Gen Zs have been praised as many things during their relatively brief time on this earth —dream consumers, world saviors — but they also share a less laudable title: the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to unprecedented childhood obesity rates.
Thankfully, the dismal fate of this 21-and-under cohort is showing signs of reverse due to cafeteria reform and food education programs. But growing up bombarded by messages touting the dangers of indulgence has created an unintended side effect: Zs are obsessed with all things culinary. Food and beverages are this generation’s primary form of indulgence, and they’re using eye-catching culinary creations and experiences to express their creativity and distinguish themselves from their peers. While Millennials share this fixationfare, Zs are taking the trend to new heights.
Understanding this shift and its relationship to the over-the-top food trends taking over social media — from supersized snacks to tiny food to immersive culinary museums — will be key to companies looking to attract young generations on the hunt for epic eats.
Z’s glutton goals have been a long time in the making. In addition to health-focused messaging from parents and schools, digital access throughout their childhoods has made them highly informed regarding what they eat and drink. There’s simply more transparency surrounding what goes into food and beverages than there used to be, not only due to the rise of the farm-to-table movement popularized bymillennials but also because young people’s myriad dietary restrictions and allergies have necessitated widespread labeling of ingredients.
They’re educated about what goes into their food and drinks, but they choose indulgent options anyways — with a few notable exceptions. Because Zs grew up during the crackdown on jumbo-sized soft drinks and high fructose corn syrup, they’re more inclined to choose bottled water over soda, which one -quarter of Zs in the U.S. think “is as bad as cigarettes.” So, while they’ll avoid taboo sugary soft drinks and frowned-upon fast food restaurants, they’re by no means health nuts. As my team and I uncovered in our research for The Gen Z Effect, only 32 percent of Zs in the U.S. and 27 percent in the UK are making efforts to eat healthier.
The joy of eating aside, culinary culture gives Gen Zs social currency. Decadent meals and visually compelling gastronomic experiences create the shareworthy moments they’re hungry for. It’s no coincidence that many of the over-the-top meals and experiences dominating Zs’ feeds — unicorn hot chocolate, fairy floss ice cream, trips to cookie Dō — are highly drool-inducing. For a generation going through adolescence in full display on social media, having shareworthy content helps them boost their online presence while also letting them relay the impression that they’re not trying too hard to be perfect.
In a focus group, a 13-year-old girl from New York explained, “You eat things that aren’t good for you so you can be like, ‘I can eat ice cream and still look great.’ You want to make it look seamless when it’s really not.”
This mindset also applies to meals they make themselves; half ofZTrendsetters in the U.S. and 46 percent in the UK have shared something they’ve cooked or baked on social media. In fact, when we asked Zs about the types of skills they have or want to have, cooking ranked first out of 18 categories (86 percent in the U.S. and 83 percent in the UK). They love cooking and baking and express themselves through their culinary creations, so indulgences like these let them exercise their artistry, adding a positive layer to their indulgence. In the future, we foresee a potential rise in food-related jobs that go beyond cooking, such as food styling and design, as Zs’ glutton goals continue to grow.
What this trend means for restaurant brands
Moving forward, brands should consider the creative nature of Zs’ epicurean quests when conceptualizing products, restaurantsandspaces designed for imbibing. We anticipate a rise in offerings that speak to this generation’s quest for culinary indulgence and an even greater presence of visually extreme — even unnatural looking — food and drinks, given how wildly colored drinkshave gain momentum and crossed over into categories like beauty.
Case in point: the latest hair color trends are inspired by snacks like LaCroix and Halo Top. Companies should also consider how they can infuse elements specifically designed for sharing into their spaces, as Magnum did with its Dipping Barin NYC.
The rise of video-based sharing on platforms like Instagram means that companies should also be mindful of incorporating environments that play well in motion, not just stills.
Social media aside, eats must truly taste epic — not just look epic — if they’re going to enjoy longevity with a generation growing up foodie.