Best and Worst Foods of 2018
Svetlana Davis/EyeEm/Getty Images
Best and Worst Foods of 2018
Svetlana Davis/EyeEm/Getty Images

Menu Madness

We took a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2019's menu developments. What we found is that, while tactics like deep-frying well, anything, is almost always a crowd-pleaser, it was dietary upstarts and health-driven options that swayed a lot of menu changes this year, not to mention the rise of the Beyond and Impossible burgers to fast-food chains like Burger King. From fast food offerings to trailblazing appetizers to bold new beverages, here are the best, worst — and a handful that could go either way, depending on your tastes — of this year's food trends. And, if the menu geek in you is piqued by this story, be sure to check out 11 Secret Menu Items at Your Favorite Family Restaurants.

Chick-fil-A Brownies

Best: Chick-fil-A Brownies

Tested on the sly at the beginning of 2019, the social media chatter and enthusiastic coverage were so positive that these likely will be the big dessert story for the chain in 2019. A moist, proper fudgy brownie done well in fast food is also overdue.

Arby's Steak and Bacon Melt Sandwich

Worst: Arby's Steak and Bacon Melt Sandwich

Amanda Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, is on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living and says Arby's Steak and Bacon Melt Sandwich is a bust. "We should limit the amount of red and processed meat that we consume. At Arby's, most menu items contain some sort of red meat and/or processed meat. This sandwich contains beef, plus it's topped with bacon, fried onions, and cheese." So, she notes that it's "no surprise" that this sandwich has 640 calories, 32 grams of fat, and over 2,000 milligrams of sodium. Kostro Miller notes that the recommended sodium intake for the entire day is 2,300 milligrams, or 1,500 if you have high blood pressure.

Burger King Impossible Whopper
Burger King/Facebook

Best: Burger King Impossible Whopper

The plant-based — yet meat-mimicking — Beyond and Meatless burgers are showing up in more fast food joints, including Burger King's Impossible Whopper. Kostro Miller says, "Burger King has really been one of the first major food chains to jump on the plant-based bandwagon. As a vegetarian myself, the item that I always crave is a good burger, and the Impossible Whopper can satisfy." Kostro Miller notes that this menu item is part of a larger trend that she appreciates — that of fast food restaurants accommodating vegan and vegetarian consumers. However, the Impossible Whopper, Kostro Miller adds, "is delicious but still treat it as the occasional splurge" due to its 630 calories, 34 grams of fat, and about 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

Related: Lab-Grown Burgers, and Other American Inventions of the Past 50 Years

Carl's Jr. Truffle Fries and Burgers
Carl's Jr.

Worst: Carl's Jr. Truffle Fries and Burgers

This is what happens when fast-food CEOs and their ilk eat at proper restaurants and get ideas. Truffles are expensive, so as a cheaper alternative for mass production, chemists have developed a synthetic version using 2,4-dithiapentane, just one of the hundreds of aromatic compounds that give truffles their distinctive aroma. So, typically when you're buying "truffle oil" or ordering up truffled-up burgers and fries, you're not getting actual truffles, you're just paying more for a phony rendition. We'll take a pass.

Related: 26 Outrageous French Fries You Need to Try

Mushroom Coffee, Tea, and Cocoa
Four Sigmatic/Facebook

Best: Mushroom Coffee, Tea, and Cocoa

This trend's health benefits are touted to include fighting colds, preventing cancer, and treating depression but, we admit, to purists this may seem to be an abomination that skews closer to "worst." However, at places like Oregon's Green Salmon Coffee House and Cafe, which offers mushroom chai and cocoa that is also now available to ship nationwide, and Four Sigmatic, whose products include mushroom coffee blends and more, reviews make it clear that many are into this new direction in beverage creation. People who seem to swear by its medicinal value make this a 2019 trend that could stick around for a while.

