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Friday Finds: 20 Event Food Catering Trends to Watch For in 2020

There’s no denying it: F&B plays an integral role in creating a desirable attendee experience. And just as events have evolved to put attendee wellness at the top of the priority list, so too have event catering trends for weddings, parties, and meetings. So as we plunge boldly ahead into a whole new decade of events, we’ve rounded up the trends that planners, caterers, and hotel sales managers need to keep in mind as they craft their menus. Here are the top 20 that you’ll want to pair with your best event catering ideas.

Discover the event catering trends you can’t ignore in the year ahead:

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1. Mocktails will go mainstream. 

But don’t call them “mocktails.” These flavorful fusions pack all the mixological artisanship of craft cocktails, sans the hard stuff. That’s why they’re popping up in larger numbers in some of the world’s most famous restaurants and bars, including Eleven Madison Park in New York City and American Bar (the longest surviving cocktail establishment in London).

Still, craft brewing and other alcoholic beverages aren’t going anywhere. But with non-alcoholic liquors expected to grow 7.1% annually between now and 2022, 0.0 is a number planners, caterers, and hotel sales managers will want to keep on tap.

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2. Free-from foods aren’t just optional.

“Free-from” foods are expected to see continuous growth in coming years — especially gluten-free foods, which are forecast to see a compound annual growth rate of 8.1% in the period between 2018 and 2026. And while gluten-free foods make up more than half of all free-from products, soy-free, dairy-free, and other similar products are breaking into the culinary spotlight due to health concerns and an increase in allergies.

3. Attendees want to know the numbers.

The FDA ruled in 2018 that restaurants had to begin making caloric information readily available. However, many restaurants and chains are taking nutritional transparency many steps further by deep-diving into ingredients, tracing ingredients to their origins, and offering information like protein-per-serving. In 2020 events will be expected to provide the same, driven by the demands of health-conscious attendees who want to know more about what they’re putting into their bodies.

4. We’ll see a more modern approach to plant-based meat.

Say “soy long” to tofu and tempeh, and hello to new plant-based meats that ditch the soy for more creative approaches to creating nutritionally-viable substitutes. And it’s not just cutting-edge plant-burger companies. Savvy gourmet chefs are making putting peas, cashews, almonds, mushrooms, avocados, beets, and beyond center stage where a cut of beef might have traditionally been. 

It’s one of a handful of event catering trends you can expect to stick around beyond 2020: The plant-based meat market is forecast to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to a whopping $85 billion by the year 2035.

From Google Trends

5. Bacteria isn’t a bad word anymore.

As research continues to uncover just how important the human microbiome is to both mental and physical health, probiotic foods like kombucha, kefir, and kimchi are having their moment. And with planners knowing that happy tummies make happy attendees, you can expect catering menus to kick some traditional beverages to the curb, replacing them with craft kombucha. Meanwhile, fermented foods will make their way onto attendee plates for much the same reason. (Which might be a good reason to keep some mints on hand.)

6. Expect to see CBD on the menu.

CBD has seen an explosion of interest recently due to the promise of its many potential health benefits, but the revolution isn’t just stopping at tinctures and ointments. Cannabinoids are making their way onto plates and into glasses, with CBD-infused menus becoming a mainstay moving into 2020. That includes everything from sparkling water to full-fledged culinary classics cooked using CBD oil.

Think you can ignore it because you’re catering to the professional crowd? Think again. Forbes reports that CBD consumers are an average age of 40, have higher education, and are more likely than non-consumers to be employed full time. However, if you’re entertaining the idea of putting it on the menu, be 100% sure that you’re following consumption laws in your city or state.

7. Book a (culinary) trip to West Africa. 

Southeast Asian Foods made a splash in 2019, but event catering trends will make the journey to West Africa in 2020. The 16 nations within West Africa have similar underlying flavors, but each cooks up its own unique variations thanks to influences from Europe and the Middle East. As such, it’s a regional genre of food that brings abundant variety (and flavor!) to the table. Look to see superfoods such as moringa and tamarind on the table, as well as cereal grains such as sorghum, fonio, teff, and millet. 

8. Attendees are jacked about jackfruit. 

We already talked about plant-based meat blended from legumes and veggies. But one plant is standing alone as a meat substitute, with a unique texture that’s a remarkable mimic of pulled pork: Jackfruit. This Asian fruit absorbs sauces and flavors incredibly well, making it the perfect blank canvas for barbecue and tex-mex recreations. It’s also packed with iron, calcium, and plenty of B vitamins. So get ready to see jackfruit tacos and beyond on the bill at many an event in 2020. 

9. Is it fair trade?

Concerns about food sourcing in 2020 won’t just be limited to how it’s grown. They will also include who’s growing it and how they’re treated. That’s where fair-trade foods come in. While industrial agriculture enables and even encourages compromise at the expense of farmers and workers, Fair Trade Certified™ produce is held to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. These standards ensure both environmental and income sustainability for the marginalized and at-risk communities that are too often exploited in the supply chain. 

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10. Event catering will move away from a set schedule.

Attendees are craving personalization at every stage of the event experience, food included. And that doesn’t just mean what’s being served, it also extends to when it’s time to eat. Look to more events adopting systems that offer continuous refreshments during event hours, as opposed to set breaks, in 2020. In tandem, expect caterers to adapt to accommodate this type of service — and as such, expect it to eat up a bit more of event budgets as well.

