By making produce the focal point in a menu entreé, be it at a restaurant or at home, consumers are opening up to new culinary possibilities, which is an opportunity for growers.
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Keeping ahead of consumer trends can seem like an insurmountable task sometimes. Personally, I feel the approach to creating trends is a more successful endeavor, but nonetheless we all must pay attention to organic movements in the marketplace. The goal is to catch on to such movements fast enough to capitalize on them and differentiate your business. Consumer attention spans can be brutally short, so you must be quick.

Some food trends, however, turn into long-term eating habits — or at least signal the beginning of a shift in how people consume certain types of foods. Sustainable food and healthier diets are on the minds of many these days and both are core concerns that thread together some interesting market shifts for 2017.

Veggies as the main course, instead of meat, is an ongoing trend that’s been on the rise for a couple of years. Produce is more often taking the place of prime cuts of meat, poultry and seafood on the entrée menu. I recently went to one of the most expensive and “fancy” restaurants in Dallas for my birthday. I won’t name names, but I must say the only parts of the seasonal tasting menu I was impressed with were the elements of produce presented with each course of traditional meat selection. My husband (an avid meat devotee) felt the same.

It was like we were getting a secret message from the chef that they’d rather spend more time focusing on the veggies. They’d clearly spent much more thought and time on creating interesting flavors from the produce than the obligatory scallop or puny, quartered quail. Unusual fungi, carrot ketchup, vegetable chowder, pickled okra, and pickled cherries — these were the stars of the meal. I’d go back to that restaurant, but only for the vegetarian menu.

This was a big shift in the fine dining experience for me. Typically, the fancier the restaurant, the blander the produce. As a nonmeat-eater, I’d end up paying out the wazoo for a bad iceberg lettuce salad or the standard flavorless pasta dish the chef would “throw together” for me. Being a vegetarian at a pricey restaurant always made me feel like the kitchen staff was actively punishing me. Now that veggies are trendy and chefs are putting some energy into crafting better dishes with them, fine dining may finally start to green up in a meaningful way.

My strict vegetarianism lasted about 24 years, so I’m pretty much an expert on faux meat. I was never a big fan of the many soy-based versions of them, though. Shiver. Most are kind of rubbery, slimy and simultaneously bland. It took a good while before there were what I considered decent veggie-based meat alternatives to choose from. The meatless and soy-free food producer Quorn finally hit on something good when they started selling fungi-based meat alternatives.

Most faux-meat products still don’t really replicate the flavors and textures of real meat, and that’s perfectly fine for many vegetarians and vegans. But for real meat lovers who want or need to reduce meat intake, they still don’t satisfy. As reducing meat intake can be both good for the body and the planet, many health experts and environmentalists are pushing for a change in such eating habits. New technology is being used to create produce-based faux “meats” that have both the texture and flavor of the real thing. While this phenomenon kind of creeps me out, it may be just what the doctor ordered for healthier eating.

Juicing has been an unavoidable phenomenon for the past few years as well. I have even gone a few rounds with one or two of the trendy new juice companies that popped up in my area. And while the trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere right now, some consumers, myself included, are feeling a bit unsatisfied by juice alone, and are looking for substance (and fiber) from our drinkable food. That’s where soup comes in. Soup is the new juice. A big bonus of getting your slurp on is a smaller waistline. Research shows that people who make healthy soups a regular part of their diet weight less and have better overall eating habits. I suspect more soups may be showing up as another main course alternative to meat.

Another up-and-coming trend I love is ugly produce. Reducing waste is a growing concern for many consumers, especially those who shop specialty produce. A lot of produce goes to waste simply because it’s not “perfect” or pretty. Rejecting such perfectly edible produce currently simply isn’t a sustainable practice. Product manufacturers and grocery stores are looking for ways to market and sell the less-than-perfect produce. Reducing waste is another reason some consumers are starting to pass on the fancy juice. You know what less-than-perfect produce is perfect for? Soup! Marry these two trends together and you’ve got a winning message.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com