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Restaurant meals under a microscope

By Kathryn Rem | The State Journal-Register

Look for more locally grown produce served in restaurants in 2010. According to the National Restaurant Association, it’s the hottest food topic of the new year.

That assessment comes from more than 1,850 professional American chefs, who were asked to rate a list of 214 topics last October as either “hot trends” or “yesterday’s news.”

With all the attention given lately to farmers markets, backyard gardens and locavores, it’s no surprise that restaurants are responding to diners’ requests for locally grown produce. It’s not uncommon to see the name of the farm that grew the produce listed on the menu.

The No. 2 trend, according to the chefs, is locally sourced meats and seafood. Diners want to know where the meat on the plate came from, and they don’t want to hear it’s from a factory farm thousands of miles away.

Third on the list is sustainability — maintaining food systems in a way that preserves the earth. It goes hand in hand with the first two trends.

No. 4 is bite-size or mini desserts. Down from No. 1 last year, the little sweets are now offered in a few local restaurants such as Chili’s, which sells a trio of parfait-like dessert shots.

Getting back to regional foods, No. 5 is locally produced beer and wine. Illinois has a growing number of wineries — now 80 – and craft beers are coming on strong.

With all the attention adults are giving healthful foods, it should come as no surprise that they want the same for their kids. Nutritionally balanced children’s dishes come in at No. 6. Look for more apples sticks, lowfat milk, cut veggies, salads, applesauce and grilled meats on kids’ restaurant menus.

No. 7: Half portions and smaller portions for a smaller price. Despite the value of a loaded plate, some diners want a reasonably sized entree. T.G.I. Friday’s has a “Right Portion, Right Price” menu, with smaller meals for $6.99 to $9.99.

Eight on the list is farm- or estate-branded ingredients. It’s not enough to be local, diners want to know the specific farm that the food was grown on.

No. 9 is gluten-free and other foods without allergens. Diners with food allergies are saying “no” to avoiding restaurants. They want to eat out and they want to order foods that they can safely consume. Outback Steakhouse is one of a growing number of eateries that offers a gluten-free menu.

Ten on the list is sustainable seafood — farmed or fished seafood produced in a way that does not harm the environment.

Of the 214 topics given to the chefs to rate, the least trendsetting, at No. 214, is crème brulee.

Others at the bottom of the list are sherry, french fries, traditional kids’ dishes (chicken nuggets, hot dogs), poached eggs, marshmallows, omelets, boxed wine, pre-blended cocktail mixers, cucumbers, French food, capers, bottled water and pasta.

Pasta? I think I have to take issue with that one.

Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached at 788-1520 or [email protected]

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