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Wondering how two years of COVID-19 restrictions and the negative economic environment are going to impact Gen Z and millennial food preferences in 2022 and beyond? We were too.
So we turned to MaryLeigh Bliss, chief content officer of YPulse and a well-known expert on today’s tweens, teens, college students, and young adults, including millennial parents. For 17 years, YPulse has been interviewing more than 250,000 Gen Z and millennial consumers (aged 13–39) annually. Bliss oversees YPulse surveys as well as the research firm’s syndicated products, which include a daily newsletter and more than 80 trend and brand reports produced annually.
Here’s what Bliss had to say about the changing behaviors of teen and young adult consumers. Her responses are edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How have eating patterns of young adults changed since the pandemic?
Bliss: In the beginning of the pandemic (way back in 2020) quarantines disrupted young consumers’ eating habits, changing when and what they ate. With schedules and routines disrupted and less divide between home, work, and school, they began actually eating fewer regular meals. In November of 2020, 57% reported eating three square meals a day, a decrease from 67% in 2019. The reality is that many are still living in a COVID-created limbo and their lives and schedules have not yet returned to what they were before. The majority tell us they don’t think they ever will. This means that their eating patterns have also not returned to “normal.”
The number who say they snack during the week has decreased slightly from 2020 but stayed higher than pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the number who say they eat three square meals a day has continued to decrease—from 67% in 2019 to 57% in 2020, and 53% in 2021.
It’s doubtful that we’ll see the movement away from three square meals a day change this year. Between continued changes in their routines and trends like intermittent fasting, young people aren’t eating regular meals the way they once did.Two trends of note: Just about half of millennials told YPulse they plan on working more from home post-COVID. Half of those aged 21–39 say they enjoy drinking at home more often since the pandemic.
Q: Are young adults still cooking more at home?
Bliss: It’s not news that quarantines caused a huge spike in at-home cooking, but many wondered if the interest would last as time passed. YPulse has found that “kitchen fatigue” has not set in among young cooks. Our research on cooking and diets shows that 70% who are cooking more plan to keep cooking more meals at home even after the pandemic is over. On top of that, 59% say they feel more passionate than ever about cooking since COVID—versus 41% who say they are getting tired of cooking so often. Gen Z’s interest in cooking has increased during this time, with 35% of Gen Z cooking from scratch in 2021, up 14 points from 2019.
YPulse data also show that young people are more likely to cook from scratch than to use prepackaged options. When we ask how they usually cook dinner, 39% say “making a meal from scratch,” 20% say “using a mix of packaged ingredients and ingredients I have to cook,” 16% say “using packaged ‘meals in a box’ (e.g., mac & cheese, salad mixes, Hamburger Helper, etc.),” and 9% say “heating up a frozen meal/can of soup.” Cooking/baking ranks sixth on the list of skills young adults want to learn in 2022.
Q: Will young adults continue to be as adventurous and experimental with foods and flavors?
Bliss: Social media is currently one of the biggest forces shaping food trends among young consumers. YPulse data show social media is their second source for recipes after family, and recipes on social media are the top type of food content they’re interested in. YPulse’s Comfort in the Kitchen trend data found that 44% of 13–39-year-olds have cooked a recipe that was going viral on social media. TikTok has become especially influential, and young consumers were most likely to say TikTok recipes were the biggest food trend of 2021.That’s not changing, and brands that want to figure out the latest food fads should head to the app, where everything from frozen honey to green goddess salad has trended. What the food trends that take off there generally have in common is that they put an unexpected twist on known ingredients, and that they’re easy and accessible. Gen Z and millennials are looking to have fun with food and recipes, they’re willing and excited to try new things, and new takes on simple ingredients will continue to trend among these generations.
Q: How will young adults’ concern for health and wellness manifest itself in 2022?
Bliss: When asked about their intentions for 2022 across their social lives, health, and lifestyle, those 13–39 were most committed to improving their physical health this year, followed by their mental health.
Over half of young women and more than four in 10 young men say the COVID-19 crisis has negatively impacted their mental health; similar percentages also cite their energy level. Fifty-four percent of young women say they’re currently feeling a lack of energy; 41% of young men.
Q: What food labels are attracting attention among young adults?
Bliss: Both Gen Z and millennials are becoming increasingly restrictive in their diets or trying diets that don’t allow certain categories of foods. The number who describe their diets as “unrestricted” decreased between 2019 and 2021, from 66% to 58% among Gen Z and from 64% to 57% among millennials. Meanwhile, the number who describe their diets as gluten-free, dairy free, carb-free, vegetarian, and pescatarian increased among both generations.
The top labels that make young grocery shoppers more likely to buy an item are “all natural,” “organic,” and “eco-friendly,” but we have seen interest in these labels decrease slightly over time. We see indications that they’re less interested in what’s on a label and more interested in what’s in the ingredient list of a product.
Q: Are the plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian trends here to stay among young adults?
Bliss: Currently, 11% of 13–39-year-olds say their diets are vegetarian; 7%, vegan. Among millennials, 14% say they’re vegetarian and 10%, vegan. That’s a significant number of young people who are refraining from eating meat. Gen Z and millennials are more accepting of diets shifting over time, and experimenting, but that doesn’t mean that their interest in eating less meat is lip service. Instead, we see that these generations are driving the trends around meat-free foods.
YPulse has found that 70% of young consumers are interested in or regularly eating/drinking plant-based products (64% of Gen Z, 73% of millennials). Back in 2019, YPulse said that Gen Z and millennials were the ones fueling the fake-meat food rush, and the pandemic actually accelerated the trend.
When we look at all 13–39-year-olds, YPulse found that 47% say they drink plant-based beverages and/or eat plant-based meat regularly, while 23% don’t but are interested. Only 30% currently say that they don’t and they’re not interested in doing so. Clearly the market for plant-based foods is indeed ripe with possibility for young adults.
Q: Will Gen Z’s interest in lab-based protein wane as they age?
Bliss: There is very little chance that Gen Z and millennials’ interest in lab-based protein and other enhanced or invented foods will dim as they age. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite—older millennials in their 30s are the most likely to say they eat plant-based meat regularly. Ultimately, what these generations are looking for is products that are good—or better—for the environment. A big part of the appeal of plant-based meat is that it could help with climate change issues, which these generations are incredibly anxious about. In fact, 23% say that they have changed their diet because of climate change. Many of them are looking for foods that have less of a negative impact on the planet, whether those solutions come out of a lab or out of a (chemical-free) field.
Credentials: B.S., Communications, New York University
Career Path: Trend Coordinator, The Intelligence Group; Executive Director, Trendera; Chief Content Officer and Vice President of Content & Trends Editor, YPulse