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12 Ways Fast Food Will Change in 2020

Your quick-serve dining experience is going to look very different in the very near future.

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overhead view of fast food tray with burger, fries, and a drinkDigital Vision./Getty Images

Big changes ahead

Whether your schedule makes you a drive-through devotee or a casual-dining enthusiast, most of us cop to grabbing a fast-food meal fairly regularly. In fact, according to a 2018 study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85 million people in the United States eat fast food each day. That’s a staggering number, but the good news is that what’s considered “fast food” is different in 2020 than it was a decade ago—and certainly different than when these 8 famous fast-food restaurants first opened their doors. With more casual-dining and quick-serve restaurants offering a wider variety of fare than your standard burgers and fries, it’s getting easier to eat healthier and find foods that meet dietary restrictions—and that’s just the beginning of the changes you’re about to see. Here’s how the fast-food landscape will shape up over the next year.

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brussels sproutsbhofack2/Getty Images

Vegging out

Contrary to what Kermit the Frog says, sometimes it is easy being green. Expect to see more veggies on the menu at some of your favorite spots, particularly in terms of side-dish offerings. Fries, while delicious, were the only option to accompany a burger for far too long. “We envision an additional expansion of green vegetable-based sides to become a popular trend for the industry in 2020,” says Carl Bachmann, president of Smashburger. “To add to our current vegetable-based menu offerings, such as our very popular fried brussels sprouts side, we are currently exploring additional vegetable side options for our guests.” By the way, these 12 fast-food “facts” are actually false.

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delicious burger on artisan wood cutting boardChristian-Fischer/Getty Images

Premium picks

Burgers remain a top menu item for fast-food restaurants, but even these are getting a bit of a makeover. Plant-based burgers are definitely experiencing a surge in popularity (and we’ll get to that trend in a moment), but the traditional meat patty that people know and love is also getting an upgrade in quality. Smashburger, for example, plans to launch three to four new premium burger options in 2020. “[They] will feature premium meats in addition to our certified Angus beef burger patty,” says Bachmann. “We believe the year will bring a higher demand for these dishes. We will continue to test many new premium meats in 2020 as a part of our ongoing menu innovation.” Here are some other ways fast food has gone gourmet recently.

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Burger King Impossible Whopper on a tray with fries and a drink

Plant prowess

The Chicken Sandwich Wars may have dominated the fast-food headlines of 2019, but the expansion of plant-based offerings at fast-food eateries also made a huge mark. The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger wowed customers with their beef-like taste and texture, and they can now be found on most quick-serve menus in some capacity. While these plant-based options are already pretty commonplace, expect even more of these items in 2020, thanks to customer demand. For instance, Chick-fil-A is currently researching vegan and vegetarian items to add to its menu. “We’ve kind of been watching it (the trend), and now we are moving more from the watch stage and getting into that understand or really imagine stage,” Amanda Norris, the executive director of Chick-fil-A’s menu, told Business Insider. Ever wonder which state has the most fast-food restaurants in America? We’ve got the answer!

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Courtesy Bok Bok Chicken

Healthy eating

You can also expect to see more fresh-focused quick-serve chains expanding. Bok Bok Chicken, which opened its first location in Las Vegas in 2018, is a perfect example of fast-casual dining that is growing because of consumer demand for quality, good-for-you meals. They now have eight locations, five in Las Vegas and three in Los Angeles.

“I think people are putting more of a focus on eating healthy, real ingredients,” says Silva Chamanian, the chain’s chef and owner. “You’ve seen it for years with a number of fast-casual concepts, and we’re seeing the same interest at Bok Bok Chicken. Fast food and fast-casual have been evolving over the years to cater to a healthier palette, whereas our menu offerings—much of which are naturally vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free—cater to the healthy eater.” Contrary to the “chicken” in its name, Bok Bok serves up much more than poultry, really honing in on Mediterranean cuisine and offering items like Falafel Pita, Quinoa Eech, and Muttabal (which is eggplant, tahini, and garlic), to name a few.

If healthy eating is a priority, you need to be smart when you order, of course. Start by avoiding these 12 restaurant foods with more sugar than a candy bar.

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Mockup food takeaway packaging for cafe and restaurant - heart, cardboard boxes for coffee, burger, noodles, sandwich, sushi on light white wood table.AlinaYudina/Getty Images

Planet-friendly overhauls

Menus aren’t the only thing under construction in fast-food and quick-serve joints. Keep an eye on those utensils and packaging. They’re likely to look a little different than they have in the past—for a very good reason. “We’ve noticed that customers are keenly aware of the materials we use for serving ware, preferring earth-friendly options that complement our natural, healthy menu,” says Chamanian. “We are currently testing out more earth-friendly serving ware in our Los Angeles market to ensure that we can best present our food—both for dine-in and takeaway—while being responsible members of the community, with an increased awareness of our environment.”

In some McDonald’s locations in Germany and Canada, the chain is testing out plastic-free restaurants, according to Food & Wine. And, interestingly, Shake Shack restaurants tend to use eco-friendly materials during construction. They also proudly recycle all bottles and plastics, and their cooking oil is reused to produce clean energy. Looking to make some eco-friendly changes at home? Here are 8 ways to go green without even noticing.

