2021 Food Trends Report

We’ve been forecasting food trends for a long time. As a company, we’ve published a report for something like 32 years. I’ve been doing it for 15 of those years. It’s usually a process that takes us to restaurants anywhere from Austin to Australia, tasting and meeting with chefs and food influencers. It lets us talk with CPG leaders, farmers, and consumers. We look at the evolutions in our software, weight the trends, and analyze the results. We have huge committee meetings and small team meetings.

COVID changed much of that, particularly in that we’ve not been out and about in person anymore. At first, as I debated doing the report, I thought it might be redundant. After all, how much do we still want to hear about restaurant design to accommodate contactless delivery—like Shake Shack’s announcement that it will be constructing eight new stores with drive-thru windows?

How much do we need to rehash restaurant closings, employee layoffs, and the desperate need for survival that put innovation a lot further down on list? When we’re doing good to get a meal on the table, do we care if CBD is an ingredient, or if plant-based is continuing to grow?

The answer is not just “yes,” but “yes, we have to care!” Watching the trends and looking at what is happening helps us get ready for what’s next. It shows us the opportunities that are out there that will contribute to survival, and it gives us hope that food is going to lead future innovation.

With that said, our newsletter provides a good look at the evidence on what we’re reporting. trends we’re seeing, and we’ve also broken them down here. These are our top trend predictions, based on both the analytics from our software and our years of analysis.

  • We’ll continue to adapt to a COVID world.

Not that we have a choice, of course, but that choice is moderated by how we respond to the crisis. We’re seeing quite a bit of the expected innovation which comes when need overrides habit. Some pundits say it will take years for restaurants to full recover; the way we see it, restaurants have been pretty adaptable and innovative in both their customer service and their attention to detail.

The next step, as we see it, is in an all-out effort to help restaurants get back on their feet—like the one in Hawaii, where the state is using CARES Act funds to provide an extra unemployment benefit of a $500 debit card meant for use in local restaurants. The initiative will benefit those out of work, restaurants and suppliers, and we say, “Let’s see more like this.”

  • Social connection through food.

We all know the new etiquette—the masks can come off as soon as there is something to eat or drink on the table. We’ve begun to use our social media channels, combined with eating occasions, to do more than post a pretty photo. Now, we are engaging through virtual dinner parties, chef-hosted tastings, and making sure that people are fed, regardless of their circumstances. Food banks have seen donations increase at the same time that the needs have gone up, and there is a definite attitude of come and get it.

One of the interesting developments has been higher end restaurants offering up their chefs for online instruction, as well as packaging up meal components for pick up in advance of a virtual event. On the other end of the equation, some restaurants have shifted to “pay what you can” meals, and food was delivered to long lines at the polling places on election day throughout the country. Food unites us, and in spite of it all we are finding ways to connect and meet both physical and emotional needs.

  • Minimalism in food.

We’ve all become aware of the movement to downsize your possessions, your environment, your life. I hear it actually works for some people. Many even used lockdown as a time to sort and giveaway some of their excess. Well, the same philosophy is spilled over into food. Stockpiling out of fear aside, we want pretty cupboard shelves and we don’t want a lot of leftovers. Portion sizes aren’t as much for dieting as they are for making sure we aren’t over-preparing.

Food costs are a contributor as well—we want to minimize those, particularly as the economy tightens its belt. Grocery stores are handling a big share of the pre-packaged meals, like Fresh Market’s new Ultimate Dinner Meals, made with premium ingredients. Restaurants (like the remaining Ruby Tuesdays) have gone into retail, offering pantry items for pick up and expanding their app and online options.

  • Continued growth in plant-based and beneficial foods

Look away, carnivores. Some sort of meat alternative is now an expected option on menus and in the grocery aisle. Some even say that the pandemic increased interest in plant-based, as people had more time to experiment with it at home—not to mention the parallels between eating healthy and immune health. Case in point: Veggies Made Great has introduced new frittatas made with Beyond Meat. These products are specifically designed to appeal to those who want both convenience and to increase their protein intake.

Consumers who want to add more veggies and protein, without meat, in an easy-to-use format. Access to these items is part of the story—after all, when Kroger adds 50-plus plant-based products, it’s a sign that we’re moving out of experimentation and into everyday consumption.

We’ll call it good for now, and bring you the remainder of the Top Ten Trends next week in Part II. See you then.