Little Caesars Quattro Pizza
Little Caesars

Worst: Little Caesars Quattro Pizza

New in 2019, this menu item's claim to fame is that it's a "large Italian-style pizza with a different topping combination for each quarter." It combines pepperoni, Italian sausage and bruschetta, Italian sausage and pepperoni, and cheese. While Little Caesars claims that "the bruschetta topping captures classic Italian flavors of fresh Roma tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar," Thrillist points out that there's not really enough variety between the flavors to read as all that novel. "Would I go out of my way to order this pizza? Not really," sums up the writer.

CBD Infused Food
Tinnakorn Jorruang/istockphoto

Best: CBD-Infused Foods and Drinks

This can go in either the best or worst category, too, depending on your stance on legalized marijuana (although opponents should keep in mind that CBD has none of the psychoactive properties of marijuana's THC). Still, make no mistake — 2019 ushered in cannabidiol-infused foods and beverages in a big way. Restaurants like New York City's by CHLOE, for instance, has a line of CBD infused-sweets in its pop-up shops, and it's a growing trend in pizza joints, too. The prognosis is that there will be a burgeoning demand for these menu items despite the jigsaw puzzle of pot laws across the U.S.

Related: Why Health Experts Are Talking About CBD

Jack In The Box Burger Dippers
Jack In The Box

Worst: Jack In The Box Burger Dippers

The good news is that they were regionally tested; the bad news is that no one really knows yet if they went over big enough to survive their 2019 testing grounds to be the deep-fried, fry-like bunless cheeseburger we never asked for.

McDonald's Donut Sticks

Best: McDonald's Donut Sticks

Stick-shaped food really is coming into its own these days (what's up, burger dippers!), and McDonald's noted the trend, then created a low-key 2019 test run of Donut Sticks. Result? The Internet folks are still crying out in droves for more of them. These handy treats are the elusive unicorn of deep-fried heaven made easy to eat while driving — think beignets for those sitting in cars in the morning rush hour traffic. It's a concept that's overdue, actually.

Related: 49 Unique Doughnuts You Have to Try

Burger King's Crispy Spicy Chicken Parm Sandwich
Burger King/Facebook

Worst: Burger King's Crispy Spicy Chicken Parm Sandwich

Business Insider actually elected a poor food reporter to suss out the flavor potential between this and two other iterations of BK's keto-busting chicken sandwich. The "spicy" version compresses fried chicken bits into some sort of patty with marinara, chili spices, cheese, and potato buns. If the review is any indication, rest assured it's not likely to last far into the new year.

Ice Cream Rolls
Sweet Charlie's

Best: Rolled Ice Cream

This trend allegedly began in Thailand and was observed and copied here in the U.S. At Sweet Charlie's in Philadelphia, two entrepreneurs did just that and perfected the art of wafer thin rolls of ice cream that devotees swear is a texturally tasty way to enjoy a dessert staple that can be offered in vegan, yogurt, or full cream and milk options. For more places around the country to try this trend, check out 50 Unique Ice Cream Flavors and Creations.

Liquid Nitrogen Dessert Items

Worst: Liquid Nitrogen Dessert Items

Some chefs love to experiment with alternative prep methods, and ultra-cold liquid nitrogen is one enduring trend that can cause problems for a diner. In 2018, the FDA jumped in and issued a safety advisory alerting people against ordering these "creative" ice cream-type desserts and drinks at the "point of sale," noting that the method can cause "severe damage to skin and internal organs if mishandled or accidentally ingested."

Charcuterie-to-Go Boards

Best: Charcuterie-to-Go Boards

People who travel extensively always rave about how the Europeans do meat and cheese boards so well. Now, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn't know the French word charcuterie, which is how you get someone to throw down some cornichons, almonds, honeycomb, and fresh fruit on your meat and cheese spread. Boise's Capitol Cellars is one of many U.S. restaurants renowned for its reasonable and popular charcuterie boards, and some, like recent Dallas-based startup Board Mama, are even making a business out of it.

