Technomic's top 10 predicted trends include:
1. Vegetables. As more consumers discover meatless meals, vegetarian fare will continue evolving into flexitarian with actual vegetables. Technomic predicts more innovative salads, creative presentations of roasted or steamed veggies and the increased use of carrots, kale or Brussels sprouts. Vegetable at the center of the plate will also be more prevalent, as consumers continue to seek fresh, local, healthful fare, and operators are squeezed by rising costs for proteins.
2. Grains. Recognized as nutrition powerhouses, grains are also playing star roles on menus. Dishes such as polenta, couscous or bulgur are central to some of today's ethnic cuisines. And a number of grains -- quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, corn, oats and buckwheat -- do not contain gluten, so they are being spotlighted as part of the movement to gluten-free eating.
3. Chicken. Chicken is ubiquitous thanks to its always-reasonable price and versatility, but now it is actually trendy as well. New quick-service and fast casual fried chicken concepts are popping up, offering Southern or spicy takes on a classic. Now that Latin-accented marinated chicken has established a niche, African peri-peri chicken may be next.
4. Snacks. Habits of around-the-clock eating, the street-food/food-truck craze, consumers' demand for flexible portions and prices, and operators' need to move beyond price-cutting on core menu items all combine to make snacking a key trend. Tapas, mezze and upscale bar bites in full-service restaurants are matched by flavorful novelties in limited-service restaurants, from Spicy Chicken McBites at McDonald's and Chicken Littles at KFC to mini corn dogs at Jack in the Box and cheesecake bites at Sonic.
5. Value-as-volume. On the other hand, there is an opposite value-as-volume movement. Look for more deals such as Pizza Hut's Big Dinner Box (two pizzas with multiple sides) or Olive Garden's Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow (a dine-in meal plus a to-go meal), as well as multi-course feasts for two, four or more -- even whole-hog pig roasts.
6. Diner and deli fare. Concepts of many types are looking to the menus of traditional and contemporary diners and delis for inspiration. Technomic predicts a proliferation of premium diner- and deli-inspired meaty sandwiches, full-flavored soups, even pickles -- from traditional dill to pickled red onion.
7. Noodles. Ramen done right is a long way from dorm fare; it is nutritious, subtle, satisfying and redolent of Far East street markets. Look for ramen, udon, soba, cellophane and rice noodles to show up in hearty layered bowls, fragrant soups and even mixed-texture salads.
8. South America. Just as diners who love Asian fare have explored beyond Chinese to develop a taste for Thai and Vietnamese, those who favor Mexican are now looking south -- Brazil, Argentina and Peru. We'll see mainstreaming of South American-style grilled meats, chimichurri sauce, ceviche, South American-Asian fusion seafood dishes and iconic drinks, from Brazil's caipirinha to Peru's pisco sour.
9. Fast casual goes global. Success in the exploding fast casual sector is no longer limited to bakery cafés and Mexican concepts. Build-your-own-better-burger chains and gourmet brick-oven pizza restaurants have been on the rise for some time, but now there is also more ethnic foods and flavors -- from American barbecue to Southeast Asian soups and sandwiches to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare.
10. Beverage differentiation. Trends include fresh fruit (especially tropical fruit) beverages; natural energy drinks; housemade sodas; cocktails made with candy-like flavored vodkas; microdistillery liquors that promote drinking locally; regional craft brews starring in beer-and-food pairings; and the rise of hard ciders.