Top Trends for Restaurant Menus

Popular Menu Trends

Every year the National Restaurant Association releases its What’s Hot Chef survey, which profiles upcoming trends for restaurants across the country. The NRA surveys 1800 members of the American Culinary Federation, asking them to rate 223 food items as a “hot trend,” “yesterday’s news,” or “perennial favorite.” The group rates everything from appetizers to main dishes to kids meals to culinary themes. Popular trends with staying power include local foods, with a strong focus on sustainability, healthy kids meals and back to basics dishes with heirloom fruits and vegetables.

Local Foods

Buying local continues to be a strong trend on restaurant menus. Aquilo

Local Foods are one of hottest trends in food, according to the What’s Hot survey. This includes locally grown produce and locally sourced meats and seafood. This trend is reflected in the continuation of the farm-to-table movement, as more people want to know where their food comes from. Items like heirloom beans and potatoes will undoubtedly show in menu descriptions this coming year. The economics of buying local food is important too, keeping money in the local economy rather than out-of-state to big conglomerates. Check out 10 reasons to buy local for your restaurant.

Healthy Kids Meals

Healthy kids menus are on everyone's mind in 2012. Jyn Meyer

Last year this trend ranked #4 on the 2011 What’s Hot survey. With everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to the NFL focusing on kid’s nutrition and physical activity, restaurants are under greater scrutiny to improve their children’s menus. The good news is that it doesn’t cost a lot of money to make your restaurant’s kids menu healthier. There are many creative, easy ways to offer healthier options, such as entrée salads, fresh fruits and veggies as sides instead of fries, and whole grain options. Read more about how to improve your restaurant’s children’s menu.


Sustainability is new trend for restaurants, as more people look to how their food is raised and where it comes from. Ken Kiser

A new trend, one that isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, is sustainability. Sustainable farming considers many aspects of producing food from the soil its grown in, to land conservation, low emissions, alternative energy, the general well-being of livestock and the final product packaging. Oftentimes sustainability is used interchangeably with organic, but the two are not the same. Food can be organic, but that doesn’t mean the company who raised it practiced sustainable farming methods. Read more about how to find sustainable food for your restaurant.

Gluten Free Foods

Quinoa is one of the hottest glueten-free trends of the moment. Max Straeten

Another growing trend is gluten free or food allergy conscious menu items. This trend is reflected in an increased interest in non-wheat ingredients, like quinoa, rice noodles and buckwheat (all considered a “hot trend” for 2012). 

Local Beer, Wine and Spirits

Artisan beer and wine are among the hot trends for 2012. Clarita
Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only hot local items on this year’s survey. 2012 will see a growth of locally made beers and wines, as well as artisan spirits. Just like in fashion, if you wait long enough trends will recycle, and this is true of food and beverages. The 1990s saw the rise of microbrew. 2012 will likely see a resurgence in microbrews, with the addition of local wine and even such novelties as locally made (or even house made) vodkas and other hard liquors.

Street Food Inspired Menu Trends

Tapas and other street food are influencing menus in 2012. G Schouten de Jel

Food trucks continue to be a popular restaurant trend in 2012. And their street food fare is influencing menus across the country. Items like tapas, tacos, and kebabs are showing up on menus as trendy appetizer options. Read more about food truck trends.

Artisan and Hyper-Local Foods

Artisan foods, like cheese, are among the hot trends of 2012. Alvimann
Many restaurants are going one step further with buying local- they are growing or making their own foods. House made items like artisan cheeses and ice cream are listed as top trends for 2012. Hyper local refers to produce grown on site, such as restaurant gardens. No space for you own garden? Some restaurants are building rooftop gardens for easy access to herbs and fresh vegetables.

Health and Nutrition

Smaller portions and innovative ways to serve fruits and vegetables are a strong menu trend, likely to be around for a long time. Michael Connors
Never before in the restaurant industry has there been such a focus on general health and nutrition. Going beyond healthy children’s menus, there are many hot trends that focus on more general health aspects of restaurant menus, such as half-portions and smaller sides. Super fruits like acai berries are -hot right now, as are fresh fruit breakfast items. The days of all-you-can-eat buffets and massive portions are fast fading as consumers are more aware of the importance of healthy eating choices, both at home and when they go out to eat.