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The Culinary Experience: What’s Hot in Food for 2021

Donut walls. Action stations. Build-your-own bars. Going into 2020 all of these trends were considered hot. Then COVID-19 hit and these exciting new trends were tossed aside in favor of to-go family meals and meal kits. As we look ahead to 2021, the effects of COVID-19 have infiltrated many of the food and beverage trends that are on the horizon, but they are exciting, creative and, obviously, delicious just the same. 

2021 is looking to bring diversity by utilizing non-traditional ingredients while ensuring the health and happiness of customers. Check out what’s on the menu for 2021 with these food and beverage trends.   

Outside your comfort zone 

While traditional comfort food will undoubtedly still be popular as a way of coping with the pandemic, consumers will also be looking for healthier, more nostalgic dishes that transport them back to simpler times. Also look for non-traditional comfort food to rise in popularity, such as ramen dishes, pho, and tacos.  


Tacos from Mintahoe Catering & Events. Photo courtesy Jim Scherer.

“Traditional comfort food is dead in the water,” said California-based Chef Keith Lord during an International Caterers Association executive chef roundtable earlier this year. “They’re looking for comforting food that they haven’t been able to make at home.”  

Mixing it up: Pulses, oils and grains 

Diversity and alternatives will be the name of the game in 2021 for pulses, oils and grains. 

Bored with vegetable oil? Over olive oil? Well, you're in luck. A range of new oils will rise in popularity, including walnut, pumpkin seed, and avocado. 

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Additionally, the rise in specialty diets—and the increase in chefs reporting intolerances of their own—will give way to new alternatives in substitution of all-purpose flour. 

Alternative flours provide more bang for the buck: a rising number of local mills are grinding locally grown grains, delivering specific health, flavor, and texture attributes. Some of these flour alternatives include mochi, almond, coconut, acorn, and another of 2021’s hottest ingredients, chickpeas.  

Falafel balls and hummus.

We will see chickpea anything in 2021. Now is the time to think beyond hummus and falafel, chickpeas will be found in products such as pasta, sliders, tofu, cereal, and even in desserts. 

Other pulse alternatives will also rise in popularity, such as pigeon peas, cranberry beans, and black beluga lentils.  

High flying cocktails 

Perhaps taking a page from the Roaring ‘20s, and the years of bathtub gins and speakeasy culture, high-octane cocktails are making a comeback on bar menus across the country.  

Cocktail from Feastivities Events. Photo courtesy Feastivities Events.

While beverage pros speculate that the rise in popularity for 100 proof and higher could be the backlash from the “sober curious” movement, others believe the swing is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and consumers’ desires for a much-needed indulgence, while getting the most for their buck by making every drink count.  

The fermentation equation 

Fermented foods and beverages are taking center stage in 2021, everything from kimchi to sauerkraut to kombucha, and Korean jangs.  

Korean braised beef brisket with homemade kimchi, jalapenos and natural jus. Photo courtesy Tyson Airaksinen Photography.

Korean Braised Beef BrisketHouse Made Kimchi, Pickled Jalapeno's, Natural Jus

Fermented foods containing probiotics are going to be more in demand for the health-conscious consumer. In addition to probiotics, many fermented foods also contain various vitamins, along with other nutrients, which help strengthen the immune system, improve digestion, reduce the risk of certain diseases, and, because it is rich in fiber, might even help with weight loss. 

Rising with the sunny side up  

Working from home? A luxurious breakfast or brunch isn’t just reserved for the weekends anymore. Think epic breakfasts such as mid-week pancakes or waffles or even sous vide egg bites to start the day. Brunch is also getting its day in the sun as families try to find ways to celebrate holidays such as Mother’s Day and Easter. 

Bacon pancakes. Photo courtesy General Mills.

According to Datassential, in 2018, brunch was on 5.8% of American menus but expected to grow by 17% in the next four years. Additionally, industry sites like The Knot have noted the rise of wedding brunch formats.  

Something’s fishy 

Seafood is having a moment in 2020, and this will most likely continue into 2021 as beef prices remain high, and consumers and culinary professionals alike are looking to seafood as a center of the plate alternative. 

As delicious as seafood is though, the industrial fishing industry has a history of leaving destruction in its wake, which is why sustainable seafood has become such a hot button topic. Everything from plant-based shrimp to sales of wild fish that are caught in ways that don’t damage ecosystems are on the radar. Sitka Salmon Shares is one such company with its “boat-to-doorstep” seasonal seafood boxes. Its community supported fishery program (CSF) has not only made fresh, ocean-caught seafood available to non-coastal residents, but it has dedicated itself not only to supporting the livelihoods of small boat fishermen, but also to responsible harvesting and traceability. 

