Nutrient use efficiency (NUE) is typically measured as the ratio of yield to soil nutrient availability but ignores contributions of underlying plant traits. Relevant plant traits can be grouped as root acquisition efficiency, shoot radiation use efficiency, and plant metabolic efficiency. The intentional integration of these traits will lead to synergistic improvements of NUE. Recent progress in trait-focused research includes phenotyping root nutrient uptake rates and respiration, engineering reduced photorespiration, and identification of nutrient assimilation pathways. Traits need to be conceptualized in agricultural systems contexts to improve synchrony of plant demand and soil supply of nutrients, including consideration of crop mixtures. Use of simulation modeling and multi-objective optimization will allow accelerating NUE gains beyond selection for a single ratio.