The 11 Foods That Defined 2023

Pickles, steak, and the Grimace Shake all made waves this year.

It's been a tumultuous year, hasn't it? Similarly, this year's food trends seem to reflect a certain... strangeness. Between heavily caffeinated beverages, spicy snacks, and the purple shake heard 'round the world, consumers' tastes were all over the place. But make no mistake: We had fun. This year's defining foods were all about levity, injecting a much-needed sense of kookiness into an otherwise bleak landscape. Let's review the 10 foods that defined this very, very long year.

Worryingly caffeinated beverages

If your peers seem twitchier than usual, there's a good reason for that: American brands are going all in on caffeine. As of December 2023, Panera Bread is facing two lawsuits sparked by its ultra-caffeinated Charged Lemonade beverages, which allegedly contributed to two deaths.

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Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian launched the very aptly named Kimade. The drink does not contain real bits of Kim, but it does contains contains 200mg of caffeine per 12-oz. can—more than both Red Bull and Monster energy drinks.

Finally, YouTube star Logan Paul recently came under fire for his new(ish) energy drink, Prime, which also contains 200mg of caffeine per 12-oz. can. Heart Palpitation Nation, here we come.

McDonald’s Grimace Shake

Grimace, the gumdrop-shaped McDonaldland character of yore, dominated TikTok this summer thanks to the McDonald's Grimace Shake, released in June to celebrate the fictional monster's birthday. The bright purple shake tasted lightly of berries—nothing particularly surprising for a fast food item, but it was fine.

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TikTok users turned this otherwise unremarkable shake into an excuse to make miniature horror films that depicted the (fake) demise of the TikTok users themselves. This viral trend was hilarious, fascinating, and horrific all at the same time, and it left a lasting impact. Fast forward to December 2023, when Google revealed that "Grimace Shake" was one of the search engine's top trending search terms of the entire year. The shake was only available for about a month, but its mouth-staining legacy remains.

Dill Pickles

People sure love their dill pickles, so everyone from snack makers to condiment producers took notice. Dill pickles were popular in 2022, but surprisingly, the flavor trend only grew hotter in 2023.

Jimmy John's released dill pickle-flavored potato chips this year. We were big fans of Frank's RedHot dill pickle hot sauce. Hidden Valley's dill pickle ranch came out swinging. Major League Baseball debuted pickle cheese curds. Multiple beverage brands released pickle drinks. And Pizza Hut even teased us with a dill pickle pizza. It's not often that one dominant flavor trend has so much staying power, but pickles have everyone smitten.

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Hot hot heat

Consumers screamed for spice this year, and brands were happy to comply. Take Hot Mustard Doritos, which returned this summer after an initial launch in 2022. (Our reviewer called them "Great. Awesome. Inspiring.") Then we've got the ever popular Blue Heat Takis, which allegedly contain enough Blue 1 Lake to turn your urine blue (shits, too).

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Meanwhile, grocery store shelves were lined with everything from spicy SpaghettiOs to spicy ketchups. On the fast food front, chains delivered on customers' need for heat: Panda Express tested out Chili Crisp Shrimp as a limited-time entree in September, Wendy's cranked up the spice, and Pizza Hut dabbled in the hot honey realm.

Taco Bell’s Beefy Crunch Burrito

The Beefy Crunch Burrito from Taco Bell is a simple creation: seasoned ground beef, seasoned rice, nacho cheese, sour cream, and the defining embellishment, Flamin' Hot Fritos. But this one creation has spawned a fandom seldom seen in the fast food sphere, resulting in a vocal community that has tirelessly petitioned to bring it back as a permanent menu item.

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After years of clamoring for its return, Taco Bell held a vote in its mobile app to see if it should come back versus the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos, and the Beefy Crunch Burrito won handily, eventually returning for a limited time. While there's no word on whether it will ever come back to the Taco Bell menu forever, its reincarnation proves that fast food companies do listen to your pleas—they just want to capitalize on them properly.

Mochi doughnuts

First things first: Mochi doughnuts are nothing new. Like all Asian fare recently popularized in the U.S., the fusion pastries have a decades-long legacy abroad. This beautiful hybrid between cake doughnuts and mochi (a chewy Japanese rice cake) is generally credited to Mr. Donut, a Japanese chain that introduced mochi doughnuts overseas in 2003 and came to the United States via Hawai'i.

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What makes mochi doughnuts a definitive choice for 2023? First, American consumers are finally catching on: Earlier this year, industry trade publication Restaurant Business released its Future 50 list of franchises poised to take off across the States. The number one brand on the list is Mochinut, a California-based chain that was founded in March 2020. We're also seeing market testing by major chains like Dunkin', pointing to the continued shift toward Asian-inspired foods in the American market.

Steak

There's no question that Americans consider steak a luxury food item. We celebrate big milestones by going out for steak dinners, and revere these slabs of red meat for making us feel like we're treating ourselves to something special. And the price of steak usually reflects that—going out to get it usually isn't cheap.

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That's why steakhouse chains scored big this year. Texas Roadhouse is known for keeping the prices of an otherwise luxury item affordable enough for a wide array of customers, and that's why it's been able to expand at a breakneck speed in 2023. And with more carryout options than ever, steak doesn't just have to be for special occasions anymore.

Iced Coffee

If you've been following our coverage of CosMc's, McDonald's new drive-thru beverage concept, you know that the menu is roughly 99% chilled coffee drinks. Actually, "coffee-adjacent" is the better descriptor—some of CosMc's drinks contain no coffee at all.

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Regardless, fast food chains are catching onto Gen Z's obsession with chilled beverages. Taco Bell is also testing out two new frozen beverage products: Coffee Chillers and Churro Chillers, the brand's "first-ever frozen coffee and shake innovations." These new products are only available at select locations in Southern California, but if our internal Trend-O-Meters (official term) are correct, we'll be seeing a lot more chilled blended coffee drinks in 2024.

Instant noodles

While grocery inflation may be showing signs of cooling, shoppers are still reaching for cheaper products to ease the strain on their wallets. Earlier this year, we reported that instant noodles were taking grocery sales by storm; per Nikkei Asia data, last year's global sales of instant noodles topped 121.2 billion servings, an all-time high and the seventh straight year that the segment has grown.

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Combine that with the extreme proliferation in TikTok ramen hacks, and it's safe to say that instant noodles have transcended their (strictly American) reputation as fare for broke college kids.

Mustard

If you're anything like us, you've still got visions of mustard-flavored Skittles dancing in your head. But the quintessentially 2023 obsession with mustard doesn't end there; earlier this year, TikToker Tiffany Magee branded herself the "Mustard Girl," broadcasting her highly restrictive diet that involved mainly chicken sausage, hearts of palm, cottage cheese, and truly harrowing quantities of mustard. Dietitians and commenters (correctly) balked at the combo. Never have we seen such blasphemy to the good name of French's.

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Rotisserie chicken

This one's a little different: The rotisserie chicken was a defining food in 2023 primarily because of how it failed. In a sea of fast food burger joints, rotisserie chicken feels like a wholesome option, doesn't it? But the one fast-casual restaurant chain that has staked its entire reputation around spinning roasted birds is now in jeopardy. After the company was sued by seemingly every single entity on the planet, Boston Market's owner has now filed for personal bankruptcy. The once successful chain is now only a shadow of its former self.

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Given that so many new restaurants are increasing the amount of competition and existing chicken chains continue to evolve, we might have to stick a skewer in Boston Market, because it's close to being done. It's back to grocery store rotisserie chickens for us all.

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