Poke bowl with tuna, furikake steam rice and lotus crisps. Photo courtesy NXT Creates.

And lastly, tinned fish is making a steady climb, appearing on menus as apps, small plates, and bar snacks.  

(Not so) sweet treats 

2021 will usher in a major dessert shift. Gone are the days of overly sweet desserts, and instead we will see the rise of “sophisticated” desserts, with a mix of bitter elements. Think: dark bitter chocolate, salty flavors, subtle milk desserts, green tea ice cream, and ginger flavors. 

Sea Salt Caramel Bacon Pecan Pie. Photo courtesy General Mills.

Coffee will also be king in 2021, so expect to see coffee-flavored bars and granolas, smoothie boosters and booze, even coffee yogurt. You can get your java fix in so, so many new forms.  

Garden variety menus 

Plant-based menus will continue to reign supreme in 2021 with the continued popularity of protein alternatives such as jackfruit, mung bean, and pulled oats. Garden fresh vegetables will be in high demand, as well as new emerging trends like jerky and upcycled ingredients.  

Vegetables will reign supreme. Photo couresy Brancato's Catering.

When we think of jerky, we think of beef or fish jerky. Not anymore. All kinds of produce from mushrooms to jackfruit, even bananas, are being served jerky-style, providing a new, shelf-stable way to enjoy fruits and veggies.

Many vegetable dayparts will be upcycled for use in different ways, such as okara being used for baking flour and flavored waters infused with discarded melons.  

We’ll toast to that  

Avocado toast has been all the rage in recent years, but 2021 will see new toast trends pop up as well, everything from mushroom to sweet potato, and even open-faced comfort options like the Hot Brown. 

Avocado toast with smoked salmon.

Maybe this tasty trend was born of quarantine cooking, since it seems like 2020 was the year that everyone learned how to bake homemade bread.  

Getting corny 

Corn is one of the most versatile foods on the planet, enjoyed in salads, on the cob, and even ground up for tortillas, and this corny trend will only continue into 2021 as everything from elote to esquites to comforting salads will continue to grow in popularity.  

What came first, the chicken or the egg? 

An emerging trend that is definitely worth following as it becomes more widely available and accepted is lab-grown chicken.   

Eat Just, a San Francisco-based startup, will start offering lab-grown chicken meat in Singapore after gaining regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). The cell-cultured chicken will eventually be produced under Eat Just’s new GOOD Meat brand through partnerships with local manufacturers and go on sale to restaurants before it is available to consumers.  

The process starts with cell isolation, where cells are sourced through methods that can include a biopsy from a live animal. After the cells are cultured, they are transferred into a bioreactor, fed with a proprietary mix of proteins, amino acids, minerals, sugars, salts and other nutrients and then harvested after they achieve enough density.

This emerging food science could potentially open up doors for consumers who abstain from meat for animal cruelty reasons, since no animals were harmed to create the chicken product.  

Pie in the sky 

Pizza has gone from comfort-food staple to shutdown star during the pandemic, upping the stakes. When we talk pizza, we don’t mean boring old pepperoni or sausage, we’re talking creative takes on the to-go favorite. With pizza, many of the other food trends can be incorporated to really create something unique. Kimchi on pizza? Sure, why not. Comforting chicken and potatoes? Sure, sign me up! Vegan pizza? Of course!  

Outdoor pizza grill during an event. Photo courtesy Elegant Affairs. 

“Pizza allows for the bringing in of trends that is comfortable for consumers because they are comfortable with pizza,” said Luke Zahm of Wisconsin’s Driftless Café during a recent demonstration for the International Foodservice Editorial Council.

And lastly, consumers are looking for food that is high in immunity-boosting ingredients and that offer additional health benefits, which many of the above trends can easily accomplish. For example, fermented foods contribute to positive gut health, seafood is high in Omega 3 fatty acids which offer a wide range of health benefits, and plant-based menus obviously offer up a lot of nutrients and vitamins. 

Check for additional trend articles throughout 2021 for deeper dives into what’s hot, and how you can incorporate them into your menus. Just look for the Culinary Experience logo. 

From all of us here at Catersource, happy cooking in 2021 and beyond.  

Have you seen a trend not mentioned above? Let us know! Send your ideas to [email protected].  


Amber Kispert

Content Producer

Amber is the Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.