If you want to learn about U.S. food trends, go back to school. No, you don’t have to attend any classes. Rather, visit a high school or college. It’s the perfect laboratory to check out what they’re serving and what today’s younger consumers are eating — or possibly think about your products.

“Where these halls of learning once offered a limited menu with just one or two options per day, they now provide a plethora of dining choices,” noted Nico Roesler, managing editor, in his comprehensive food service school trends report in the October issue of Baking & Snack magazine. “Schools and other institutions are finding ways to make their dining options appealing, healthy and relevant in the eyes of their consumers who are increasingly searching outside the institutions to feed their individual tastes.”

Most students state healthy eating is important, but what do they mean by healthy? While Generation Z and millennial consumers incorporate balance into their diets, Mr. Roesler said they are willing to indulge, when appropriate. In fact, YPulse, Inc., which studies younger generations’ consumer preferences, reported 71% of middle and high school students and 84% of college students state that indulgences are part of a healthy diet.

Dietary restrictions also play a role in what foods are supplied to schools and other institutions. Technomic 2019 data indicated that 25% of students follow dietary restrictions, and 6% totally avoid wheat and gluten. Technomic advised that one successful approach is to acknowledge that students need balance in their diet but don’t have to follow a set of restrictions unless they are allergic to certain foods. That’s a good lesson for everyone who is a student of the food industry.