What Students Want: Trends in K-12 for Lunch, Breakfast and Grab-n-Go

May 09, 2022

What Students Want: Trends in K-12 for Lunch, Breakfast and Grab-n-Go

In the face of ongoing supply chain and labor issues, K-12 foodservice operators have gone to heroic lengths to continue feeding tasty, nutritious meals to their students. It hasn’t been easy. But they’re overcoming this historic adversity with remarkable creativity and tenacity.

Here’s a rundown of the notable K-12 foodservice innovations and trends we’ve identified for lunch, breakfast, grab-n-go and Smart Snacks, along with some data on the items students are craving off-campus.

Improvising for the lunch crowd

As K-12’s highest volume meal, lunch was hit the hardest this year by supply chain disruptions, often on short notice, forcing foodservice teams to work around them. Many times, this involved incorporating additional flavors into their most commonly served items to avoid menu fatigue.

“Even before the pandemic, K-12 operators were combining students’ favorite flavors to increase menu appeal,” says Roberto Roman, Corporate Executive Chef at Simplot. “Things like chicken bacon ranch and honey BBQ can bring new life to an old standby like chicken tenders or pizza.”

The fastest-growing flavors over the last four years are:1

  • Ginger +>300%
  • Bacon Ranch +>300%
  • White Gravy +>300%
  • Honey BBQ +287%
  • Honey Mustard +161%

Students are also loving the look and flavor of roasted vegetables. How fast have they grown on K-12 menus over the last four years?2

  • Roasted Corn +>400%
  • Roasted Red Pepper +>400%
  • Roasted Carrot +57%
  • Baked Sweet Potato +27%

Here are some other notable lunch innovations from around the U.S.:

  • Try before you buy: To help introduce new flavors, Whitesboro Independent School District (Texas) lets students taste a spoonful of any item they haven’t tried before.3

  • Spice is the variety of life: Minneapolis Public Schools are maintaining menu variety despite supply shortages by adding fresh herbs and spices to common items like chicken strips.3

  • Increasing party-cipation: Special events, seasonal foods and interactive challenges—like a student taco sauce competition on Taco Tuesday—have driven participation to 90% in 3 of 4 cafeterias in the Whitesboro Independent School District (Texas).3

  • Time for a change: In a recent study, students who were given 20 minutes to eat vs. 10 minutes consumed significantly more fruits and vegetables during seated lunch.3

  • Fingerware: Facing a shortage of flatware, Dallas Independent School District pivoted to serving finger foods two days a week.3

What flavors are catching students’ attention for lunch away from campus?

Keeping up with the ever-changing tastes of students is critical to ensure your menu remains competitive with off-campus options. For chefs at Detroit Public Schools, this means dining out at neighborhood restaurants every Friday to observe what high school students are ordering away from the cafeteria.

Restaurants, of course, don’t face the same budgetary and nutritional limitations as schools, but there’s still a lot to be learned in what and how these establishments are serving kids.

McDonald’s®, Starbucks®, and Subway® top the list of Gen Z’s favorite restaurant brands by offering craveable flavors and convenience.3 Gen Z also over-indexes for restaurants with flavorful food that can travel, including sweet beverage options with healthy halo benefits. These include chains like:3

  • Tropical Smoothie Café®
  • Smoothie King®
  • Jamba
  • Raising Cane’s®
  • Wingstop®

Here are some examples of other flavors from around the country that are resonating with Gen Z:3

  • Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ Mochi Boba with Brown Sugar Milk: Japanese rice cake in brown-sugar syrup and milk on ice. (43% purchase intent)

  • Taco Bell® Wild Strawberry Freeze: A frozen drink that tastes like wild strawberries.
    (33% purchase intent)

  • First Watch® Triple Berry Acai Bowl: Organic Acai topped with fresh strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and granola. (35% purchase intent)

  • McDonald’s® Spicy Chicken McNuggets: Chicken nuggets seasoned with cayenne and chili pepper. (32% purchase intent)

  • On the Border® Mexican Grill Texas Queso Fries: French fries topped with queso, melted white Mexican cheese, bacon bits, avocado ranch dressing and sliced, pickled jalapeños. (28% purchase intent)

  • Stuffed concepts: Stuffed concepts that scored above average with Gen Z include Stuffed Strawberry French Toast and Stuffed Breadsticks.

“Compared to previous generations, Gen Z students are more likely to identify as multi-cultural, meaning they will have more diverse food expectations,” says Michael Zeller, Corporate Executive Chef at Simplot. “Consider adding more global flavors and dishes to keep your menu relevant.”

K-12 breakfast menus meet the challenge

While the average number of items on lunch menus shrank during the pandemic, breakfast menus grew slightly from 29 to 30.2 This may be a response to an uptick in participation.

Kids continue to love their spuds. Hash browns and potatoes are up +81% and +87% respectively on menus since 2016.2

Off campus, the most popular breakfast items available at limited-service restaurants (by operator penetration) include:4

  • Breakfast sandwich 22.6%
  • Egg dish 8.9%
  • Sandwich/wrap 8.5%
  • Combo plate 6%

On full-service breakfast menus, the most popular breakfast items include:4

  • Egg dish 14.5%
  • Breakfast starch 14%
  • Combo plates 12.5%
  • Breakfast sandwich 11%

The fastest-growing fruits on K-12 breakfast menus over the last four years are:2

  • Mango +>400%
  • Watermelon +>400%
  • Tangerine +>400%
  • Raspberry +>400%
  • Clementine +297%

Grab-n-go and Smart Snacks: Feeding Kids Wherever They Are

Many schools turned to pre-packaged foods during the pandemic to feed students at home or in their classrooms, banking on their low-touch safety and shelf life when demand could be unpredictable.3

Pre-packaged is popular: 56% of K-12 added more pre-packaged grab-and-go items during the pandemic.5 83% said they will likely continue offering them in the future.6

Adding c-store convenience: Some schools have introduced c-store formats for quick access to ready-to-eat sandwiches, salads, and snacks. The goals? More variety for students and faster speed of service.3

Here are some tips to improve your grab-n-go packaging:

  • Appeal to the eye. Choose transparent packaging or packages with transparent windows.
  • Use vented or anti-fog packaging for hot items to fight sogginess.
  • Look for packaging with a full-perimeter seal. Your food will stay fresh longer.
  • Mind the environment. Look for options made with green materials.

According to Chef Roman, K-12 operators don’t have to go it alone to solve the challenges of grab-n-go.

“Grab-n-go items are having to travel farther to reach students,” he says. “More than ever, K-12 operators are seeking the food manufacturers’ help in identifying the best products and recipes that work long distance. At Simplot, we bundle one of the largest portfolios of any manufacturer with expert culinary support, training, trend data, and marketing support, so you can make the most of them.”

Can anyone predict what’s coming this fall?

Well, no. But with the learnings and innovation of the last two years, K-12 foodservice pros are better prepared than ever for what the future may bring. And with the assistance of forward-thinking manufacturers, districts can count on serving the nutritious, delicious meals they need to fuel learning.

1 Datassential, K-12 Recovery Guide, 2020
2 Datassential, September 2021
3 Technomic, 2021
4 Technomic, Ignite Menu, Top 500 Chains, 2021
5 Technomic, FSPP, April 2021
6 IMFA CPP, 2020