K-12 Food Trends: Grain Bowls, Funky Fries and More

May 09, 2023

K-12 Food Trends: Grain Bowls, Funky Fries and More

Twenty years ago, you probably never thought grain bowls would be on your school lunch menus—or as popular as they are today.

But kids’ tastes do change, and Gen Z and Alphas have grown up with their parents’ appetite for global flavors and plant-based options. So, while burgers and pizza will always be best-sellers, it’s wise to keep up with the trending foods to ensure your menu stays relevant.

For 2023, the K-12 Team at Simplot has identified three important trends in K-12 foodservice that can help you increase participation and meet nutritional standards: funky fries, grain bowls and reimagined classics.

We’ll also share some great K-12 recipes and helpful frozen products with simple, heat-and-serve prep to reduce labor.

K-12 Food Trend #1: Grain Bowls

The popularity of bowl recipes is on the rise in K-12 schools, thanks to their versatility, convenience, and ability to cater to different dietary needs. A bowl meal typically includes a combination of protein, grains, vegetables and sauces, all in one dish. Sweet or savory, the versatility and flexibility of grain bowls make it easier to add nutritional content while creating tasty, colorful dishes.

And kids are responding:

  • Bowls are more popular with Gen Z than any other generation1

  • Gen Z loves health-forward bowls like smoothie, acai, and grain bowls1

  • Gen Z has twice the affinity for smoothie bowls vs. other generations1

  • Top-performing recent bowl introductions have been Mexican-inspired1

  • Chicken, rice and onions appear most often in bowls at restaurants1

“Bowls’ interactive and fun nature appeals to kids of all ages,” says Michael Zeller, Corporate Executive Chef at Simplot. With a wide range of possible flavor combinations, bowls offer students a way to explore unfamiliar ingredients and foods that doesn’t intimidate them.”

A growing trend in K-12 bowl recipes is the incorporation of global flavors and ingredients. To expose students to a diverse range of culinary traditions, schools are increasingly using flavors and ingredients from different cultures such as Korean, Mexican, and Middle Eastern.

This trend reflects the growing diversity of the student population. It can also make school meals more exciting and appealing to students hesitant to try new cuisines.

From an operational standpoint, on-trend frozen products like Simplot Good Grains™ Vegetables & Grains and Simplot RoastWorks® Flame-Roasted Vegetables can dramatically reduce the labor of making bowls while improving consistency.

Looking for K-12 grain bowl recipes? Here are a few designed specifically for K-12 schools by the Simplot Culinary Team:

Southwest Sweet Potato Bowl
How about a "breakfast for lunch" option? This rustic vegetarian bowl features roasted sweet potatoes, corn and black beans, peppers and onions, and cheesy scrambled eggs. Serve it with a flour tortilla and offer guacamole as an option.
View Recipe »

Cauliflower Stir-Fry Bowl
Jam-packed with veggies, chicken, and a delicious orange-chili sauce over cauliflower rice—this bowl has all the flavor of a traditional stir fry but without the excess fat and carbs.
View Recipe »

Beef Picadillo Fiesta Rice Bowl
The kids will think this tasty Mexican dish is slow-cooked comfort food; but your kitchen crew knows it comes together quickly. Everybody wins, yay!
View Recipe »

Learn more about K-12 grain bowl trends and ingredients here.

K-12 Food Trend #2: Funky Fries

As research firm Datassential noted in January 2023, “If K-12 operators want to ‘win’ against quick-serve restaurant chains, they must have tasty, crave-able and high-quality offerings.”

Take french fries, one of the most popular, most crave-able foods in America. Most schools serve fries as a simple side dish. But your competitors, commercial restaurants, have discovered that fries can also serve as a low-cost base for crave-able appetizers and entrées. And they’re using them to create traffic-driving limited-time offers.

Put another way, it’s time for you to funk up your fries with new shapes, new flavors and mouthwatering toppings.

