The 20 Hottest Food Trends for 2018

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flickr: Michael Stern
A hamburger with all the fixings.
What's Hot

The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” report is always one of the industry’s most anticipated precursors to the New Year. It surveys the foodservice professionals in the know—700 chefs from the American Culinary Federation—and comes up with a comprehensive list of the food, beverage, and culinary concepts everyone will be talking about in 2018.

“Local, vegetable-forward, and ethnic-inspired menu items will reign supreme in the upcoming year. Guests are implementing these trends in their own lifestyles and want to see them reflected on restaurant menus. In response, chefs are creating more items in-house and turning to global flavors,” Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement.

Here are the Top 20 food trends for 2018.

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flickr: stu_spivack
New Cuts of Meat

This was the top trend last year as well. We’re talking about oyster steak, shoulder tender, Merlot cuts, Vegas strip steak, the list goes on. Obviously the value can be great once you get away from the high-dollar staples. But chefs are also discovering great flavor, too, such as tri-tips, flat-iron steaks, and on and on. According to, Nearly one-half (43 percent) of consumers are willing to try new beef cuts or recipes.

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flickr: Richard Gillin
House-made condiments

Up from No. 7 on last year’s list, house-made condiments are a perfect way for restaurants to present some unique flavors and cash in on the in-house trend sweeping foodservice. Not to mention, making some special ketchup doesn’t exactly stretch the bottom line. And it’s something that will not only elevate a menu item, but make it stand out from the crowd. Expect to see this in dips, next to charcuterie boards, on sandwiches, burgers, cuts of protein, vegetables, and much more.

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flickr: Côte d’Azur
Street food-inspired dishes

Last year’s No. 2, the definition of this category is evergreen right now. You think of it mostly in terms of items like kabobs, tempura, dumplings, pupusas, etc. Why is this trend so hot? For several reasons. One being that global flavors are red-hot right now, and street food-inspired dishes are a great way to menu them, whether that’s in a handheld manner or even out the window of a food truck. Tapas and the rise of graze eating (millennials) have made this even more prominent. Don’t believe it? This 70-year-old Thai street food vendor just won a Michelin Star.

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flickr: Makia Minich
Ethnic-inspired breakfast items
Moving up two spots in this year’s rankings, ethnic-inspired breakfast items are gaining steam. Again, more global flavors delivered during a very recognizable daypart. Similar to street food, it’s a way to introduce customers to bold flavors in a comfortable way. More so, breakfast remains one of the most loyalty-driving areas of foodservice. While the classics remains popular, ethnic-inspired dishes can gain your brand notoriety and carve out a routine spot in a guest’s daily routine. Chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes, Asian-flavored syrups, and, of course, breakfast burritos.
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flickr: llee_wu
Sustainable seafood

Not sure this trend, which was also No. 5 last year, really needs an introduction. Probably the biggest issue with sustainable seafood, though, is how you really get the message across to guests. It is clear diners want to eat responsibly sourced food, including seafood, but how do they really know with fish? To date, there really hasn’t been a great, or at least consistent, system for this. That’s changing (the James Beard Smart Catch initiative is a great example). Educating servers and labeling seafood on the menu, explaining its origin, adding terms like Alaskan seafood, and so on, is a solid place to start. Check out this article: How to Get Diners Excited About Sustainable Seafood, for more inspiration.

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flickr: Marco Verch
Healthful kids’ meals

Kids’ menus have come a long way form the junk food throwaways they used to be. This is stretching across all aspects of the industry as well. Back in September, Panera Bread issued the #KidsMenuChallenge to its quick-service competitors. The brand has more than 250 meal combinations for kids, all without toys or sugary drinks. Even McDonald’s upped its juice game earlier in the year. Full-service operators have a chance to take this to the next level, beyond just trying to make their kids’ offerings healthier. Forget just replacing fries with apples. Try to keep the restaurant’s personality alive on a smaller scale. Foie gras for kids, anyone?

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flickr: anokarina
Vegetable carb substitutes

New to this year’s list, vegetable carb substitutes are gaining momentum thanks to low-carb diets. You could probably also thank the Spiralizer. Replacing pasta with, say, zucchini noodles is an easy way to swap out carbs without losing a ton of flavor. This has become pretty common in supermarket to-go aisles. Some chains have even tried it out on their menus

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flickr: Vincent Lee
Uncommon herbs
Uncommon herbs is another newcomer to the top 20. This seems like a pretty wide topic but it fits into the fresh and interesting flavor trend seen throughout the list. I suppose it depends exactly on what your definition of “uncommon” is. Does that represent fennel? Red basil? Sorrel? Culinary lavender? Lemon verbena? The idea is to keep flavors interesting. That’s the best way to be on trend. Surprise and remind diners why they dipped into their bank accounts to leave the couch.
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flickr: Shawn Harquail
Authentic ethnic cuisine

Authentic ethnic cuisine dropped down a spot but it’s probably safe to say it’s not going anywhere. It’s clear by now that consumers are crazy over ethnic flavors. What’s the best way you can get them on your menu, though? That’s the tricky question. Not everybody is trained in authentic ethnic cooking, obviously. So trying to keep guests from flocking elsewhere is a challenge. There are some options out there. US Foods launched a partnership with acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelsson to offer some on-trend global products. At the end of the day, however, staying true to your cuisine and your customer is always key. If they’ve come to expect the best Italian food in the Loop, keep delivering.

