Understanding the impact of digitally-driven Gen Z on food habits

Published on : 10/1/21
  • Adele Pritchard, Insight manager for Sodexo’s UK & Ireland Food Platform, shares some key insights into the perspectives and preferences of Generation Z, what they mean for current and future trends in school food and how we can use them to boost student retention rates and improve the student experience.

    Who is generation Z?

    Ambitious, curious, diverse, sociable, entrepreneurial, impatient – just some of the characteristics attributed to Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2009 and considered to be the first truly digitally-driven generation. 

    Last year, Generation Z surpassed Millennials as the largest generation, constituting more than a third of the world’s population. This generation, born between 1995 and 2009, came of age in a world where information is readily available at their fingertips and online interaction feeds their behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Generation Z are digital natives, with little or no memory of a world without smartphones.

    According to the Global Web Index, young people aged between 16 to 24 spend seven hours per day online on average, three of which are exclusively on social media. With 85% of Generation Z learning about new products online it’s becoming an increasingly powerful tool for businesses.  

    GenZ characteristics

    Yet this doesn’t mean they’re an easy to reach group. Attention spans are dwindling across all ages groups, but especially among the younger population. The average attention span of Millennials is 12 seconds, and for Generation Z that timeline drops to just eight seconds. We also know they juggle more screens too – Gen Z tend to bounce between five screens at once. 

    While Gen Z are info hungry, they’re also ethically-driven individuals and look to align with organisations they can trust and that fit closely with their morals. Health and wellbeing – of themselves and the planet – is also important, and their engagement behaviours often reflect this.


    How is Gen Z impacting catering offers in schools and universities?

    As student wellbeing challenges rise in prominence, it is important for us to understand parent expectations and our role in the journey. Parents believe schools and universities should have a holistic focus and play their role in the health and wellness of pupils and students. 

    The future of health will be more advanced for Generation Z than any other generation before them. They are more in tune with healthy eating than previous generations. They are more concerned about calorie intake, portion size and the health of their gut. They will drink less alcohol and fewer soft drinks. They will be used to a sugar tax, and will fully engage with healthy snacks, natural foods and plant-based proteins. 

    The food experiences we offer will have a wider resonance beyond simply providing a meal. It’s now commonly understood that certain foods can impact mental as well as physical wellbeing. The right food and beverage offer can have a significant difference in levels of student engagement and student retention, and students' overall success in higher education.

    We need to listen to the student 'voice' when it comes to food, and offer a range of healthy options that are both tasty and nutritious.


    What are Gen Z's preferences when it comes to food?

    The upward industry trend for plant-based eating continues, and we should be looking at adding a variety of plant-based foods to our menu items. Vegan versions of traditional meat, fish and diary dishes are a particular hit with Gen Z – options such as mac and cheese with cashews and beetroot and chickpea burgers gown down well. 

    Street food is a big influence, something we’ve embraced in many of our food offers across the schools and universities portfolio, and will continue to develop in line with changing tastes.

    The trend for snacking shows no signs of abating among young foodies, with 23% of Generation Z saying they prefer quick grab-and-go meals, bowl food and sharing plates to a traditional sit down meal. Healthy snacks continue to be popular too. We can keep snacks exciting for our pupils and students by offering options such as vegetable fries, popcorn and hummous with veggie crudities. 

    school catering trendsEating habits have also changed. The lines between mealtimes and what Gen Z like to eat, and when, should also influence the food we serve. All-day breakfasts rose in prominence a couple of years ago and continue to be popular among young diners – French toast, bagels and smoothies are no longer just for the morning hours. 

    Young people have become more comfortable in the kitchen with increased time at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has provided an opportunity for younger eaters to learn new skills, while also trying new foods, textures and flavours. This has fuelled an emerging trend for sweet and savoury spices, with additions such as cinnamon, turmeric and chilli increasingly being worked into menus as Gen Z continue to become more adventurous eaters. 


    How is Gen Z shaping new food habits?

    Social media is key for food offers in schools and universities.

    Generation Z turn to their smartphones first. It's the go-to source for news, information, social connections, insights and recommendations – and every interaction has the power to shape decisions and experiences.

    Young people are increasingly influenced by social media in looking for ideas for healthy food, nutrition and general health and wellbeing. According to a new study published in the journal Appetite, consumers are more likely to follow those food habits you see more regularly online. 

    Popular social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have quickly become incredible sources for food and cooking content for Gen Z, with a huge number of food-related posts going viral. This could be anything from ‘what I eat in a day’ to vlogs and cooking tutorials. Short videos and live ‘stories’ quickly go viral. School food TikTok is increasingly gaining traction, with kids reviewing school meals and parents sharing packed lunch ideas. 

    For food providers like Sodexo, social media can be a great source in understanding fashionable ingredients and trends popular with Generation Z. This TikTok video spurred a 200% increase in feta sales earlier this year.


    Transparency and awareness in food habits

    While it’s important to keep pace with these Gen Z-led food trends, arguably the most important thing for educational establishments and providers is ensure our ethical and sustainable credentials are strong and visible to our pupils and students. We can do this in a number of ways, by incorporating sustainable packaging, recycling schemes, more plant-based foods and by using things like wonky or surplus veg in our meals. 

    The farm-to-school movement has been gaining steam at schools over the past several years and is expected to continue even after pandemic as consumers of all ages see the alure of eating locally grown foods and learning how that food is grown. 


    A new approach to student engagement

    We should never underestimate the importance of our roles as educators and catering providers in helping to shape successful futures for our students. Gen Z has fully embraced technology and it is shaping their expectations in every aspect of their lives, including food preferences. Using insights to deepen our own knowledge of Gen Z behaviours will help us to challenge our own thinking and place ourselves firmly in their world.


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