Sonic Red Bull Slushies
Sonic Drive-In/Facebook

Worst: Sonic Red Bull Slushies

Take a perfectly good slushie of frozen sweet soft drinks or juices, freeze it to the point of oatmeal consistency, and you have a respectable hot-weather treat. Add energy drink Red Bull into this equation and you get a sweet, headache-inducing frozen concoction that likely will degrade your teeth's enamel while you lay in bed unable to sleep. Not good.

Turmeric Lattes

Best: Turmeric Lattes

In downtown Boise, Idaho, there's a craft coffee roaster, Dawson Taylor, that whips up a healthy lower-sugar, high-fat, frothy and keto-friendly drink, the turmeric latte. Swap a traditional latte for this spice-infused, "golden milk" hot drink that's revered for its anti-inflammatory and preventative benefits.

Starbucks Flavored Tea Drinks

Worst: Starbucks Flavored Tea Drinks

Kostro Miller says no to Starbucks Flavored Teas, noting that they tend "to add a lot of ingredients to their beverages. Starbucks coffee, tea and juice drinks, milk tea, and bubble teas can have lots of cream/milk/coconut milk, syrup and/or sugar added. A grande Dragon Drink from Starbucks has 23 grams of sugar!" If you're looking for a "healthier, less calorific and sugary drink," she says, "opt for plain tea or coffee. Opt for 100% fruit juice. Consider flavored coffee and tea drinks to be a dessert."

Inflammatory: Alcohol

Best: Craft Non-Alcoholic Cocktails

Mixologists are taking their infused shrubs, elixirs, bitters, and other ingredients to new levels of non-alcoholic sophistication with clever and inspired drinks — great news for the non-drinkers who still want that feeling of socializing without any after-effects. Seedlip is a brand that's leading the charge, showing up at bars all across the country for those who want celebratory-yet-sober options.

Orange Wine
Mohit Raheja/istockphoto

Worst: Orange Wine

Reviews are in and purists and critics are not overly happy about an ancient Georgian wine that's been resurrected on fancy, hipster restaurant menus. This beverage, which looks like a watered-down Aperol Spritz, is not actually made with oranges — the effect is created by leaving the skins on white wine grapes after they're pressed. Though some seem to enjoy it, its often bitter or sour notes aren't loved by everyone. One New Yorker reviewer sniffed that the amber-orange wine was "like sucking on a grapefruit rind."

Related: 31 Good White Wines for $20 or Less

Jackfruit Pulled Pork

Best: Jackfruit "Pulled Pork"

Done right, this vegan and vegetarian swap for delicious pulled pork is a lifesaver for those who don't eat meat, and for meat eaters it's a welcome change of pace to ease into a healthier, plant-based diet. In Dallas, restaurants are jumping on this bandwagon, and the media are even praising the meatless treats as a new substitute for tried-and-true Texas barbecue.

Sweet and Salty
Salt & Straw Ice Cream/Facebook

Best: Sweet and Umami Flavored Items

Food forecaster Elizabeth Moskow called out this trend in a Food Business News piece titled "What we'll be eating in 2021, according to robots." An example? G.H. Cretors' Chicago Mix Popcorn, which combines sweet caramel with salty cheddar cheese flavors. Moskow also notes the ice cream flavors at Portland, Oregon's Salt & Straw, where savory sauces and cheeses are combined with sweet ones for unusual combinations.

Related: 50 Ice Cream Shops With Unique Treats Across the Country

Charcoal-Infused Drinks and Foods

Worst: Charcoal-Infused Drinks and Foods

This is a food trend still lingering in 2019. Cadry Nelson, vegan food and lifestyle blogger at Cadry's Kitchen, shares that charcoal was problematic in her foodie expert eyes. "The worst trend is activated charcoal in unlikely places like lemonade, smoothies, coffee drinks, and burger buns. Why is this even a thing? Charcoal has never sounded like something I need to eat, and the color doesn't make it any more inviting. I know there are supposed detox benefits, but I'm dubious."

Avocado Toast

Best: Avocado Toast

Once a coastal trend, this hipster "go-to" is an open-faced treat that the entire country is quickly catching up on. Now avocado toast is ubiquitous even in places like Nashville, Tennessee, where the restaurant Milk & Honey serves it up with fresh farm eggs, sun-dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions. Seems it's a good time to be an avocado farmer.

