Top Food & Menu Trends for 2016

The overwhelming majority of restaurant operators agree that guests are more knowledgeable about food now than ever before. Research conducted by the NRA has found that 56% of Americans have said they prefer to spend money on experience-based activities like dining out than physical activities. In the opinion of the NRA, this shows that today’s consumer value over quantity in terms of spending time and money. It also helps to explain why the majority of consumers (72%) see inventive food they can’t make in their own homes as an important factor in deciding on a restaurant. Approximately 50% of consumers also choose both tableservice and limited-service restaurants based on the chance to eat food they haven’t tried previously.

Increased consumer food knowledge and dining out experience has led to increased service, experience, quality and transparency expectations. To deliver on these expectations operators are diversifying their menus. Snacks, healthy offerings, a variety of beverage alcohol selections, ethnic food and seasonal items have become more common. Professional chefs who were surveyed in a collaborative effort between the NRA and American Culinary Federation indicated that sustainability and local sourcing are top menu trends, along with healthy selections for children. Additional trends, according to the same survey, are as follows:

  • Global flavors.
  • Authentic ethnic cuisine.
  • Artisan or house-made food.
  • African flavors.
  • Vegetable-centric dishes.
  • Ethnic spices and condiments.
  • Simplicity in cooking.

Top 20 Tableservice Menu Trends for 2016 - National Restaurant Association

These trends extend into the limited-service segment, evidence that industry segments are beginning to blur.

Top 20 Limited-Service Menu Trends for 2016 - National Restaurant Association

The surveyed chefs also shared their thoughts on alcohol trends:

Top 15 Alcohol Trends of 2016 - National Restaurant Association

It is important that operators not focus solely on keeping up with trends. Consumers still appreciate the “tried and true” and are not always seeking out trendy food items. The NRA has revealed the top favorite food items for tableservice and limited-service menus.


  • Fried chicken.
  • Biscuits.
  • Barbecue.
  • Frying.
  • French toast.
  • Pulled pork.
  • Hot tea.
  • Comfort foods
  • Zucchini.
  • Classic pastries.
  • Oysters.
  • Chicken wings.
  • Eggs Benedict.
  • Custard-based desserts.
  • Doughnuts.


  • French fries.
  • Hamburgers/cheeseburgers.
  • Side salads.
  • Pizza.
  • Onion rings.
  • Chicken strips/nuggets/tenders.
  • Chicken sandwiches.
  • Bottled water.
  • Soft drinks.
  • Lemonade.
  • Fried chicken.
  • Mexican items.
  • Iced tea.
  • Entrée salads.
  • Italian items.

Other trends of which operators need to be aware:

  • Locally sourced ingredients. Most common in Fine Dining and Casual Dining. Growing in popularity in Quickservice segment.
  • Nutritious selections. Gluten-free, low-carb, vegetarian and Paleo-friendly food items.
  • Ethnic cuisines. Chinese, Italian and Mexican cuisines are the most familiar, while Argentinian, Brazilian, Ethiopian and Korean cuisines are the least familiar.
  • Retail sales of restaurant ingredients.
  • Food trucks operated by brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Finally, the following trends are, according to the professional chefs surveyed by the NRA and ACF, slowing or already outdated:
Gluten-free cuisine.

  • Wedge salads.
  • Bacon-flavored chocolate.
  • Blood sausage.
  • Foam.
  • Underutilized fishes.
  • Kale salads.
  • Insects.
  • Shrubs (beverage alcohol).
  • Vaporized cocktails (beverage alcohol).
  • Flower essence (beverage alcohol).

Images: National Restaurant Association 2016 Restaurant Industry Forecast

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