Chartwells K12 Reveals Top 10 School Lunch Food Trends For 2023


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Oak Brook, IL — Culinary experts and registered dietitians from Chartwells K12, a company that serves 2 million meals a day in 4,500 schools across the country, have compiled annual food trends for 2023. From traveling the world one meal at a time to craving bigger and bolder flavors, these trends represent kids’ favorite foods now and for the year ahead.

“Student tastes are at the forefront of every new program or menu item we introduce,” says Chef Peter Gilhooly, vice-president – culinary, Chartwells K12. “With daily access to the invaluable insights from the students we serve, we’re able to work with kids on creating the fun and delicious, healthy and nutritious meal options on their school menus, and we’re excited to share what’s coming next year.”

This is the company’s third annual list compiled based on decades of experience and expertise in understanding what kids like to eat, along with data from serving school districts in nearly 40 states.

“Through our own research and by incorporating feedback from students across the country, we’re able to create menus and experiences they love while continuing to meet their evolving preferences,” says Lindsey Palmer, MBA, MS, RDN, VP, nutrition and industry relations.

Chartwells K12’s top 10 food trends for kids for 2023 are:

  1. Welcome Aboard! – Kids are exploring diverse cultures and cuisines from the comfort of school cafeterias, but authenticity is key.
  2. Hot, Hot, Hot! – The heat is on with students seeking a different kind of “hot take” when it comes to what’s on their plate. Introducing new spices and seasonings encourages kids to taste bigger and bolder flavors, but to share the nutritious and delicious ways to add taste without more salt.
  3. Community Connections – Whether it’s engaging students through indoor gardens to grow fresh herbs for meals, inviting local farmers to showcase their produce grown only miles away, or joining the annual Apple Crunch Day celebrations in hundreds of schools, local isn’t just on the menu, it’s taking over the cafeteria. Students are learning about basil grown at their own school for a Wheatberry and Bean Salad with Tomato Basil, a regional favorites in Rhode Island with local corn for a Roasted Corn and Black Bean Salad, and the many ways to use locally picked apples for Grilled Apple Cheddar Turkey Panini Sandwiches and Cider Apple and Sausage Casserole with Local Potatoes.
  4. Food (Waste) Fight! – Protecting the planet is a priority and eating more plant-forward meals and preventing food waste are perfect places to start. Recipes like a Vegetable Frittata and Watermelon Poke Bowl from Chartwells’ new Veg Out concept are not only offering students more plant-based meal options, but taking a root-to-stem approach keeping as much food from the trash as possible. When something still remains? Add it to the compost – bins are popping up in more and more kitchens and cafeterias across the country!
  5. Getting Saucy – While ketchup might be the first thing that comes to mind, sauces and salsas are a colorful and great way to enhance and elevate any dish. Students today are looking for fresh, bold and bright flavors to enhance their meals.  Some examples are Balsamic Blueberry Salsa, Argentinian-style Chimichurri, Mojo Barbecue Sauce and Orange Ginger Vinaigrette.
  6. Meals on the Moo-ve – From the morning alarm to the evening “goodnight,” kids are on the go, go, go, and need meals that can keep up with their always active lifestyle. Smoothies make it easy for students to enjoy a quick meal in the cafeteria or in between classes, while giving them the opportunity to eat more yogurt, milk and fruits, in new and traditional combinations. Favorite flavors from Chartwells’ new Smoothie Station include the Banana Apricot Smoothie and the Mango Lassi Smoothie, along with the Dragon Yogurt & Berry Smoothie bowl being a breakout breakfast hit.
  7. Healthy Treat Yourself! – Sweets can still be super when treats are loaded with good-for-you ingredients that taste great — Oat and Sun Butter Energy Bites packed with protein and fiber. No one will guess the secret ingredient in a rich Chocolate Black Bean Brownie filled with the superfood benefits of black beans from Chartwells’ Discovery Kitchen at Home video recipe series.
  8. Plant Powered – Students have been talking and they believe in the magic of plant-forward meals. In surveying school-aged students, Chartwells K12 found 1 in 3 rated vegetarian or vegan options extremely or very important when choosing lunch at school. Whether it’s packing protein with a Baja Bean Taco to power through the day or staying fuller longer with nutrient-dense vegetables filled with fiber and water in Orange Tofu Salad with Baby Spinach and Kale, kids are ready to Veg Out at every opportunity.
  9. Living in Color – When it comes to fruits and vegetables, eating the rainbow boosts your mood – and your immunity. Ranging from the red of Blistered Cherry Tomatoes with Rosemary and the orange of Roasted Sweet & Sour Butternut Squash to the green of an Avocado Kale Smoothie and the purple of Beet Salad with Quinoa and Feta, kids are getting the nutrients needed to support immune health and learning to connect what they eat with how they feel.
  10. The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread – Super Sandwiches are no stranger to Chartwells’ annual trends list, but variety isn’t just between the slices. From an authentic Mexican Torta de Jamon with avocado and pickled jalapeno, or a Vietnamese Pork Banh Mi on a baguette, to the student-favorite Asian Chicken & Vegetable Wrap with Napa cabbage, scallion, carrots and sesame vinaigrette, this student favorite is here to stay.