What’s Cooking in 2024? Chartwells K12 Unveils Annual Top Ten Food Trends for Kids
School chefs and dietitians share their insights on what kids want to see on the menu
Ask any student their favorite part of the school day and one answer is sure to rise to the top, lunchtime! Beyond enjoying time to connect with friends and recharging for the day ahead, kids are looking for meals that reflect what they’re seeing at restaurants, in their community, and even online. To keep up with those evolving preferences, culinary experts and registered dietitians from Chartwells K12 used their insights from serving students at 4,500 schools across the country to identify the top 10 food trends for kids in 2024.
“When we create new menu items or culinary programs, our focus is always on serving food that kids love to eat,” said Chef Peter Gilhooly, Vice President – Culinary, Chartwells K12. “By tapping into the insights of the students we serve, we’re able to work together with kids to craft exciting, delicious, and healthy meals for their school menus that meet their cravings.”
Chartwells K12’s top 10 food trends for kids for 2024 are:
1. I Dip, You Dip, We Dip! – Dips jazz up snacks and meals with extra flavor and texture, and even have kids eating more veggies. Peppers, carrots, and broccoli are the perfect vehicles for Roasted Beet Hummus, while Chartwells’ new Homemade “House Special” BBQ Sauces elevate kid-favorite chicken nuggets and sandwiches with deliciously dunkable flavors.
2. As Seen On … – The TikTok takeover has spread to cafeterias, with Chartwells not only bringing healthy twists to viral TikTok recipes, but inspiring kids to get involved in the kitchen as well. Swap baked feta pasta for Penne with Spinach, Bacon and Grape Tomatoes or Taco Lasagna and trade the grinder for a Philly Steak Sandwich and kids are seeing their favorites on the menu and learning how they can make their own.
3. Mini Madness – Who says bigger is always better? Now it’s all about maximizing the miniature as kids flock to mini-sized favorites like Mini Pancake Bites and Mini Waffles served with fresh fruit for breakfast, Pulled BBQ Pork Sliders for lunch, and more!
4. Destination Dining – Kids in Gen Alpha are continuing to seek out meals that provide a worldly adventure and include unique ingredients, authentic flavors, and traditional recipes from around the globe. With a strong interest in Latin American and Asian cuisines, items like Caribbean Chicken Fricassee featuring the flavors of the tropics and Gochujang Chicken Lettuce Cups offering a look at Korean cuisine, international cuisines are just a lunch line away.
5. Drink Up! – Between the exciting variety of flavor combinations and creative presentations, specialty drinks are a top trend for kids and adults alike. Whether kids are cooling off with an Avocado Mango Kale Smoothie on the go or warming up with Hot Chocolate Milk from Chartwells K12’s new culinary concept, the novelty and fun associated with unique flavors and customizable options can’t be topped!
6. Spice Up Your Life – Nothing to be salty about here, spices enhance taste while keeping the sodium low. Whether it’s the kick of Thai Style Chicken & Noodle Salad or getting ‘swicy’ by turning up the heat with a side of sweet in Honey BBQ Sriracha Chicken Grain Bowl, students are ready to spice up their lives with flavors that can’t be beat.
7. Teens & Their Proteins – Forget the meat, alternative proteins are a trend here to stay! Fueled by a collective commitment to personal health and the well-being of our planet, kids see protein replacements and vegetarian selections as rising culinary stars in the cafeteria, powering up with plant-based proteins like Spicy Avocado Mushroom Quesadilla and Black Bean Sopes.
8. Everything Noodles – Kids love trying new foods, but there’s no denying a beloved classic. From a more traditional Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese to adventurous Teriyaki Chicken Noodle Bowl, noodles in any form top the list of menu picks.
9. Keeping it Fresh – Eating local and in season is always in style. Kids are forming lasting connections with fresh, in-season produce, whether from school gardens or nearby farms, discovering the journey from seed to cafeteria tray. Through farm-to-school initiatives and partnering with local farms kids are getting the chance to try items like Kale and Cranberry Salad, Beef Picadillo, and Zucchini and Golden Squash Casserole.
10. A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That – Plated meals are so 2023. Students are busier than ever and look to round out their meals with quick but healthy bites that can be enjoyed on the go. From grab-and-go favorites like a Soba Noodle Bento Box to a Homemade Pumpkin Bar for an afternoon snack, kids enjoy the variety of different foods packed with the nutrients they need to fuel their day.
Chartwells K12 assembled its fourth annual food trends for kids list drawing on decades of experience and expertise in understanding children’s food preferences, coupled with data from serving over 2 million meals a day in school districts across nearly 40 states.