A. Elizabeth Sloan

With America’s 76 million Boomers spending more than any other age group on groceries and restaurant meals, according to Technomic, Inc., focusing on the food preferences of these 42- to 60-year-olds is an important business strategy.

Still accounting for the vast majority of the workforce, this well-off, time-crunched group is a prime target for fresh, healthier, and higher-quality convenience foods (see "Demographic Directions: Mixing Up the Market," Food Technology, July 2005). According to Packaged Facts’ 2005 Baby Boomers & the U.S. Food & Beverage Industry report, 50% of Boomers say foods that are the easiest to prepare are their favorite; 35% say they don’t have time to cook.

While 56% of older Boomers (age 52–60) and 58% of Matures (age 65 and over) prepare "home-cooked" meals five or more days per week—compared to 38% of younger Boomers (age 42–51), 38% of Gen Yers, and 38% of Gen Xers—the Food Marketing Institute’s 2006 Shopping for Health Survey found that the older Boomers and Matures are significant users of further-prepared meals.

Just under one-third (31%) of older Boomers use packaged food meals one or more times per week, 29% frozen entrees, 23% prepared foods, 14% ready-to-cook foods, 36% meals at a fast-food restaurant, and 22% fast-food take-out, compared to 46, 32, 35, 27, 49, and 26%, respectively, for younger Boomers.

Raised on the Basic 4 Food Groups concept of healthy eating, it’s not surprising that 60% of Boomers are trying to balance their diet and expect a traditional meat–starch–vegetables approach to a meal. Older Boomers and Matures eat the most fruits and vegetables, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation. More than half (56%) of those age 55 and over always/sometimes exchange vegetables for potatoes with their restaurant entrée, reports Technomic.

The Natural Marketing Institute’s 2005 Healthy Aging/Boomer report confirms that 58% of Boomers are trying to avoid saturated fat, 54% fat or cholesterol, 50% trans fat, 46% sugar, 41% calories, and 40% sodium. FMI reports that 71% of older and 59% of younger Boomer food shoppers are overweight and 34% and 31%, respectively, are dieting. Affluent Empty Nesters are the most likely to avoid fried foods.

Seafood is the entrée Boomers are most likely to order at a restaurant, according to Restaurant & InstitutionsNew American Diner 2005 Study. Burgers, chicken/turkey, seafood, French fries, side-dish salads, non-fried vegetables, main-dish salads, eggs, pizza, and beef are the most-ordered restaurant foods by those age 50 and over, says NPD.

Boomers index highest for preferences for fish and seafood, order more steak, soup, and salad, and tend to eat desserts, although they are attracted to healthier recipes and smaller portions, according to NPD. Older diners lean toward olive oil vs butter, citrus flavors, fruit salsas, crunchy nut crusts, liquor glazes, and flame-grilled, steamed, and spiced preparations.

Boomers are not as interested as the younger generations in gourmet, ethnic, and foreign foods, reports Packaged Facts—44% of older Boomers and 47% of younger Boomers enjoy eating ethnic foods, and 41% and 43%, respectively, enjoy foods with lots of spices.

Only 45% of Boomers usually try to order something they’ve never had before when dining out, reports R&I. In contrast, 17% of Boomers (13 million), consider themselves gourmet, says Packaged Facts. For comfort, they seek the familiar, Americanized versions of the "foreign" foods they ate as youths.

Italian is the most popular cuisine among those age 50–64, enjoyed regularly by 84%, followed by Chinese 75% Mexican 70%, German 26%, Japanese 23%, Greek 19%, Indian 14%, Thai 12%, and Middle Eastern 9%, according to Gallup’s 2005 Meal Replacement Survey.

Growing up on meats, roasts, potatoes, and down-home desserts, Boomers find comfort foods tremendously appealing. Increasingly, they demand more authentic regional dishes. They’re also the most interested in details about the ingredients, reports Packaged Facts.

Those age 50 and over are the most likely to order a cocktail or wine with a restaurant meal, reports NPD. Boomer households index the highest for consumption of rum, cocktails, whiskey, cordials, vodka, and wine, according to Information Resources, Inc.

Despite popular perception, coffee consumption increases with age, from 54% for those age 18–24 to 79% for those age 65, according to Mintel’s Coffee US–June 2005 Report. Baby Boomers prefer a light blend vs a darker Starbucks-like coffee.

But it is breakfast that may be the major differentiator for the Boomers, as they are among the most likely to eat a morning meal. NPD says that those in their 50s eat 324 breakfasts per year, compared to 303 for those in their 40s.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor 
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif. 
[email protected]