Source: IACC Meeting Room of the Future

11. Ugly produce will be pretty popular.

Approximately 40% of the food in the United States is thrown out each year. It’s an eye-opening statistic driven largely by consumer opposition to produce that doesn’t look perfect. Since what doesn’t look perfect, doesn’t sell, stores don’t put it in produce bins. But with the lens on sustainability more than ever, the narrative is beginning to change, and both restaurants and consumers are seeking out ways to keep ugly produce from hitting the landfill.  

Source: NRDC

12. For alternative milk, oat is the new G.O.A.T.

Serving coffee at your event? Chances are, you’ll have many an attendee asking for oatmilk: a plant-based alternative milk with a creamy consistency that mimics the real deal much better than almond, soy, or coconut. To get an idea of just how quickly it’s growing in popularity, just look at Swedish-based Oatly. Since its U.S. launch in 2016, the brand has had to increase production 1250%

As oat milk quickly approaches “must-carry” status in the coming year, events serving breakfast or offering barista bars would do well to keep cartons on hand.

13. Grab-and-go gets a makeover.

Ready-to-eat convenience has traditionally been synonymous with lackluster sandwiches, sad cobb salads, and unhealthy options. That’s all going to change in the year ahead, as grab-and-go reinvents itself in the name of attendee wellness — proving once and for all that healthy and quick don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Look to events to offer healthier, more desirable, and even gourmet grab-and-go options, giving busy attendees the nutrition they need on-demand between sessions. 

14. Menus will cater to bright, bold colors. 

For both event planners and caterers, shareability is key when it comes to getting the word out. With a modern attendee base who loves to share their meals via Instagram, food plays into that shareability in a big way. As such, look to menus to cater to bright, bold colors that attendees just can’t help but share.  

15. Sustainability will be center stage. 

Literally every piece of the food preparation puzzle contributes to greenhouse emissions: growing, sourcing, preparation, presentation, and waste. In 2020, look to caterers and events to put more emphasis on sustainability at every one of these stages. Perhaps the biggest change will be in the reduction of single-use plastics, whether through the adoption of compostable alternatives or reusable utensils. Some events, like IMEX, event went so far as to ask attendees to bring their own reusable water bottles and coffee cups in 2019. We expect even more events to do the same in 2020.

16. Allergy-friendly menus will be a must.

11% of U.S. adults — 26 million individuals nationwide — have at least one food allergy, reports a 2019 study which surveyed more than 40,000 individuals. Another 8% reported having a food allergy, but listed symptoms more likely to be associated with intolerance. Simply put, allergies are a bigger problem than ever before, and managing dietary restrictions at events is getting harder by the year. In order, the allergies most commonly reported are as follows:

  • shellfish (7.2 million U.S. adults)
  • milk (4.7 million)
  • peanut (4.5 million)
  • tree nut (3 million)
  • fin fish (2.2 million)
  • egg (2.0 million)
  • wheat (2.0 million)
  • soy (1.5 million)
  • sesame (500,000)

17. Exotic fruits are coming to a cocktail near you. 

From cactus fruits like prickly pear to Asian fruits like yuzu and dragon fruit, cocktails are kicking it up a notch and going into uncharted territory. Benchmark Global Hospitality confirms much the same in a recent release of its annual Top 10 Dining Trends list. The owner of 80 hotels, resorts, and restaurants across the globe reports that, “Consumers are also exploring more unique fruit flavor varieties, including bergamot orange, yuzu, calamansi, citron, makrut lime, pomelo, Meyer lemon, blood orange, and ugli fruit (a Jamaican form of the tangelo) to name a few.”

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18. Attendees want you to stay true to the region. 

“Authenticity” is a word that has been thrown around quite a bit in recent years. Why? Because attendees are craving authentic experiences, and it all begins with authentic interactions with their host cities. In 2020, events will take this to heart by keeping menus loaded with regional favorites. Get ready for cajun flavors in New Orleans, traditional Tennessee barbecue in Nashville, and Tex-Mex twists in Texas.

19. Ignoring superfoods could be your kryptonite. 

It’s an almond… it’s sperlina… it’s superfood! “Superfoods” are a big buzzword, and they’ve been slowly (or not so slowly) infiltrating smoothies, salads, and beyond. Known for their remarkable nutritional density, this label spans berries, grains, fish, probiotics, and more. Cater more effectively to the modern attendee by exploring creative ways to work superfoods into the menu, and watch energy and focus levels climb to all-time highs.

20. Snacking will use veggies in new ways.

Move over potatoes, beet chips are on the scene. Oh, and see ya later cheese puffs, legume-based puffs are changing the game. Long story short, the unhealthy snacks we’ve long been accustomed to are being reinvented in new, veggie-forward ways. Look to events to work with new vendors and source new snacks to give attendees better access to healthier on-the-go eats that won’t lead to a late-afternoon energy crash. 

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Which event catering trends will you put on the menu?

If one thing’s clear looking at this list, it’s that healthy foods are no longer just a nice-to-have. Event planners, caterers, and hotel sales managers need to put these 20 trends front and center, crafting F&B menus with a health-forward lens. It’s just the recipe your attendees are looking for.  Up next, learn more about common dietary restrictions these days, and how to accommodate them with your event catering.

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