Teens in the kitchen: Gen Z’s independence in food and cooking choices

In a real-life version of “Home Alone” teens today are often on their own at home, often after school, and face a daily daunting dilemma: what to eat? With parents (or parent) working, these kids are left to fend for themselves. Welcome to the era of “eating autonomy” where Gen-Z teens independently do much of their own food preparation at home and often eat alone. Busy household schedules mean that teens today do much of their own food prep and often eat alone for every at-home meal except dinner (though, occasionally at dinner, they’re on their own too).

While we find that they are mainly dependent on their parents for grocery shopping, our Gen Z 2018 report found that today’s teens have a lot of sway over what they eat within their own homes — especially snacks. Specifically, today’s teens often put together their own breakfasts, select their own lunches, and make their own snacks. Our research finds that seven in ten (70%) of Gen Z say they have “total control” over what they eat for snacks. While they sometimes eat alone at dinner, as a meal occasion dinner tends to be the meal most likely eaten with family and thus likely planned and cooked by parents and subject to others’ desires.

All of this implies that Gen Z are not afraid of the kitchen. They are willing and able to look up recipes and techniques — thanks, YouTube! — to get the job done. To help teens in the kitchen, many Gen Z households have optimized their kitchens and pantries for teenage food autonomy. Parents make sure to stock easy-to-grab snacks, lunchbox items, frozen meals and snacks, and pre-prepped fruit and veggies so that teens can easily feed themselves. Here's how one parent of a male 18-year-old described her strategy to us:

“I just do a lot of cooking on Mondays so that he can grab and go. Like a bacon-and-egg bake with a lot of vegetables. Then he scoops into that for breakfast.”

A practical generation, Gen Z sees cooking as an accessible life skill available to anyone with an internet connection. Compared to cooking behaviors of the past, what’s different for today’s teens is the amount of information, entertainment, and instruction available about food and cooking – much of it geared specifically to teens. This abundance of information means that teens – even those who don’t cook currently – feel like they “could cook if they wanted to.”

With limited time to eat during the school day, teens often rely on snacks — the food they have most control over — to manage hunger, energy, and nutrition. The after-school snack is a key cooking occasion for teens; it’s one of the few times when hunger, freedom, and time all come together. And, of course, a teenager’s snack is often the size and has the components of an adult meal, underscoring how the lines between what constitutes a snack or meal are blurring.

Autonomy over food choice means that many teens have a personal and independently chosen set of food and beverage options, sometimes things that no one else may touch. Older teens tend to prepare more of their own food. They often have whole sections of the pantry that belong just to them. These items have been specifically requested and occasionally even directly purchased by teens and are not meant for others in the home to consume. For some households, this is a parental strategy to encourage independence. In others, it may just be a way to avoid arguments.

Food-choice autonomy: Informing Gen-Z eating and cooking behaviors later in life

With so much independence in the kitchen, marketers should keep a watchful eye on Gen Z’s early behaviors, as we believe they will inform their shopping, planning, prep, cooking, and eating behaviors later in life. Marketers will need to be mindful of Gen-Z’s eating habits, and focus on how to further enhance Gen Z’s exploration of food and cooking through food “infotainment.” Food learning for Gen Z may be through entertainment, but favored sources also cater to Gen Z’s specific search behaviors and food needs — including quick, entertaining, mobile-friendly, multi-platform, highly visual, video-based, with tools and recipes relevant to their life stage. Formats that favor text, don’t get to the point, don’t move easily across devices and platforms, or that aren’t entertaining are not going to reach this generation.

Gen Z have been feeding themselves, often by themselves, for many years by the time they graduate high school. Continuing longer-term trends, their eating habits deprioritize meals in favor of snacks. At the same time, they grew up watching food-as-entertainment and have many sources of instruction and inspiration at their fingertips. This combination of independence and information has resulted in a generation that is curious, capable, and confident in the kitchen, regardless of gender.

Gen-Z eating autonomy echoes the eating alone trend we’ve documented within overall food culture where food to go, portable foods and premium “snacks” all can be crafted together to form a meal for one. For many consumers, solitary dining is a new way of eating that can be customized and personalized and is often an occasion looked forward to.

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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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