Food for Thought: Trends in Menu Design

Today more than ever, meeting and conference guests have sophisticated tastes. They’ve become accustomed to experiencing a variety of ethnic cuisines and trying unique new culinary creations. It’s also likely that a large number of attendees are health- or eco- conscious, and many have dietary restrictions such as dairy or gluten sensitivities. 

Choosing a menu that will please an increasingly particular and complex audience is no easy task.  Today’s chefs and meeting planners must consider a number of factors beyond just presenting a pretty plate. In fact, as Ron Stoddard, Head Chef at Summit Executive Center in Chicago says, “Special requests are becoming the new normal.” 

What are some of the important issues you should keep in mind when designing your meeting menus? Consider these culinary trends our members are seeing.

Less Meat. More Veg.  A report from the European Fresh Product Association showed a distinct rise the number of vegetable-related food trends around the world in the last several years.  In addition to offering selections for the growing number of people who stick to a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet, putting the spotlight on vegetables has become more and more of a mainstream approach to menu design. In some top restaurants in LA or Chicago, for example, meat has become the side dish while vegetable-based dishes from Brussels sprouts to butternut squash have become the main course. Grilled cucumber, roasted cauliflower and beets are getting a new place on today’s menus. In fact, cauliflower has been called “the new kale.” Guests are eating up spiraled vegetables, cut into long and thin ribbons, added to menus in place of pasta, and ordering main dishes focused on vegetables first.

Plus, featuring seasonal vegetables lets chefs keep their menus fresh and inspired throughout the year (which is in itself another trend: Seasonal locally sourced menus). “We are becoming more vegetable forward and putting the meat secondary,” agreed Stoddard. “In the past, the idea was always to have at least two meat options and maybe more. Now, we can serve one meat option with a bounty of vegetable based items and everyone is happy.”

Increasing the consumption of veggies has the approval of public health officials. A UK study last year projected that up to 7.8 millions deaths per year could be prevented if people were to eat 10 portions of fresh fruits and vegetables a day rather than following the standard “five-a-day” advice.

The more veg, less meat option is popular for sandwiches as well. According to a 2017 report from the Culinary Visions Panel, vegetable-based sandwiches, where meat is a garnish, are an especially popular choice with Millennials.

House made and locally sourced. It’s not just soups and sauces that are made fresh from local ingredients anymore. Everything from scratch baked bread to house churned butter to fresh mozzarella and granola bars are making their way onto break tables and buffet bars.  Meeting delegates gravitate to the freshly made artisan items with wholesome ingredients that provide a pick me-up and energy throughout their day.

Keep in mind that seasonal availability greatly affects menu planning for kitchens that make a conscientious effort to offer locally sourced products. “We have to stay somewhat in the season and be responsible in what we are ordering,” said Stoddard. “Fruit is a big obstacle. Everybody loves fruit and the demand for berries in winter are ​just taken for granted. Obviously, there are no fresh berries being grown anywhere close to Chicago. The big question is how far do we want to take this?  Right now, we try and be responsible in our purchasing without shorting the client too much. “

Hybrid and fusion cuisine. Gone are the days when various ethnic cuisines and cooking techniques were segregated. Today’s menus are filled with hybrid options that meld the styles and flavors of various traditional techniques to create new and exciting combinations that guests remember. This might look like Teriyaki Steak Tacos, burgers with kimchi and Korean BBQ sauce, or Sriracha Cole Slaw. Guests may find a variety of flavor options and styles of food available on one plate or buffet table. From finger foods to delicate tapas to vegetable skewers with unique dipping sauces, all types of hybrid cuisine are making menu design ever more varied and impressive. 

“Cultural diversity now has a substantial influence in the structure and content of the menu, Italian, Indian Mexican, Thai, Chinese and many other global influencers interest the palate,” says George Hill, award-winning chef and licensed member of the Australian Institute of Technical Chefs. “Passionate cooks are never lazy, always seeking new experiences, even when cooking simply.”

For conference and meeting planners with an international mix of attendees, planning for a variety of styles of cuisine, including bolder flavors such those common in Indian and Thai foods, can help create the type of menus that please crowds. Some venues may plan a weekly rotation of ethnic inspired dishes around a theme, but it’s also common to find all types of foods offered at once on a buffet or at various points throughout a meeting.

“Look how the Hawaiian trend of poke (pronounced pho-keh) bowls is catching on,” said Mark Ralph of Warwick Conferences in Coventry, UK. “This healthy, trendy street food can be easily adapted in a Build Your Own Buffet.” 