  • Lattice fries score well among Gen Z along with bold flavors like black truffle and Mexican seasoning (i.e., nacho fries)2

  • Buffalo Chicken Fries have <1% K-12 menu penetration but expected to grow 112% through 20262

  • Loaded fries appear on 2% of K-12 menus and are expected to grow +64% by 20262

“Funky fry recipes add a dimension of excitement to school meals, making them more enjoyable for students,” says Michael Zeller, Corporate Executive Chef at Simplot. “Be sure to offer a variety of options to accommodate the diverse dietary preferences and needs of your kids.”

Here are some fry recipes that truly bring the funk to K-12:

Lattice Pizza Fries
What's better than pizza at lunch? Pizza Fries! All the Italian flavors that kids love plus crispy lattice fries—this vegetarian option will surely be a lunchtime winner.
View Recipe »

Japanese BBQ Fries
Crispy, golden lattice fries topped with ground beef in a tangy ginger-soy sauce, tender edamame and finished with a sprinkle of cheddar cheese. Make lots, these are going to be popular!
View Recipe »

Beef Birria Loaded Tater Gems®
How about a new spin on the old Taco Tuesday lineup? Load up a serving of Tater Gems® with seasoned ground beef and top with Cheddar Jack, onions, cilantro, and a dollop of guacamole.
View Recipe »

Learn how to get your fries crispy and golden when baking them in the oven.

K-12 Food Trend #3: Reimagined Classics

Reimagined classics are a great way to make traditional dishes more exciting and healthier for students. By incorporating fresh ingredients and creative flavor combinations, reimagined classics can appeal to a broader range of students, including those who are picky eaters or have dietary restrictions.

Here are some strategies you can use:

  1. Experiment with flavors: One way to add a twist to classic dishes is to experiment with different flavor combinations. For example, adding spices such as cumin, turmeric, or smoked paprika to a classic mac and cheese recipe can give it a new and exciting flavor.

  2. Incorporate fresh ingredients: Include fresh, seasonal ingredients like herbs such as basil, cilantro, or parsley to a classic tomato sauce that can give it a fresh, vibrant flavor.

  3. Swap out ingredients: For example, using brown rice instead of white rice adds nutritional value and visual appeal.

  4. Offer customizable options: Allow students to customize their meals by offering a toppings bar for classic dishes such as pizza or tacos.

  5. Incorporate global flavors: Introducing global flavors into classic dishes can add a twist and expose students to something new. For example, adding curry powder to a classic chicken pot pie can give it an attractive, new flavor profile.

“Gen Z inherited their parents’ adventurous palates,” says Roberto Roman, Corporate Executive Chef at Simplot. “Ninety percent are open to new foods and flavors in foods and beverages. Just make sure you prepare them in formats they already know.”

Here are four reimagined classic recipes from the Simplot Culinary Team:

Loaded No Mac and Cheese
A new take on a popular casserole "oldie"—made with riced cauliflower and flame-roasted corn with just a touch of jalapeño kick. Don't be surprised when nobody misses the "mac".
View Recipe »

Philly Grilled Cheese with Crinkle Cut Fries
You get tender beef, flame-roasted peppers and onions and melty American cheese between toasty slices of bread. And you get it without standing in front of grill! These sandwiches are baked and oh-so delicious.
View Recipe »

Cheesy Corn and Buffalo Chicken Bake
The name pretty much says it all, and we say this might be a new favorite in your lunchtime rotation. These flavors work so well together and this dish is a snap to prepare.
View Recipe »

Root Vegetable Pot Pie
These little cuties feature all the flavors of the much-loved original version without all the handwork and labor needed for dough prep. And seriously, who doesn't love an individual pot pie?
View Recipe »

Incorporating funky fries, grain bowls, and reimagined classics into K-12 foodservice menus is a smart way to meet student needs while providing healthy and tasty meal options. By staying up to date with food trends and engaging with students through taste tests and surveys, K-12 foodservice directors can ensure that their menus are always fresh and exciting. So go ahead and give these trendy dishes a try—your students will thank you!



1, 2 Datassential, Gen Z Insights, 2022