Food forward: Millennials and Gen Z are crafting their own journey

The topic of younger consumers influencing our culture is a constant headline these days, in part because of the sheer scope of their numbers (according to US Census, millennials and Gen Z now make up 51% of the population), and also for their impact on shopping and consumption. The food and beverage industry is feeling their impact, notably with regard to their behaviors as relate to shopping, cooking, eating out and technology.

To understand more about how they are influencing both the current and future food and beverage landscape, we recently completed an exploration of how both millennials (age 19 to 37) and Gen Z teenagers (age 15 to 18) interact with foods and beverages by examining what they eat, where they eat and how they shop for groceries and cook when they decide to stay at home.

Our Foodways of the Younger Generation report finds that both millennials and Gen Z are crafting their own food culture. Millennials begin with a foundation of childhood habits learned from their parents, and then receive unprecedented exposure to the philosophies of healthy diets throughout their years in school.

Today, they are conducting their own conversations and discoveries about food through their social networks and popular media channels. As with Gen Z, as a wired and connected generation, millennials have virtually unlimited access to information and idea sharing — literally at their fingertips. This connected lifestyle affords them instant exploration and immediate exposure to new ideas as they form their own habits and preferences.

Millennials began their food journey as most do, learning eating habits from their parents and extended families. However, unlike prior generations, as they were growing up, they received unprecedented exposure to and knowledge about healthy diets and global cuisine. Now, as they age, they are having their own conversations and discoveries about food via friends, family, their broader social networks and a variety of popular media channels, especially online social media. As this generation continues to transition from the parental home to the college dorm and eventually on to their own home, each life-stage shift has an influence on their food preferences, their perceptions about health, how they grocery shop, approaches to cooking, good and bad snacking habits, and their food service choices.

An interesting subset of millennials are the "millennial food sophisticates." They are a trendsetting, influential minority (25%). This millennial niche brings a heightened awareness and stylistic approach to food culture that will influence both the generations that came before them and the one following them. Blogs written by food sophisticates, photos of food they order at trendy restaurants posted to social media, and recipes and prep videos they share have substantial impact on their own wide social networks and beyond.

With regard to health perceptions and food preferences millennials tend to look like older cohorts (Gen X, Boomers) when it comes to health and wellness. Those who have ventured out on their own are more interested in developing healthy eating and exercise habits and in looking for healthy, less-processed food. A key exception are those still living at home — these younger millennials are more similar to Gen Z and are less concerned with how diet impacts their health. They can tell the “good” food from the “bad” food. This group has been well-schooled in healthy eating habits. Like millennials who still live at home, Gen-Z teens actually know what healthy means when it comes to eating, but they don’t care as much as others; they think they have plenty of time to eat right in the future.

When it comes to cooking, a general myth buster relates to the fact that millennials like to cook. They enjoy cooking, and 60% claim they do all the cooking in their household. Like older consumers, when they cook, most of the time they include fresh ingredients; this is especially true of those Millennials who are parents. They are culinary adventurers: Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican, Greek, Mediterranean — millennials are exploring global cuisines and trying different types of ingredients including spices, oils and flavorings. Gen-Z teens have not, for the most part, taken on the responsibilities of cooking in their households since parents are still the meal providers. However, they too are interested in cooking and are exposed to it at home, at school and, importantly, through cooking shows and videos (either online or on TV), which have helped to impart a “cool” factor to food preparation.

What marketers can do to appeal to younger generations?

Retailers, restaurant operators and manufacturers should look to trend-forward restaurant concepts to understand what will appeal to food-engaged youth like millennial food sophisticates and what might appeal more broadly down the road. Connect by telling stories of origin, founders, unique sourcing and ingredients, social causes, etc.

Trend-forward millennials want local, ethnic, fresh, less processed, organic and specialty foods. As they search for the newest and coolest products, they may be more willing to pay a price premium for quality and uniqueness, but don’t exclude this group from deals — they can be just as price sensitive as other millennials.

With regard to Gen Z, few teens today are involved in shopping and cooking — but many are interested. Marketers can start building relationships with Gen Z now. Start the conversation with them in places they can be found, including the cooking TV shows/online videos they watch.

As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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