Natural, minimally process foods. More than low-fat or low-carb, today’s health trends are focused on avoiding additives and preservatives in foods. This is increasing the demand for house-made snacks and healthier options for breakfast and breaks. Many venues are responding with an impressive menu of options for scratch snacks including everything from fresh made smoothies and fig-bars to whole nuts and grains. A variety of salads featuring both raw and grilled vegetables and grain-based options such quinoa are popular both for their health benefits and dazzling array of flavor combinations.

“We’re offering more healthy snacks in the morning: whole wheat quick breads, all-fruit smoothies, apple rings with peanut butter and granola, Nutella toast with strawberries, Greek yogurt parfaits, house-made granola bars, and cold pressed juices,” said Stoddard. “We have gotten away from serving cakes and packaged goods for afternoon break. They still find themselves there, just not as much.”

Gut health. Research shows that gut health has a direct link to brain activity, including better mental health, and a decrease in diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.  “I think we will see an increase in food such as Kimchi and sauerkraut, and drinks like kombucha,” said Ralph. “ Also cultured foods yoghurts with probiotics and foods with prebiotics like chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke.”

Ancient grains in new ways. Whether as alternatives to gluten or because of an interest in healthy eating, ancient grains (those which have not been genetically altered or crossbred) have sprouted onto the food scene in recent years. The lineup of options for creative chefs who want to branch out from rice and barley ranges from quinoa to freekah. These nutritious and tasty grains also include faro, kamut, bulgar, amaranth, buckwheat groats, teff, millet, and spelt. Various types of rice-free risotto dishes, salads, soups and savory side dishes can be prepared with these versatile whole grains.

Reimagined classics. Another current food trend is to put a new spin on a classic or traditional food. This might be a “deconstructed” club sandwich, veggie crudité on ice with sunflower seed hummus or grilled cheese with sun-dried tomato pesto. It could also extend to vegan twists on comfort foods, such as chickpea meatloaf or cauliflower “mac’n’cheese.”

“The revolutionary transformation …over the past 30 years in which chefs creatively adapted many classical potato preparations has been nothing short of astonishing, and we experienced superb menus that included a sensible range of creative and ingenious potato accompaniments,” says Hill. He goes on to lament, however, why so few chefs accept this challenge, and instead, continue to offer a boring choice of deep fried chips, chips, or chips. “Unfortunately in many local family restaurants and pubs we routinely experience “chips and salad or chips and veggies” irrespective of the method of cookery applied to the main dish.” Truffle fries, anyone?

Dining as entertainment. Today’s dining experience has become just that: an “experience.” Guests are looking for new ways to interact socially during the dining experience. This might include participating in meal preparation, picking their own food (a literal farm-to-table experience in which diners visit the fields first to pluck vegetables) and touring the kitchen while chefs and staff explain the culinary choices and methods.

The popularity of artisanal food markets and food truck festivals are examples of this sort of social interaction. According to a 2017 U.S. survey by the Culinary Visions Panel, 85% of consumers say they love to attend food focused events and food festivals. 

“Modern commercial dining has become more than just feeding people; it has evolved into a fashion of food as entertainment,” says Hill.  “We have emerged into eating to be entertained. The modern dining room is a theatre more than ever before. The professional chef is like an actor playing to an audience, and the diner absorbing the atmosphere, interpreting the content and loving just being the spectator.”

Drink vacation and cocktails

Drink variations and mocktails. Creating signature drinks for an event or venue can make an experience stand out. Many classic cocktails are making a comeback, including the Vesper Martini, Side Cars and Gin Fizz. “Mocktail” (alcohol free) versions of the same are also popular. High-end drinks without alcohol, but with flavors and bubbles are in vogue. In addition, fresh-squeezed juices (both fruit and veg/combos such as kale, beet, apple, carrot) are often a huge hit with meeting delegates both for their nutritious content and their flavor.   Offering a variety of both iced and hot teas and coffees is popular with meeting delegates. From Ginger Chai to Mint Green Tea, anything with ice or a swirled foamed milk on top is sure to impress.

Food walls and posh presentations. As part of the “social posting” culture of food trends, foods that are “instagram worthy” are all the rage. What does that mean? Anything from over-the-top dessert presentations to literally, food hung on a wall (#dessertwall). You’ll see cupcakes stacked on top of ice cream floats with whip cream and sprinkles on top. It should be noted this trend is completely at odds with the “healthy eating” one! It’s about decadence and “trending” on social media. But pretty food (“food porn”) that also insta- worthy can also be healthy.

“Bright and colorful food will be trend in 2018,” said Ralph. “There is a focus on cresses, herbs, beets and edible flowers. Truly picture-worthy.” 

What menu design trends do you think are note-worthy?

Share your thoughts about the food and beverage trends that are affecting your menu design in the comments below.

Learn more at Americas Connect 

Find out more about the latest meeting menu and design trends at the upcoming IACC Americas Connect conference. Register now.

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