Let us set the table—er, scene—for you: At dinnertime, a family gathers around the table, sharing tales from their day while digging into a home-cooked meal. Maybe it includes roast chicken and scalloped potatoes or perhaps sautéed green beans and a fluffy dinner roll. Whatever the dishes, one thing is certain: Each plate will be filled with the traditional protein-starch-veggie combination that some have dubbed the trinity meal.
It’s a familiar scene for those who lived through the ’60s, ’70s, and even parts of the ’80s. But that dynamic is rapidly changing, thanks to younger generations and shifting demographics. Over the ensuing decades, it became more common for both parents to join the workforce and, therefore, have busier schedules. Convenience became king of dinner-table traditions, with consumers shifting to easier-to-prep, one-dish dinners out of sheer necessity.
“The idea of taking things and putting them in a bowl was probably birthed by not having the traditional, nuclear-family dinner,” says David Goldstein, COO at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, a concept with 30 locations along the West Coast.
A recent study from the NPD Group supports this narrative. Though its research shows consumers are still opting to have dinner at home together, what that dinner looks like—and where it comes from—is rapidly changing. In place of the traditional trinity meal, diners are increasingly opting for what are called multicomponent meals, in which all of a trinity meal’s pieces are combined into a single dish, such as a burrito, grain bowl, or salad.
New York City–based Viên specializes in multicomponent offerings, with an array of build-your-own rice bowls, noodle dishes, curries, and salads. Such options play well to millennial and Gen Z diners who grew up with this meal format. “The generation we serve is almost more accustomed at this point to multicomponent meals,” writes owner and founder Mark Sy in an email. “Chipotle has now been in business 25 years, and the number of concepts that have offered this format over the past 10 years—in almost every style of cuisine imaginable—have all built on that knowledge.”
Today’s multicomponent meals are more flavorful and adventurous than ever, further attracting young, food-obsessed customers. The proteins can be anything from smoked brisket and lemongrass chicken to wild-caught raw salmon and marinated tofu. The starches are no longer limited to potatoes and white or brown rice; now there’s wild black rice, farro, and quinoa. And the veggies? From charred Brussels sprouts and leafy baby kale to roasted golden beets from the farm down the road, there’s a seemingly endless list of options to fill the vegetable slot.
And then comes the special sauce—that magical piece of the puzzle that ties everything together. “You can bring more flavor to a dish with a sauce that complements the ingredients,” Goldstein says. At Sharky’s, this includes the Sweet Lemon Vinaigrette on its Harvest Crunch Salad and the Walnut-Cilantro Pesto on its Organic Roasted Vegetable Bowl. “The idea is to spread the nutrition, craveability, and flavor throughout the dish. Each component could live on its own, but combined, it’s truly a composed meal.”
While flavor always matters, convenience is also leading the shift to multicomponent meals, with consumers craving dishes that are quick and easily portable, especially at lunch. “If you’re eating at your desk during lunch, it’s a lot easier,” says Aaron Lyons, co-owner of farm-to-table restaurant Dish Society. “You’re not going to cut up protein at your desk with plastic utensils, so having something that’s pre-made and convenient makes a lot of sense.”
Multicomponent meals also cater to consumers’ desire for healthier options, as they’re easily customizable for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone with specific dietary restrictions or preferences, Goldstein says.
Not to mention, they allow brands to take nutritious components that may be overlooked on their own, then make them more appealing with the use of more intriguing ingredients. “You can use the flavor profile of a different ingredient mixed in—say, fresh herbs or sweet chili sauce—to make it more exciting psychologically, visually, and taste-wise,” Sy says.
Aside from perceived health, multicomponent meals share another common factor: Many limited-service brands offering them lean toward global flavors. That’s because these one-dish items are an excellent way for customers to experiment with cuisines and ingredients they may not be well-versed in or try otherwise if asked to build their own traditional plate.
Consumers may be smitten with multicomponent meals, but trinity meals still have staying power. Though Dish Society serves a handful of what might be considered multicomponent offerings, its No. 1 seller continues to be its Farmers Plate, which allows guests to choose a protein and two sides from several farm-to-table options.
Lyons says consumers continue to order this offering because they like choosing a meal for themselves, rather than settling for a dish that may contain ingredients they don’t like or need to sub out. “We just give you the option to do whatever you want with it,” he says. “The flexibility is there.”
And as a Texas-based brand—with two locations in Houston and nearby Katy—Lyons says his diners still appreciate the meal format of yore. “I think people in Houston and the South in general are more of the meat-and-potatoes, traditional kind of people,” he adds. “Maybe if we had a store in California, it would be different.”
These geographical preferences are just one reason trinity meals may never fade and, potentially, could come to thrive again. “While there are many concepts that deliver multicomponent meals, there’s still a demand for trinity meals,” Sy says. “People like to have options, so there’s room for both to coexist.”