January 21, 2020

Healthy bowls strike it big in What's Hot 2020 chef survey

These customizable meals are appropriate for either sharing or solo dining. Whether hot or chilled, they travel well and are ideal for takeout and delivery occasions.

Healthy bowls, those delicious, customized meals combining all sorts of greens, lean proteins, whole grains, legumes, squash, berries, seeds and other flavorful power foods, came in fifth out of 133 menu trends ranked in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2020 culinary forecast. More than 600 professional chefs from the American Culinary Federation were surveyed.

Packaged in attractive containers with transparent lids that show off the vivid colors within, these customizable meals are appropriate for either sharing or solo dining. Whether hot or chilled, they travel well and are ideal for takeout and delivery occasions — a growing proportion of all restaurant meals. 

For their part, operators are attracted by the fact that bowl meals emphasize lower-cost ingredients such as brown rice or lettuce blends, with high-priced proteins and other premium items either added in small quantities or eliminated entirely. The “build your own” model allows patrons to create a dazzling array of meals based on just a few ingredients. And highlighting seasonal fare and LTOs means components can be switched out based on availability and food cost.

Meanwhile, the American way of eating has been transformed with one-dish or one-bowl “peasant” meals borrowed from cultures around the world, from tastebud-tingling Indian curries, to hearty Mediterranean fare to flavor-rich Vietnamese pho soup.

Bowl meals fit the bill for those concepts focused on fresh, healthy, seasonal, customizable fare …

  • Panera Bread unveiled quinoa-and-rice-based Warm Grain Bowls in two versions: Baja (with black bean and corn salsa, salsa verde, avocado and feta cheese) and Mediterranean (topped with hummus, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes and cucumber). Both are available with chicken.
  • Chipotle updated its Lifestyle Bowls, introduced last year, with a new supergreens mix of romaine, baby kale and baby spinach. The six lifestyle diets catered to include the Whole30, keto, paleo and high-protein as well as vegetarian and vegan regimens.

Bowls also adapt to all levels of indulgence:

  • KFC offers a new Mac & Cheese Bowl topped with popcorn chicken, a three-cheese blend and optional Nashville Hot sauce. It’s a follow-up to the brand’s Famous Bowl: corn kernels, chicken nuggets, shredded cheese and gravy over mashed potatoes.
Left: The Beyond chorizo bowl at Protein Bar + Kitchen

Some restaurant brands are based entirely or in large part on bowl meals.

  • Protein Bar + Kitchen, Chicago, offers bowl meals for all day parts, including breakfast (photo below), proving that in addition to good food costs, portability and health profiles, bowl meals fit all-day dining.
  • CoreLife Eatery, a fast-growing 70-unit fast-casual concept based in upstate New York, offers gluten-free bowls with a base of greens or grains and a variety of standard and premium toppings; patrons can choose beef or chicken, or vegetable broth to make a filling soup. A typical combo is the Power Plate, with purple rice, cucumber, corn, Mandarin oranges and diced peppered chicken.
  • Dig, with 33 units in the Boston, New York and Philadelphia metros, touts its relationships with 65 farm suppliers, all located within 300 miles of its restaurants. Patrons can choose brown rice, farro or greens as the base; one combo is the Classic Dig, with charred chicken, charred broccoli with lemon, roasted sweet potatoes, parsleyed brown rice and garlic aioli dressing.
  • Bowls are one of just two main-dish options at Naf Naf Grill, a Chicago-based fast casual with units in six states and the District of Columbia. Customers opt for either a pita sandwich or a bowl with basmati rice, couscous, romaine and/or hummus as the base, topped with chicken shawarma, steak or falafel balls and a choice of veggies and sauces.

Because they check so many boxes for both restaurants and diners, these filling bowls are likely to be filling a niche in the industry for many years to come.

Join the Association’s live event for all issues having to do with nutrition and dining: The Nutrition Executive Study Group conference is March 4-5 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It’s the largest gathering of nutritionists and dieticians from major restaurant companies across the country.