What’s in, What’s out, and What your school can do to stay current.


What a time to be in the managed food service industry! As a specialized managed food service provider serving private K-12 schools in the Midwest and Mid-South, our Pedestal Foods team has seen it all: trends that come and go, ideas that stick, and expectations that evolve with the times. 

The last five years have ushered in dramatic changes for school dining programs, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting cultural norms, and the rapid advance of technology. 

Keeping up with the changing landscape has been a strategic adventure and a welcome challenge. Our clients frequently ask us to report on market trends and new ideas within the managed food service space and help them implement changes that keep them ahead of the curve.

Here are the four key trends we feel are having the biggest impact on school dining programs right now and how your school can adjust to meet them. 


OUT: Junky Lunch

IN: All eyes on health and wellness

Gone are the days of yummy-but-empty school lunch calories. One of the most significant trends we’ve helped clients respond to is the increased emphasis on health and wellness in K-12 school dining programs. Schools are recognizing the importance of providing more nutritious meals to their students; we’ve seen a dramatic shift towards incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into school menus. This trend is driven in part by growing concerns about childhood obesity and related health issues but also by a broader cultural shift towards healthier eating habits.


Embrace the trend:

  • Work with your food service provider to develop menus that prioritize health and wellness
  • Commit to using fresh, seasonal ingredients wherever possible
  • Limit the use of processed foods, sugary drinks, and empty calories
  • Opt for whole foods rich in nutrients and flavor
  • Offer daily plant-based alternatives; offer to substitute traditional protein with vegan and vegetarian options like tofu and tempeh in sandwiches and salads


OUT: Analog Systems

IN: Advancing Tech

See ya later, paper punch cards and manual inventory logs. Rapidly changing technology accounts for another massive trend in the school dining space. Across the U.S., schools of all sizes are increasingly relying on software to manage inventory, track sales, and streamline the ordering process – creating cost-saving efficiencies along the way. Mobile ordering and cashless payment options have also become more prevalent, making it easier for students and staff to access meals on the go.


Embrace the trend:

  • Ask your food service provider about technology platforms to manage inventory and track sales
  • Look into mobile ordering and cashless payment options to make dining as convenient as possible for students and families


OUT: Cookie-Cutter Lunches

IN: Customization is King

“You get what you get” lunches are quickly becoming a thing of the past (and good riddance!). More and more, students and families expect more choice and control over their dining options, and savvy schools are responding by offering more build-your-own stations, customizable menus, and specialized diets for students with food allergies or dietary restrictions.


Embrace the trend:

  • Survey students and parents about their preferences and dietary needs
  • Offer build-your-own meal stations with customizable options
  • Train staff to accommodate special diets, such as gluten-free, vegetarian, and low sugar to make sure every student has access to meals that meet their unique dietary needs. 


OUT: Mother Earth Who?

IN: Eco-Friendly Dining

The world is watching the way we use our natural resources, and schools are no exception. In the last few years, our clients are seeing—and responding to— a big push for increased sustainability and environmental responsibility in their K-12 school dining programs. Many schools are making moves to source local and organic ingredients, use compostable or reusable packaging, and implement waste reduction programs wherever possible.


Embrace the trend:

  • Work with your vendors to prioritize using organic and sustainable ingredients
  • Switch from traditional plastics to compostable or reusable packaging to minimize waste
  • Work with your food service provider to design waste reduction programs that benefit both the environment and the bottom line.


Keeping up with dining trends like these helps your school stay competitive and improve recruitment and retention. As more schools adopt innovative dining programs and concepts, your dining program can become a differentiating factor in attracting students and families to the school. 

Keeping your dining program current is also an investment in student engagement and satisfaction. Strategic upgrades boost participation; when students are more likely to purchase, enjoy, and rely on the options provided, it means a more positive overall experience.

Even if your budget or capabilities only allow for small adjustments to follow these four big dining trends, any effort your program can make to show students and families you’re committed to staying current will be well worth the investment.