produce, to alcoholic beverages – is another big trend for 2012. Local farms and food producers have become an important source of ingredients for chefs and restaurateurs wishing to support the members of their business community and highlight seasonal ingredients on menus,” Dubost added.

In individual categories, all but one of the top ten trends in Sides/Starches that were chosen by the chefs are wheat free and gluten free; They are, in order: non-wheat noodles [e.g., quinoa, rice, buckwheat], black/forbidden rice, quinoa, red rice, vegetable pickles, braised vegetables, sweet potato fries, steamed/grilled/roasted vegetables, and brown/wild rice). The top five Produce trends include locally grown produce, organic produce, superfruits (acai, goji berry, mangosteen), exotic fruits, and heirloom apples.

Like last year, grass-fed beef continues to be a top trend, and free-range pork and poultry, alternative meats such as buffalo/bison and ostrich/emu, and game meats, such as venison and game birds, all received more than 50 percent of the votes.

Organic wine and gluten-free beer ranked in the top ten of the Alcohol category.

Smaller versions of adult mealsIn the continuing effort to improve kids’ nutrition, notable trends in the Kids’ Meals category include more fresh fruit and vegetable children’s side items, “mini-meals” (smaller versions of adult menu items), oven-baked (as opposed to fried) items in kids’ meals, and children’s entrée salads.


“What’s Hot in 2012” Social Media Release, National Restaurant Association, released December 8, 2011. View highlight of survey and video.


Melissa’s Comments:

I am really pleased that chefs have picked up on what consumers want: more food choices that literally and figuratively go against the grain and promote better health. It’s wonderful news that the survey results indicate that chefs will continue to emphasize local, sustainable, gluten-free foods – as well as the culinary themes of health and nutrition, children’s nutrition, gluten-free and food allergy conscious cooking, simplicity/back to basics, and local and sustainable. Chefs know how to fix sustainable, locally grown produce and meats in extremely creative, tasty ways.

Our present industrial agricultural system, with its emphasis on heavily sprayed grains (and soy) that in turn are fed to factory-farmed livestock, is not sustainable over the long term. Chefs seem to be getting the idea that going against the grain in both meat (such as with grass-fed beef and game meats) and in side items (such as with fresh vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit items for breakfast side dishes and in kids’ meals, and many more gluten-free side dishes) is what customers who are increasingly concerned about what’s in their food want.

An important part of being sustainable that many chefs haven’t yet learned is not to use genetically modified ingredients in food preparation. Locally grown, organic vegetables or pasture-raised meats are great but when they’re cooked in genetically modified vegetable oil (corn, canola, cottonseed or soybean), that dish isn’t “sustainable” anymore. (This is one of the problems with Chipotle Mexican Grill – it took a real positive step forward with more pasture-raised meat than any other restaurant in the country, but soybean oil and non-organic yellow corn, the most common GM foods, are used in most things on the menu.) Just like many Americans, many chefs are completely unaware that some of the ingredients they may be using are genetically modified. It’s up to us consumers to speak up, talk to the chefs at some of our favorite restaurants, and tell them to go just a little further in providing us with healthy meals by avoiding GM vegetable oils and avoiding key genetically modified foods (corn, soy-based ingredients, and sugar) unless they are certified organic.

If you don’t think a customer speaking up can make a difference, “Deconstructing Supper” is a good movie to watch to change your mind.  After a customer asked acclaimed chef John Bishop if the food in his restaurant contained any GMOs, Bishop set out to learn about GMOs and ended up completely changing what he offered in his restaurant. (Those who live in Tucson can view this movie at a free screening hosted by the GMO Free Project of Tucson on February 12 at St. Francis in the Foothills.)

People want real food, so not surprisingly, non-GMO already has become a trend in the labeling of food products sold in natural food stores. I think non-GMO will carry on over to restaurants and be a menu trend in the near future.

The National Restaurant Association’s survey results indicate that chefs are really understanding and responding to our desire for tasty, against-the-grain food that truly supports health. Once chefs get the message that consumers want to avoid GMOs as well, I predict chefs will respond and change their ingredients to accommodate what we want, just as they did with gluten free, local and “sustainable”.

Copyright © 2012 Melissa Diane Smith

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