Keeping diners interested and engaged with unique eating experiences on campus is an ongoing process. What’s hot? What’s not? Here’s some of the latest research and insights influencing the campus dining scene.


Even before campus life was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, students had a healthy appetite for carryout.



“You are what you eat” resonates with students because they recognize nutrition is important to their overall wellbeing. This has them opting for functional food and beverages that offer benefits, such as immune and digestive support.



What does the new normal look like for on-campus dining services? At this point it’s still evolving, and no doubt will continue to do so as colleges and universities struggle to adapt to post-pandemic higher education.



Today’s college students grew up eating sushi and salsa. What will tempt their worldly palates next? See what’s simmering.




Hardly surprising, it’s the evening meal that’s most regularly eaten on campus. Take a look at what students want/expect.




More and more students are selecting vegetarian options at least some of the time. Get a picture of this changing landscape.




What do students want for breakfast—really, really want? See how student breakfast preferences stack up.




Snacking is the newest meal occasion. Check out how today’s students view snacking differently than previous generations.




Find out how hard-boiled eggs fit naturally into the snacking space with the results from our fresh protein snacks concept research.



from portable foods to international flavors. At the same time, this young generation has its own unique preferences—from social sharing to online ordering.

Here’s a look at some of the trends influencing campus dining.

Staying healthy is a priority for students today. More than half (51%) say it’s important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition. As a result, students would like to see higher quality, healthier items on campus menus, which aligns with the overall industry trend toward higher-quality food. Younger consumers are also defining healthy as ‘free from’ certain ingredients – meaning free from preservatives, additives, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.

Nutrition information and sourcing transparency are also important to college diners. They want the ability to make informed choices when selecting food and beverages. Healthier, fresher, customizable meals appeal more to women than men. While men are likely to be more focused on protein content of menu items. Overall women and older students are more focused on health. Yet, still a quarter of all students limit their diet in some way, an increase of 5% from 2017.

By the numbers

  • 51% say it’s important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition
  • 48% say, my school makes nutritional information easily accessible
  • 45% say, my school is transparent about how ingredients are sourced

Opportunities for campus dining

  • Dining halls need to overcome the impression of supplying lower quality foods to feed the masses. If meal plan users don’t feel on-campus options are up to their quality standards, they may start looking off campus. (Try high-quality grab n’ go snacks with hard-boiled eggs, for example.)
  • Offering higher quality and healthier food and beverages, will enable campus dining facilities to better compete with off campus food outlets. Since quality and healthfulness are key drivers for students, schools offering these healthier options can entice students to regularly eat on campus.
  • Labeling food and beverage products with protein content and ‘free from’ ingredients, gives diners a feeling of control over what they’re eating and lets them select foods that fit their dietary preferences and needs.

Just as the U.S. population is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, so are the faces on college and university campuses around the country. Although according to the 2019 Technomic College & University Consumer Trend Report, what’s not reflective of the overall U.S. population are some other demographic shifts on campuses. First, there’s been a drop in international student enrollment, and secondly, an increase in older students “as more people pursue higher education later in life for a variety of reasons.”

These demographic shifts and other factors may have further impacts:

  • GRAD STUDENTS UP – Over the next decade, student enrollment should remain fairly stable, with graduate student enrollments growing faster than undergraduate ones.
  • FULL EMPLOYMENT – Since jobs are plentiful, young people may opt to pursue jobs after finishing high school rather than higher education. Or they may consider only part-time enrollment.
  • TECH ADVANCEMENTS – The rise in technological advancements will continue to increase dining options for students from off-campus restaurants.
  • DORM DENIZENS DOWN – A rise in older student enrollment could lead to fewer students living on campus.

Opportunities for campus dining

  • Flexibility and the ability to be nimble may be key as shifts in student populations effect where and what students eat on campus.
  • For instance, older students who may live off campus may have a need for smaller meal plans and campus dining locations that accept payment outside of meal plans.
  • At the same time, younger students may want to have food delivered to them wherever they are on campus and want to pay seamlessly.
  • More grab-and-go options may help grow on-campus sales, as the convenience and portability appeal to both young and older cohorts.

As digital natives, Gen Z embraces technology. In fact, according to Technomic, 42% of college students would like their school’s foodservice facilities to offer more technology to enhance convenience. Students say they’d likely use a variety of tech amenities, primarily, online menus and paying with their student IDs at vending machines. Technology is also increasing meal delivery – today 21% of students’ meals are delivered, up 4% from 2017.

