The Millennial Opportunity: Redefining Healthy

The Millennial Opportunity: Redefining Healthy By Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, President, Healthy Dining
May 19, 2016

We frequently hear about Millennials these days, the generation overtaking all others and redefining the world as we know it. If this seems like an overly bold statement, consider how much has changed just in restaurants over the last 16 years. Most sources agree that the group known as Millennials started becoming adults around the year 2000, setting off a major shift in business as usual for the restaurant industry. This group of now 18 to 34 year olds:

  • Launched and grew social media, gradually filling it with pictures and reviews of restaurant food and service.
  • Grew skeptical of the information they were given and began reading nutrition labels and asking questions not just at the grocery store but also at popular restaurants
  • Became more conscious consumers seeking sustainability and more ethical food choices from fast food to fine dining
  • Popularized “eating clean” and made feel good food terms such as “natural,” “whole,” and “organic” mainstream and a must-have for menus.

It’s no wonder that a variety of surveys and studies are now digging into the mindset and eating habits of Millennials.  Research indicates that the group’s restaurant spending is growing, and insight into their habits may help restaurants earn a bigger share of that business.  While the overall findings are proving that the generation is more complex and diverse than we may have previously thought, several common themes in how this group makes food choices are coming to light, and many of them revolve around health.  These shared themes are presenting unique opportunities for restaurant operators navigating the changing landscape of the industry and seeking to exceed the expectations of a very vocal and empowered consumer group.  

Taste Dominates
Whether it’s the segment of Millennials that is focusing more on taste and cost or the segments focusing more heavily on health and nutrition, the flavor of food matters.  This generation has high expectations for taste and isn’t afraid to let restaurants, friends, peers and followers know whether or not those expectations have been met.  Restaurants are now in a position to dominate when embracing fresher, more flavorful ingredients and creatively combining tastes and textures on the menu to maximize flavor profiles of both standard menu items and new choices.  Culinary creativity across segments is a must to deliver.  Whatever your guests are ordering, a nutritious option or an indulgence, a high-end sit down meal or a quick-serve combo, taste should dominate.

Healthy Redefined
One of the most talked-about characteristics of Millennials is their shifting perception of “healthy.”  In previous generations, the term may have equated to low-calorie or low-fat choices that lacked delicious appeal, but this is no longer the case.  Guests are increasingly following a more total diet approach with a focus on what they should be eating vs. what they shouldn’t be eating.  Today, consumers seeking healthier choices are often looking for:

  • More Fruits and Vegetables on the menu.  Research indicates that many consumers in this age group are actively trying to eat more of these whole foods and are passing this habit on to their kids.  This trend ties in to other popular movements gaining momentum such as meatless options, ancient grains and healthier kids’ menus.  Many restaurants are now offering more plant-based choices and additional fruit and vegetable side options to meet guest expectations and position their brand as a choice that Millennials can feel good about.
  • More Whole Foods.  “Transparency” and “eating clean” are both buzzwords for this group of guests.  Many Millennials now delve deeper into food choices to limit additives and more processed ingredients, increase organic choices and even avoid allergens in their diets.  Restaurants are rising to the challenge by offering an assortment of menu choices made with whole foods such as lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, working with vendors to source less processed products and provide ingredient lists, allergens and nutrition information for guests.  Some brands are even going so far as to work with nutrition experts to provide the best choices for guests.  This shift gives guests the opportunity to make the best choices for their needs and lifestyle while restaurants build trust in their brand.  
  • More Sustainable Choices.  Many Millennials seek to eat more consciously than ever before, and this tendency has carried over to restaurants.  In fact, local and sustainable changes make up many of the top culinary trends identified by the National Restaurant Association.  Tapping into the sustainability trend may start with small steps such as a handful of seasonal offerings and sourcing more local ingredients.  Some restaurants are making more comprehensive moves to earn a reputation for sustainability with revamped d├ęcor, kitchen procedures and extensive menu choices all designed with the more eco-conscious consumer in mind.

Finding Balance
While there are still some traditionalists in the Millennial age group that may not follow the trends, many in the generation (and beyond) have begun to see food as a more powerful choice for health and wellness.  Faced with rising rates of obesity and diabetes that show little sign of slowing, an overload of health messages and information, and faster-paced, more stressful lives, this generation has taken a less clinical view of health.  According to the Outlook on the Millennial Consumer 2014 report from the Hartman Group:

“Millennials define wellness as more than just health; wellness, or well-being, is holistic, an evolution and includes indulgence. They are actively trying to find ways to avoid being bored, increase their energy levels and reduce anxiety. They seek balance and prefer to focus on the delicious things they love to eat rather than on the unhealthy things they should avoid.”

Restaurants can win with Millennials by offering an assortment of interesting, beautiful, flavorful and more healthful menu choices that guests can connect to personal wellness and a more balanced life.  It’s no longer as simple as calories or fat, good foods and bad foods.  Resonating with this group means offering menu choices that can help empower guests to live their best life.  

Millennials have without a doubt changed the restaurant industry and how we do business, especially when it comes to health.  Restaurants big and small have an opportunity to connect with this group by using creativity and healthful ingredients to help them power their best lives.  In addition, menu labeling compliance can help restaurants shine through, not only through the taste and presentation of offerings but also through the nutrition information you provide.  Tap into this opportunity to help win Millennials.

How are you tapping into the trends to earn Millennials’ business?