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flickr: Tony Mendez
Ethnic spices

Speaking of trends, another one is starting to show, isn’t it? This was No. 11 last year. We’re talking harissa, curry, peri peri, ras el hanout, shichimi. The idea pretty much aligns with the previous category. You probably can’t have one without the other. You can, however, use ethnic spices on non-authentic ethnic dishes. It’s kind of like Sriracha, which is somehow being used these days on everything from McDonald’s burgers to quinoa bites. Look at ethnic spices as a portal to something nobody expected to come out of the kitchen. Or use them to deliver the authentic ethnic cuisine you promised. It can go a lot of ways.

Peruvian cuisine

Peruvian is also a first-timer on the list. Chef Erik Ramirez (above), of the Llama Inn in Brooklyn, New York, said in an FSR feature not too long ago that the time for modern Peruvian had arrived. It appears he was right. Classic dishes like lomo saltado, which fuses together Chinese stir frying and classic Peruvian ingredients, roast chicken, and skewers are popular items. Rice is a key component of Peruvian food, as is aji pepper. Peruvian chicken is a massive on-trend style these days. Expect to see it blossom in the quick-service world as well.

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flickr: h.r. williams
House-made/artisan pickles
No. 13 last year, artisan pickles are kind of similar to house-made condiments in what they bring to the table. Anytime you can put something you made in-house on the menu, people will gobble it up. And they’ll likely pay a premium compared to anything store-bought. Pickling has been a major deal in restaurants for, pretty much forever, and pickles are a natural way to take this to the next level. They can also be included all over the place, from appetizer presentations (or on their own) to sandwiches and so forth. Being able to say something, like “Turkey sandwich with house-made artisan pickles” is probably going to be a bit more appealing to today’s local-driven guest.
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flickr: cookbookman17
Heritage-breed meats
Heritage-breed meats enter this year’s rankings with hyper-local food being as important now as it’s ever been. The idea is that heritage-breed animals are bred over time to develop traits that make them particularly well adapted to local environmental conditions. From a sustainability and welfare standpoint (both major trends of course) that’s a positive. They also tend to be distinctive in flavor and appearance. Perhaps heritage pork breeds are where this trend is most prevalent. Berkshire meat, for example, is one of the most flavorful products out there.
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flickr: Fen Labalme
Thai-rolled ice cream

Definitely a newcomer to the list. Some people call it Thai stir-fried ice cream. The reason being it looks like it was made on a hot grill. That grill is actually used to keep the product super cold. Pretty much everything can then be added to the ice cream, like cookies, candy, and who knows what else. It’s rolled ice cream, or ice cream rolls if you prefer, made with milk and then poured on that iced grill. It’s then mixed on an ice-pan. Sounds a tad complicated. It’s insanely popular in certain spots, though.

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flickr: Wally Gobetz
African flavors
Down from No. 10 last year, African flavors are popular with restaurants and customers alike thanks to their diversity. It’s a rather large continent. Ethiopian cuisine remains hugely popular. So is Moroccan of course. Ras el hanout, mentioned previously, is actually a North African spice mixture commonly made from cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and dry turmeric. If that doesn’t impress someone walking into your restaurant, what will?
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flickr: Chris Caravello
Ethnic-inspired kids' dishes
This probably doesn’t need much of an explanation. What’s hot? Ethnic-inspired dishes and kids’ meals. Put them together and you’ve obviously got a hit. It’s worth proceeding with caution here. Not every 9-year-old is going to want to eat curry. My younger brother won’t even eat salt. Like always, knowing your audience is the right recipe.
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flickr: Wornden Ly
Doughnuts with non-traditional filling
It’s becoming pretty transparent that guests want something different. Why not a doughnut? I tried to Google this to see what popped. It’s pretty much a little bit of everything. Green tea, Bourbon, pralines. There are innovators around the country doing this kind of stuff, like Rise and Voodoo and many others. A doughnut is a prefect platform to throw together all sorts of wild flavors. People will probably order whatever you toss out there for the sake of exploration. At least once perhaps.
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flickr: Alyss
Gourmet items in kids' meals
Self explanatory. Kids meals are a big thing this year. Perhaps because dining out remains such an important experience-driven activity for people. Parents want to share that process with their kids. Don’t give them a reason to microwave some Pizza Rolls and call it a night. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
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flickr: Paul Narvaez
Ethnic condiments
Yes, that word again. And again, combining two trends to trend perfection. As touched on already, finding the next Sriracha might just be your ticket to that mansion you always wanted.
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flickr: Marco Verch
Ancient grains

Ancient grains dropped all the way from 14 this year. This category encompasses a lot of things; you can toss seeds in there, too, like quinoa and chia, or cereals sorghum, barley, and so on. Pizza chains like Papa John’s are joining in to offer gluten-free options. Pretty much everyone on the planet menus some kind of grain bowl. The healthy and satiating nature of ancient grains isn’t disappearing. Finding new ways to make it stand out and taste good? That’s something to work on. And hey, you could always toss in some ethnic spices.