Opportunities for campus dining

  • Upping tech capabilities and keeping current with what students consider ‘convenient’ and integral to their digital lifestyles will pay off. Implementing technology, such as electronic student ID cards that can be saved on mobile devices, can help improve convenience.
  • Using mobile apps for preordering or showing seat availability or nutritional information, may help drive visits among students.
  • Born after 1997
  • Digital natives
  • Community oriented
  • Savers, not spenders
  • Environmentally conscious
  • Proficient multitaskers
  • Crave adaptable products
  • Most diverse generation in U.S. history
  • Largest consumer group
  • Forefront of trends

In the age of technology and the internet, it’s no surprise the consumers who grew up alongside it rely on tech-based amenities on-campus. According to a 2017 Technomic Inc., College & University Consumer Trend Report, colleges and universities are increasing dorm room and classroom delivery options to upgrade their students’ foodservice desires. The increase in delivery programs is largely due to younger consumers, like Gen Z, who have become progressively more dependent on mobile conveniences and 24/7 availability. Convenience is a driving factor for this growing consumer group who say grab-and-go options, order-ahead availability, meal vending machines or delivery options are highly-valued and would increase their participation in meal plans.

With the average attention span of eight seconds, keeping Gen Z engaged with on-campus foodservice will require stronger, but relatable content on social media platforms. Bite-sized how-to video clips about products or skills are the way to snag this group’s attention. While Snapchat and Instagram are trendy among this consumer group, students prefer Facebook for their dining alerts because of its universal usage.

Streamlining foodservice efficiency to reduce labor cost and combat staff shortages is becoming the new norm with do-it-yourself stations. The newest group of consumers coming to the market, Gen Z, crave options that let them express their individuality and tailor products to their desires. The boom in DIY stations across campuses does just that for Gen Z, with stations that range from breakfast bowls and smoothies to stir-fry—the options are limitless.


  • Smoothie Stations
  • Pasta Stations
  • Asian Fusion Stations
  • Scrambled Egg Breakfast Stations

Bold, spicy ingredients and global cuisines are dominating the flavor profiles among Gen Z who are making authentic ethnic meals more mainstream. An article posted by NPR states, “the youngest generation in the U.S. is…the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse generation,” – congruent with this, so is the food they crave. Gen Z is cultivating demand in cuisines like Indian, Middle Eastern and African due to being exposed to international flavors from an early age. Younger consumers strive to express themselves in a variety of ways, including food innovations, which are stirring up fusion cuisines in the market.

Similarly, campuses become increasingly diverse and have heightened demand for trending flavors, like Asian or Latin, that are currently taking strong footholds. Theme nights or a food week during the semester are exciting ways for students to explore new cuisines or give them a reminder of home while allowing them to engage with their peers and creating a social media buzz.

Convenience is a key element when it comes to serving today’s students, who want more than just the basics. The 2017 Technomic Inc., College & University Consumer Trend Report revealed that 46 percent of students’ meals are taken on the go due to their constantly moving lifestyle whether it’s social engagements or class obligations. Students want on-the-go options that are healthier, available later at night, and are packaged to maintain their quality.

What’s Trending?

  • Hand-held street food
  • Plant-forward
  • Food Trucks
  • Smoothies
  • Latin Fusion
  • Sushi Burritos

With a growing concern for protecting the environment, Gen Z is more conscious of consuming products that are locally and sustainably sourced. When asked which food attributes affect their purchasing decisions in a 2017 Technomic Inc., College & University Consumer Trend Report, the top three answers were locally sourced, sustainable and socially responsible products. This new wave of consumers focuses first on the experience—they crave products that are unique and have a feel-good story. Partnerships with nearby farms allow transparency with students by letting them see where their food comes from and that it is fresh. By actively sourcing local products, students have a heightened sense of community, food quality and sustainability.

As the hyper-locality strengthens its position in the market, it creates a perfect platform for specialty food products to stand above their more mainstream competitors. The Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotter panel released a report early this year by predicting the top food trends to lead this segment:

  • Plant-forward products
  • African, South Asian and Latin American cuisine
  • Environmentally-friendly packaging
  • Cassava root
  • Fermented functional beverages
  • Collagen-infused products
  • Ice cream refresh

Generation Z is taking health concerns more seriously. Twenty-five percent of Gen Z teens state they are worried about their health. Growing up with Generation X parents, today’s younger consumers have been taught from an early age the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Organic products are important for this current cohort, who claim organic foods and ingredients taste better. Organic is just one of the many differentiators as they strive to find transparent and ‘clean-label’ products.

  1. 2019 Technomic Inc., College & University Consumer Trend Report

  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5391775/

  3. https://www.npr.org/2018/11/15/668106376/generation-z-is-the-most-racially-and-ethnically-diverse-yet

  4. https://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2017/feeding-generation-z/?start=1

  5. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/as-gen-z-reshapes-the-social-media-landscape-marketers-need-to-be-open-to-change/

  6. 2017 Technomic Inc., College & University Consumer Trend Report

  7. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/11/15/early-benchmarks-show-post-millennials-on-track-to-be-most-diverse-best-educated-generation-yet/psdt-11-15-18_postmillennials-00-01/
  8. Cobe, P., Gingerella, B., Lewis, A., & Nash, K. (2018, September). Tastes of the Times. Foodservice Director, 31(9), 23-28.