21 (Delicious) Food and Dining Trends Coming Your Way in 2021, According to Food Experts
If you’re like us, you’re anxiously awaiting the arrival of 2021. What a year it’s been. As the sun sets on 2020, there a few topics that are always top of mind as we ring in the arrival of a new year: Resolutions, hope for healthier months ahead, hangover prevention, and—obviously our favorite—a fresh crop of food trends.
And who better to tap for projected dining trends than some our nation’s top tastemakers: The chefs, restaurant owners, registered dietitians, culinary school instructors, grocery product managers, and bartenders that set the stage for foods we line up for (masks on and at a distance, please), follow on social media, and what we cook for our families at home.
What’s in store for 2021, you ask? A lot—and like everything in life of late, it's going to look very different from any pre-pandemic predictions. Here’s what 17 of our nation’s top food experts can tell you about dining trends to come.
1 Healthy-ish Cocktails
"Consumers are reaching for more alcohol-free spirits, low-calorie alcoholic beverages, and boozy versions of popular healthy beverages ahead of 2021. Hard kombucha is up 320 percent in searches across the Instacart marketplace and searches for brands across the hard seltzer category were up 519 percent from last year. Homemade craft cocktails have been popular in 2020 with the work-from-home crowd. We've seen sales for trendy alcohol-free spirits boom, increasing by 195 percent year-over-year. Perhaps consumers are looking to turn over a new leaf in 2021 with tasty, guilt-free libations."
—Laurentia Romaniuk, Trend Expert and Senior Product Manager at Instacart
2 A Return to Comfort
“Instead of chefs and restaurateurs struggling to find an exciting new ingredient or outlandish new promotion, 2021 will focus on getting back a sense of balance. People just want to gather and socialize while feeling safe—so instead of obsessing over a rare new super-seed, restaurants will move forward by providing guests with feel-good food and genuine hospitality, filling the need for comfort and warmth during these extraordinary times.”
3 Virtual Cooking Classes That Explore Food Origins and Global Cuisine
“Since 2020 was the birth of the Zoom Cooking Class, I certainly see that continuing. But I think chefs/cooks/artisans are going to get even more creative with their content. We need to focus more on food origins—non-Eurocentric foods that should have a place at the global table and are long overdue. Focusing on ingredients from these cultures would be a breath of fresh air beyond what we already see and do over and over again. For example, there is a fermented locust bean called Iru that stems from West Africa. It has tasting notes of dark chocolate, roasted nuts, and mild cheese. Doing a demo of this ingredient would be nice, but add the backdrop of the culture (music, art) to give it more authenticity—now that's something to look forward to. In addition, I think we will cook more food that speaks to ‘us.’ A wonderful mix of cultures and cuisines happened to land here in America. There will be more focus on the diversity and the beauty of who we are, and there is so much that fits under that ‘umbrella.’”
—Chris Scott, Chef at the Institute of Culinary Education
4 A Greater Effort to Go Waste-Free
“Proteins have seen the biggest fluctuation in availability and price since COVID-19, specifically heavy fabricated products, as in ground beef, portioned steaks, and poultry. I think there will be a larger, ‘no waste’ approach to protein selections and use, especially in restaurants (i.e., ‘Tail to snout cooking’). We should also see more seasonal daily menus rather than large menus that only change once to twice a year. This is out of necessity to adapt to product price changes and availability.”
—Marc Marrone, Chef-Partner at SkinnyFATS in Las Vegas, Nev.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Dallas, Texas
5 Nutrition Hacking and Immune Health Over Everything
“Increased interest in (and access to) nutritional information has created a generation of health ‘armchair expert’ consumers in the U.S. The pandemic only escalated consumer interest in functional foods, and the focus on specific nutritional benefits of food and beverage is here to stay. Total discussions centered on food and beverage for medicinal/nutritional needs grew 17 percent on Tastewise over the last year. In 2021, we expect to see consumers crave ‘curated’ nutrition-packed meals that use specific ingredients to achieve individualized goals. At the end of 2020, we already see that consumer interest in immune-boosting food and beverage is up 23 percent month over month, consumer interest in vitamin and prebiotic-rich foods and drinks are up 7 percent, and interest in gut health is up 2.5 percent (with a significant 40 percent boost in the last year).
—Miriam Aniel, Head of Content and Research at Tastewise
6 Terroir Transcends Wine
“When presented with the question of what flavors 2021 will bring us, I must consider what changed in 2020: Perspective and appreciation of time, place, and intention. We collectively had to find comfort in places where we might not have previously, and quarantine forced a new perspective on what’s important to us and why. In 2021, I believe we will be seeking roots. I think the questions will be, 'Where did this come from? Why is it here?' Most of us understand the flavors and spirits we offer behind bars and in restaurants, but there is a layer behind these classic ingredient profiles that is begging to be explored.
