Colleges & Universities Trends

Students are influenced by general dining trends—

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.

  • 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.


2017 Technomic Inc., College & University Consumer Trend Report

Cobe, P., Gingerella, B., Lewis, A., & Nash, K. (2018, September). Tastes of the Times. Foodservice Director, 31(9), 23-28.