Fried Maple Leaf
Fried Maple Leaf by Alyson Hurt (CC BY-NC)

Best: Deep Fried Maple Leaves

We can thank the Japanese, who originally tempura-battered fallen Maple leaves and voila, created a whole new level of snacking. Now, given that Canada's national symbol is the maple leaf, chefs there have jumped on the bandwagon and are serving them in restaurants, which means in T-minus two seconds the U.S. will latch onto this trend, just like poutine. Just think, fall raking chores may become a tasty harvesting.

Related: 18 Beloved Canadian Foods Every American Should Try

Insect Cuisine

Worst: Insect Cuisine

Long standard fare in countries like Thailand, there are now restaurants in the U.S. offering fine dining with insect-laden dishes, and not the kind that gets them a bad food inspector grade, either. Depending on how open-minded you are, this can be horrific or intriguing. Think agave worms pan-fried to a crisp, deep-fried grasshoppers, or perhaps sauteed ant eggs. You might want to switch meatless Mondays to maggot Mondays. We kid.

Cauliflower Wings

Best: Cauliflower Wings

According to Nelson, cauliflower makes for great wings. "Crisp around the edges, fried cauliflower wings served with dipping sauces are taking over on appetizer menus. What a relief to see a vegetarian appetizer that isn't hummus," she notes. "They're usually served buffalo-style, but barbecue and Korean flavors are also popular. My favorite cauliflower wings are served at French Meadow in Minneapolis, and Mohawk Bend in Los Angeles."

Chickpea Crusts

Best: Chickpea Crusts

Cauliflower crusts are so 2016. Time for a new protein flour that crisps and makes for great lower-carb options for the hordes on keto looking to recreate their longed-for foods. Trend watcher Moskow cites another Portland restaurant, The Little Bean, which is serving up frozen desserts, waffle cones, and cookies "based entirely on the non-dairy, gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free, non-GMO, sustainably produced, environmentally friendly chickpea."


Worst: Freakshakes

Around for a few years, this trend — which has traveled from Australia to the U.K. and now America — is all about the calorific gilding of the milkshake lily. Cookies, candies, cakes, and other sweets are stuffed into an ice cream-filled whipped drink, resulting in a concoction that tops more calories than some eat in several days. Think the whole kitchen sink for sugar, or the unnecessary bedazzling of a perfectly good milkshake.

Tahini desserts

Best: Tahini desserts

This is not your mama's halvah. More along the lines of the previously covered umami-meets-sweet trend, tahini — a paste of ground sesame seed spread that you need to make hummus — is going through an experimental phase at restaurants like Jaffa in Los Angeles, where they're adding this normally savory ingredient to dessert offerings like milkshakes. Proponents say tahini helps protect against heart disease and promotes brain health.

Carob Comeback

Best (or Maybe Worst): Carob Comeback

Expect to find an increasing number of carob-laced desserts on menus according to Moskow, who acknowledges both the sustainability and health benefits of this ingredient that scarred a generation of 1970s kids as a swap for chocolate. She sees it making a comeback, just as long as it's not yet again compared to its obviously superior sister ingredient. "They didn't position carob right in the '70s. It's not a chocolate replacer … when you're comparing anything to chocolate, it's going to fail," Moskow told Food Business News. Note that in places like Atlanta's Tassili's Raw Reality, you can already get a slice of Afrikan Carob Cake.

Cinnamon Coca Cola

Best (or Maybe Worst): Cinnamon Coca Cola

This could be yet another best or worst, in the taste buds of the beholder. Coke is always testing the limits of its core audience with flavor profiles — remember how New Coke tasted? Of course not — and this is getting a lot of mixed chatter on social platforms thanks in part to its packaging's likeness to the already established (and popular) Cherry Coke. Thanks to its flavor profile, some outlets are reporting that it, as well as the new Sprite flavor, Winter Spiced Cranberry, will make for good holiday mixers.