In the world of spirits, I predict we’ll be seeking the precursors to what we already know and love. For instance, mezcal predates tequila, and more and more we’re showcasing the small villages that produce mezcal. Rhum Agricole, a pure cane-sugar rum produced in the Caribbean, is the forerunner to rum made with molasses or fermented juice. Aquavit and moonshine also set the stage for gin and whiskey, respectively. When we examine these spirits, we see that all of them take on the terroir of where they’re produced, making them individuals in a world of carbon copies. We can taste the heart and soul of the spirit, and it shows us where it came from. Location, the intention and passion, and the timeline behind the production might mean more to Americans in 2021, since we have had time to examine the same within ourselves."
—Ellen Talbot, Lead Bartender at Fable Lounge in Nashville, Tenn.
7 Spicing Up the Pantry
“2021 is shaping up to be a flavorful year. Consumers are looking for quick and easy ways to spice up the meals they've been making at home, and we're seeing a lot of interest in handcrafted shelf-stable sauces and spice blends on the Instacart marketplace. In fact, more than one in five Americans we polled say they have been more adventurous with home cooking by introducing exotic spices and flavors into their cooking this year, which is also supported by Instacart sales data. For instance, Piri Piri sauce sales were up 725 percent, Lao Gan Ma was up 227 percent, and Za'atar sales rose by 39 percent this year.”
—Laurentia Romaniuk, Trend Expert and Senior Product Manager at Instacart
8 Ghost Kitchens and Touchless Service
“Expect to see more ghost kitchens or ghost food halls operated out of commissaries in 2021. These include multiple brands, each selling their own products (and some new) all under one check. So, for example, you could order pizza while your partner orders a burger, and then you both get ice cream, all from three different venues, on the same tab, delivered together, using your own delivery mechanism or logistics. We’ll also be using more tech to better get your product to market (and seamlessly). Think touchless pickup and payment.”
—Rick Camac, Dean, Restaurant & Hospitality Management at the Institute of Culinary Education
9 Nostalgia Is King
“People are craving anything that connects them to life before lockdowns. We're already seeing this in the flavors that our customers are purchasing. For example, our Red Velvet and Hazel's Pumpkin Pie flavors are trending up this year over last, which is a reflection of the comfort and nostalgia most people attach to the iconic flavors of their childhood. I see this continuing to rise in 2021.”
—Anthony Sobotik, Co-owner of Lick Honest Ice Creams in Austin, Texas
10 Hemp Is Going to be Everywhere
“Hemp is a great soy alternative, vegan alternative, and plant-based alternative. More people are wanting to eat plant-based days during the week and now they easily can. Hemp is a healthy plant-protein that is great for people who are Keto, Paleo, and vegan. From CBD to Hempeh super protein to hemp hearts in your smoothie, it's going to be the year of hemp.”
—Mee McCormick, Chef and Founder of Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile in Nunnelly, Tenn.
11 Sanitization Is Suddenly Sexy
“Health and safety should always be a top priority for an effective operation, and has always been inherent for all successful restaurateurs. Communicating this as a vital brand message will become the differentiating factor in coming months, as consumers want to learn about details they never cared about before. Sanitization is suddenly sexy! As we shift from ‘crisis mode’ into long-term strategy and more methodically adapt to the new normal, there is also tremendous opportunity to see health and safety measures meet unique branding needs with face masks, gloves, equipment and hand sanitizer, as well as signage, digital marketing, and website design.”
12 Bring on the Year of the Magnum
“I’m getting more and more requests for large formats. There is a hashtag that has been circulating that I’m a big fan of —#magnumsshowyoucare—and I think 2021 will be the year of the Magnum!”
—Phillipe Andre, USF Board Member and CMS Certified Sommelier
13 More Mindful Nutrition
“2022 will bring an increased focus on ditching fad diets and embracing mindful eating. It’s important to start listening to what your body is telling you! Whole grain carbohydrates, like brown rice and quinoa, provide essential nutrients and a slow-burning form of energy. Instead of shunning or fearing carbs, for instance, mindful eating can help you enjoy them. Fad diets are really alluring because they promise fast and easy results, but the truth is they’re often really restrictive and hard to follow. Ditching this diet mentality is gaining a lot of momentum. Instead of eliminating your favorite foods, it’s more helpful and sustainable to learn how to include them healthfully. Also, as you’re eating, limit digital distractions and take note of what you’re enjoying about your meal.”
—Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD
14 Social Media (Especially TikTok) Will Bring Us Even Closer to Our Food Community
“You will see restaurants create a lot more videos and behind-the-scenes coverage. It’s important to establish a connection with a business, its owners, and its team, especially during these tough times. Consumers want to support small and local businesses to keep their communities intact, as those businesses are the hardest hit during COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions. Getting to know the faces behind the scenes is extremely important. We believe TikTok will be the front-running platform for this type of social media. The algorithm and ease of using the platform, coupled with the need to interact with others now more than ever, make the app so appealing. It’s also a phenomenal marketing tool for businesses.”
15 Accountability, Fair Treatment of Staff, and Equitability in Food Production, Dining, and Media
“As a chef, I think that a 'trend' for the future is everyday consumers becoming more cognizant of the actual actions of the people behind their favorite restaurants and brands. Given what the very public stories of what can happen in both the restaurant and media industries this year have shown us, consumers can—and will—hold the organizations they support accountable for treating staff fairly and representing food equitably!”
—Jenny Dorsey, Chef at the Institute of Culinary Education
16 Shipping Containers Used for Outdoor Dining
“A cool trend that seems to getting play, prior to outdoor dining being shut down in Los Angeles, is shipping containers converted into outdoor dining set-ups (with cut out sides so there is fresh air). These containers have structure, can be transported around and can provide a 'pop up' dining opportunity. Also in 2021, chefs will continue to alter their fine dining style to simplified comfort food that is easily transported for takeout and delivery diners.”
—Mishel LeDoux, Director of Restaurant & Hospitality Management at the Institute of Culinary Education
17 An Increased Focus on Regional Foods & More Snacking
"I think we will continue to see growth in region-specific global flavors. You'll notice dishes being named Szechuan, Cantonese, or Hunan style versus "Chinese" for example—a great thing. Healthy snacking will also become even bigger in 2021. It has been a trend for the past few years, and plant-based eating continues to thrive. Given so many of us are working from home recently, we’re snacking a lot more than we used to. Plus, we are all in need of added energy throughout the day. My favorite healthy food to snack on is almonds—they make it easy to join both the frequent snacking and plant-based eating trends with ease. Just one ounce (a handful) delivers 6g of natural, plant-based protein, 4g of filling fiber, and good fats."
—Marisa Moore, RD
18 Mezcal Is the New Tequila
“The smoky flavors and beautiful stories behind mezcal (and its producers) will entice consumers, while recently developed brands with more reasonable price points will ensure that more restaurants will incorporate this spirit into specialty cocktails.”
19 Vegan Indulgences and a Functional Food Boom
“In my view, ‘comfort’ and ‘health’ dominated the trends in 2020 and will continue to do so in 2021. In particular, ‘healthy’ sweets and comfort food as well as plant-based or plant-forward items. Vegan meat alternatives and snacks will continue to grow in 2021 with more brands responding and developing products to fit this category. Plant-based also covers non-dairy beverage trends, like oat milk.
Another trend that will continue is low- or non-alcoholic beverages. Adults have been looking to ‘adult beverages’ to help in 2020, but there is a trend toward healthier and low/no alcohol versions of this. Finally, I expect to see some growth in 2021 is ‘functional foods’ that promote things like relaxation, concentration, and so on.”
—Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, Chef at the Institute of Culinary Education
20 Bring on the Tacos
“We are all cooking at home more often and expanding what we can wrap in a tortilla. It's not just ground beef, cheddar cheese, and lettuce anymore—it's cauliflower, it's mushrooms, it's hot chicken. You can pack plenty of healthy foods into tacos—they're also delicious, filling, and lean, and can be plant-based, keto, wrapped in lettuce, and so on. Everyone loves a taco; now it's just time to be creative with your taco creations.”
—Mee McCormick, Chef & Founder of Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile in Nunnelly, Tenn.
21 Plant-Based Packaged Foods, Hybrid Restaurant Models, and Canned Cocktails
“I think we’ll continue to see a surge in plant-based foods, not only when dining out, but on the grocery store shelves. This will include a lot of high-quality substitutes for everything from butter, seafood, and alternate grain options. Lentils, grains, and other pantry staples will be supporting this trend. Also, expect to see hybrid restaurant models offering takeout, pantry essentials, and meal kits. Finally, the no-alcohol, low-alcohol, and high-end cocktails (bar quality) readily available in aluminum cans will keep coming.”
—Palak Patel, Chef at the Institute of Culinary Education