Communal dining is here to stay. Curious consumers love the idea of trying a bit of everything instead of being constrained to choosing one dish off the menu, and enjoy the occasion of dining at long tables alongside fellow foodies.

Dining occasions have become less defined and more informal, and the sociable sharing culture of Spanish tapas has been fully embraced. Over time, this trend has evolved and now more and more cuisines, from Indian to Mexican to Japanese, have adopted the small plate ethos – and made it their own.

Love to share Sharing concepts relieve the decision-making pressures people can feel, as well as offering the chance to try a variety of more adventurous options. Millennials are now one of the largest generations in history. They’re eating out more than any other generation before them – and they love to share. From sharing houses and cars to experiences on social media, Millennial dining habits are a driving force behind the food to share trend. “Tapas, sharing platters and bites are becoming the norm across casual establishments,” says TUCO’s Global Food Trends report. “This also reflects the preference for eating little and often and whenever, versus three square meals. But there is a tension between the desire to share and that for personalisation. Bowl food and customisable portions for one are hugely popular. Whether they’re engaging with the story behind their food or its health benefits, and whether they’re sharing virtually or physically, these consumers are looking for additional meaning to drive their interactions with food because it gives them purpose.”

Take a lion’s share of the profit Consumers will often spend more per head when purchasing a sharing board or tapas style plates for a meal occasion. However, the perception is that they have gained greater value for money because they have had to opportunity to sample several of the establishment’s dishes in one sitting. There’s also the illusion that they have spent less as they were able to ‘split the bill’ although, in reality, they may well have spent more than they would have on a single main dish. In addition, sharing platters offer caterers the flexibility of adapting their offering, for example, if the cost price of a particular product suddenly rises, allowing them to add or remove individual items without completely reworking a dish. Sharing concepts also offer consumers the opportunity to customise or personalise their dishes by ‘cherry-picking’ items to create their own bespoke sharing board. Caterers could therefore offer fixed options for their sharing boards along with a list of additional items that customers can choose to swap certain items with – or they can add extras to their sharing board, meaning a further spend and increased profits.

Sharing ideas Literally anything goes when it comes to sharing dishes – so let your imagination run wild. With pizza being the most popular dish for consumers to choose when dining out of home, there has never been a better time for caterers to consider the classic dish when updating their sharing menus. As pizza has grown in popularity, so too has the pressure for caterers to provide consumers with a high quality offering that rivals the takeaway-delivery market – service needs to be fast, but it also needs to be consistent. “This is where our frozen Chicago Town Takeaway Pizza range has helped – enabling caterers to serve delicious tasty pizzas in minutes, whilst keeping wastage to a minimum,” says Emma Haworth, senior brand manager, Dr Oetker Professional. “It makes complete sense that we are now seeing the usually savoury treat appearing on dessert menus too,” she continues. “Sweet pizzas are growing in demand as consumers look for an exciting alternative to the traditional puddings you find on menus. It’s also the ideal sharing dessert to enjoy as a decadent sweet finish – helping caterers provide a social experience.”

Another great way to break the mould is to serve large single dishes, that can be put in the middle of the table and everyone can just help themselves, says Stuart Tingley of Nestle Professional. “These one pot dishes can be anything from tagines, curries and the like all the way to British favourites such as a warming shepherd’s pie,” he advises. “In the summer think big joints of meat that can be cooked on the barbecue. Think of tear and share dishes that are full of flavour and simple to do, encouraging a social and pleasurable dining experience.”

Japanese ‘Dude Food’, which also taps into the sharing trend, is set to be huge this year. “Gutsy sharing dishes favoured in the country’s izakaya bars are set to become a big thing,” according to Waitrose’s Food & Drink Report 2017-18. “Whether it’s yakitori skewered chicken or deep-fried tofu in broth, the trend will combine the hearty ‘dude food’ of the southern US states with the unctuous, rich, and surprising flavours of after-hours Tokyo.”

Creating a sharing platter with a variety of dip options is a great way to allow consumers to tailor their meal to their tastes and preference providing that ‘personal’ experience every time. As we head into the summer, Lamb Weston’s Potato Dippers with beetroot, yoghurt and mint dip, or spicy honey chipotle dip, for example, are the perfect addition to any menu.

“The secret to designing a successful platter is all about choosing the right foods and flavours that work well together. It’s important to provide different textures, flavours and a point of difference on the menu,” explains Daniel Duprat, foodservice manager at Bennett Opie. “Our pitted marinated olives are recommended as a nutritiously balanced and tasty option for a sharing board. “Gherkins and cocktail onions are also key components. They perfectly complement a wide selection of flavours and in particular charcuterie and cheese.”

Seasonal sharing The humble potato is an ideal ingredient to include on sharing platters and can be presented in different ways to reflect the season and entice customers. Tie your menu into the outdoor environment to tempt customers to try something new. If it’s unseasonably chilly, entice people with descriptions of baked sweet potato skins, piping hot and topped with pulled meats, or skins oozing with melting cheese and savoury onion or smoked bacon. Talk about cool, creamy dips to whet the appetite for indulgent contrasts. If spring is very much in the air and customers are getting active outdoors, describe the energising benefits of sweet potato skins loaded with fresh, light beetroot and walnut, feta and spinach, pine nuts and olives.

Sharing isn’t always caring Following the recent court case, which resulted in a £50,000 fine slapped on a Birmingham steakhouse for serving food on dirty wooden boards, hygiene is of crucial importance. A spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency advises: “There isn’t any strong evidence to suggest that a well maintained wooden plate is any less hygienic than ceramic, glass, plastic or even slate. What is important is that the plates/boards get cleaned properly after every use and are replaced if they get damaged, for example from deep cuts or scoring. “It is worth noting that slate is much more textured than a standard plate, so there is more potential for bugs to stick to the surface. However, this will not be a problem if the slate is cleaned thoroughly.”

Share and share a ‘like’ Social media is critical to enhancing brand personality and loyalty, according to MCA’s social media analysis report, so it’s important to have a strong online presence. Facebook is best applied to brand storytelling and appeals to a broad demographic, Twitter can be used effectively for short bursts of information, sharing third party tweets and hashtag engagement, whilst Instagram’s visual basis appeals to a much younger audience. With “foodstagramming” and the experience-economy becoming increasingly popular, MCA expects Instagram to grow in importance, particularly among its growing core audience of Millennials and Gen-Z.

“The trend of posting photos of food has almost become a part of day-to-day life, especially amongst Millennials,” says Nigel Crane, of Lamb Weston. “This is an opportunity for operators to elevate their offering and incorporate sharing dishes which are visually impressive. These not only encourage sharing digitally but also in the moment with friends, family and colleagues, which results in increased spend.” TUCO’s Global Food Trends report states: “As Apple make their iPhone camera better and better, everyone is a food photographer and so we’re eating with our eyes more than ever. It’s not enough for food to taste good, it needs to look the part. Chefs are obligingly responding with their most beautiful creations yet – they look too good to eat. The good news is that every social media post equals excellent PR.”