Top 10 Most Desired Dishes & Global Cuisines by College Students

Now more than ever, foodservice operators look to the college and university space as the birthplace of new flavor, cuisine, and dish format trends. Gen-Z is known to be the most adventurous generation of eaters, open to exploring global flavors and cuisines more than any other before them, creating a viable testing ground for the upcoming consumer base and their dining interests.

Campuses are feeding the next generation of consumers who will soon have expendable income — a generation that craves authentic global flavors and has a keen interest in aligning eating habits and preferences with environmental and cultural values. Enter lentils, the versatile and adaptable ingredient that helps boost flavor and appeal to a savvy cohort looking for plant-based and plant-forward foods that satisfy hunger. What’s more, they offer the sustainability attributes this generation is looking for in their foods. Here, we highlight how lentils can shine in college students’ most preferred global cuisines:

1. Mexican

Known for its vibrant flavors and diverse dishes, Mexican cuisine can be a great place to introduce plant-based and plant-forward options in tacos, burritos, chili stews, nachos, and more. Nearly 80% of Gen Z consumers eat plant-based meals on a weekly basis, according to research by Chartwells Higher Ed. [1]

Mexican cuisine is at the top of the list of preferred cuisines for the first time, marking a major shift as younger generations seek unique global flavors.

2. Italian

With its comforting pasta dishes and delicious pizzas, Italian cuisine is a classic favorite — and lentils are found in many traditional Italian & Mediterranean dishes, from cold composed salads to stews to pasta sauces. With 12 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per ½ cup serving, lentils can anchor Italian dishes to fuel busy students, helping them feel fuller for longer.

3. Chinese

Street food-inspired offerings like rou jia mo can be an excellent way to appeal to college students’ sophisticated palates in one approachable package.

“There’s a certain level of comfort in the handheld format, whether the nostalgia of a burger or hot dog from family celebrations at home, or the kind of intrigue around rou jia mo from China or falafel and pita from the Middle East,” says James Bickmore-Hutt, corporate chef with “There is power in familiarity.”

4. Other Asian (Japanese, Korean, Thai, etc.)

Global flavors and formats like Japanese gyoza, Korean stir-fry, and Thai curry are a natural fit for lentils, a plant-based protein ingredient that soaks up surrounding flavors from spices and sauces they are cooked in.

Research shows that college students are especially drawn to whole food plant-based products. Among those who want plant-based options, most say they prefer whole food plant-based products over blends or plant-based analogue meats. Of those surveyed, just 1 in 6 college students stated no preference for plant-forward foods. [2]

5. Southern (American)

A famous comfort food choice, Southern soul food appeals to college students both for its filling nature and its nostalgic charm. Lentils can lighten up traditional Southern food without sacrificing nutrients like protein and fiber, as in this plant-based biscuits and gravy recipe.

6. Mixed cuisine/fusion/diverse menu

Fusion menu offerings provide a format that can showcase the diversity of plant-based and plant-forward options in burgers, power bowls, and salads.

Diverse menu options draw students who want to eat food that is as sustainable as it is delicious. With carbon-negative production and a low water footprint, lentils offer opportunities for your dining service to meet sustainability goals while delivering students the flavor and satiety that they crave.

7. Other European (Greek, Mediterranean, etc.)

Greek and Mediterranean cuisines are beloved for their fresh ingredients, grilled meats, and flavorful dips. Lentils are a mainstream ingredient in many European cuisines, marrying well with spice blends and shining in simple applications from hummus to Mediterranean bowls to this unique Mediterranean chili.

Because lentils are such a functional ingredient, it is simple to use them in diverse but similar globalized cuisines, says Chef Bickmore-Hutt. “Operators can test and pivot quickly, flexing back and forth from Middle Eastern to Latin to Mediterranean cuisine.”

8. French

Lentils anchor classic French dishes and they are perfect for scratch cooking in open-format dining hall kitchens. With their reliable consistency and ability to hold for long periods on hot and cold lines, lentils make an earthy, protein-rich base for salads, soups, and stews.

9. Other Latin/South American

Lentils are a flavor sponge for the ingredients that they are cooked with, making them an ideal pairing for the vibrant, bright flavors of indigenous Latin American ingredients like cumin, citrus, peppers, tomatoes, and other spices.

Using lentils to replace or extend animal proteins in crumbles or blends can help you cut food costs without losing nutrient density or flavor in dishes.

10. Indian

Restaurant trends already show an increasing demand for lentil-centric Indian dishes like dal and other curries, making this cuisine a sure-fire hit with students who look for rich, adventurous globally inspired flavors.

. . .

In the same recent study[1] , Datassential asked college students what their most preferred type of dishes were to consume. The results are below and you will notice that your college staples are all still there – we know that campuses aren’t getting away from serving burgers, pizza, chicken fingers anytime soon, but we believe these platforms are all very diverse and are begging for global inspiration to reinvent them and keep students interested. Take inspiration from the top cuisines above and integrate them into these most loved dishes below to create a winning LTO for your students.

Dish Preference – College Students:

  1. Burgers
  2. Pizza
  3. Tacos
  4. Pasta
  5. Hand-helds (sandwiches, wraps, etc)
  6. Stir fry
  7. Power bowls/salads
  8. Soup
  9. Chili/stew
  10. Curry

[1] Foodservice Director, “6 trends currently shaping college dining
[2] Datassential Consumer Omnibus Insights for, April 2022