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a hand reaches into an automated cubbie to get his foodJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

Pickup cabinets

Online ordering and mobile apps are giving drive-throughs a run for their money in terms of making it easier than ever to get in and out of your favorite fast-food spot quickly. But expect even more pickup options in 2020. According to Partstown.com, we’re about to see more self-serve pickup cabinets. Think along the lines of Little Caesars’ Pizza Portal Pickup. If an order is placed and paid for remotely, a restaurant will immediately begin preparing the order. When it’s ready, the customer will receive a text with either a pin number or QR code to scan at one of these pickup cabinets. This way, a hungry guest can simply scan the code upon arrival, grab their meal, and go.

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ready made food in a refrigerated case - grab and gophaustov/Getty Images

Grab and go

One of the biggest appeals of fast food is that it’s, well, fast. You can score a quick, relatively inexpensive meal on the fly. But what if you could get your food even faster? Panda Express is experimenting with that concept. “We know that schedules are getting busier, routines are more on the go, and guests are eating beyond the traditional lunch and dinner day parts,” says Evelyn Wah, Executive Director of Brand Innovation for Panda Express. “We also understand guests do not want to trade off taste or the goodness in our freshly prepared dishes, inspiring us to test grab-and-go meals at UCLA during the lunch rush. The test results are strong, and we’re looking to expand this option this year to other locations.” These are the 15 most convenient fast-food restaurants, according to customers.

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bao bun

Mini meals

We tend to think of fast food as relatively big portions (even a small order of french fries contains a lot of fries) and a full meal. But look for chains to offer more snackable options. “Panda is incorporating more handheld items, like the Original Orange Chicken Bing and Pastrami Bao Buns at Panda Express Innovation Kitchen,” says Wah. “Our chefs created comfort-food snacks and mini-meals, like chicken wonton soup with kale and mushrooms—it’s an elevated version of a classic home recipe! We’re looking forward to seeing how these new dishes shake out during this research phase and launching more delicious options that fit our guests’ lifestyles.”

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man with a bicycle helmet delivering food take out order to a womansvetikd/Getty Images

Expanded delivery

Uber Eats, Grubhub, Postmates…there are any number of ways to get your favorite foods delivered right to your front door. Expect even more fast-dining eateries to embrace a growing number of ways to deliver on your latest craving. While you may not be able to have your burrito air-dropped by a drone just yet, restaurants are eager to make customers happy. “We continue to maximize efforts and execute a seamless online experience for delivery,” says Bachmann. “This year, we plan to add delivery options to our current Smashburger app for easy access for Smashfans. As one of our top priorities for 2020, we’ve been working closely with delivery-service providers to continuously improve the food experience for delivery occasions with our guests.”

While McDonald’s jumped on the Uber Eats bandwagon back in 2017 with its McDelivery option, Burger King only signed for nationwide service in October 2019. Expect chains not already in the mix to follow suit. Are you a pizza aficionado? These are 13 things your pizza delivery guy won’t tell you.

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three very different burgers each with a flag on a toothpick sticking out the top of themPeter Cernoch/Getty Images

Limited Time Offer bonanzas

As QSR Magazine points out, McDonald’s has been having huge success with Limited Time Offers (referred to as LTOs in the biz), like bringing international menu items to the United States for brief periods. Expect an increasing number of LTOs to pop up at your favorite fast-food chain, whether it’s importing a global offering or offering something new and unique altogether. Customers may love the classics, but a fleeting menu item certainly piques their interest. Another great example: the coveted Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich, which fast-food fanatics went crazy over in 2019. Here are more fast-food items that made waves in the industry.

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digital menu boards ordering at mcdonaldsHoracio Villalobos - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Rise of the machines

Brace yourself for voice-operated kiosks that will be ready and waiting to take your order, saying buh-bye to the friendly face behind the register. According to QSR, these machines will be a predecessor to facial-recognition kiosks. Can you imagine stopping into a McDonald’s and having a machine recognize you? Neither can we. But don’t worry: Eateries won’t be completely operated by machines and robots. There is still plenty of customer demand for human interaction. In many cases, it’s that human interaction that sets one fast-food establishment apart from the other. Technology, however, could help streamline the ordering process and help calm the business of the lunch crunch. Don’t miss these 33 secrets fast-food workers aren’t telling you.

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Healthy nutrition concept. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, beans, dairy products. Top view overhead.

More balanced menus

According to all the experts we spoke to, restaurants are keen on providing guests with the opportunity to customize menu items in ways that fit their dietary restrictions, whether it’s due to a gluten allergy or the decision to follow a Paleo or Keto lifestyle. The goal for 2020 is to provide a more balanced plate for patrons. “While we are exploring plant-based proteins at Panda, our focus is less about a specific ingredient and more about creating a balanced plate of protein and vegetable options for different lifestyles, such as flexitarians,” says Wah. “One thing we’d like to put a stake in and really own this year and moving forward is the fact that our menu has vegetables in almost every dish—this is what makes Panda stand out from many other fast-casual and quick-service restaurants.” Now, find out the fast-food items you should never order.