On any given night, my bedtime routine consists of one of the following: reading an old paperback or more likely, perusing my Pinterest feed. I scroll past the fashion posts and the home decor, but always find my thumb stopping on unique recipes to add to my collection. For someone who attempts to follow a healthy diet, Pinterest is key. The virtual catalog introduced me to the likes of pizza with cauliflower crust, healthified peanut butter cookies, and zesty quinoa bowls—inspirations that help me put down the takeout menu and actually create something of substance.
And I’m not the only foodie in my group of friends—we’re all Pinterest lovers, restaurant goers, and #foodporn obsessed.
Sure, people of all generations and backgrounds have been known to come together around the table, but the food frenzy is especially pronounced among Millennials. According to a Boston Consulting Group report on Millennial spending, Millennials spend more on eating out than any other generation—3.4 times a week compared to the 2.4 of other cohorts. We also aren’t scared of splurging on food; in fact, Millennials spend more on food than electronics, apparel, footwear, or cosmetics as stated by the same report.
Food as the anti-technology
But why food, and why now? This year at SXSW, Pinterest hosted a panel of Millennial foodie experts to discuss this very topic—the socialization of food, specifically among us younger culinary-obsessed. At the session, Eve Turow, thought-leader on youth culture and the food system, shared her thoughts behind the origin of the Millennial food fixation. Her theory is that “food is being used as a form of anti-technology”—after sitting behind a computer all day, food provides a missing dimension, an antidote to our sensory deprivation.
Turow also believes that in this technological age, there isn’t much Millennials have control over, so they turn to food as a means of ownership. “Millennials can't control debt or getting a job, but they can control their food,” she said. “They’re exercising their creative control.”
“Millennials can't control debt or getting a job, but they can control their food. They’re exercising their creative control.” - Eve Turow
At first, these statements seemed far-off to me, too much of a forced explanation for another typical “Millennial behavior.” But then I thought about it. I love cooking because it gives me a chance to flex my creative muscles, to produce something tangible from a long list of individually random ingredients—it’s mathematic and oddly therapeutic. And while I love writing and the product it creates, I can’t smell or taste my words, can I?
Two-hour wait for a doughnut? Count me in.
In addition helping us reconnect with our own senses, food is also bringing us closer with those around us—both near and far. Technology can be isolating, but coming together around food is a shared experience.
Just think about those long lines for trendy eateries. Last summer, I visited Portland, Oregon—land of the waterfalls... and long food lines. I waited over an hour in line for both a Voodoo doughnut and an ice cream cone from Salt & Straw. When I saw the queue wrapping around the block, I didn’t even consider going elsewhere for my sweet fix. My mother, on the other hand, questioned my judgement: “Why on earth would you wait in line for a doughnut? You can get those at the supermarket for sixty-five cents without a wait.” Fair. But it wasn’t about the doughnut or the ice cream cone, it was about the experience waiting in line, talking to the people I was with, with the people around me who endured the hour with us. I chatted with a family from Canada and played “I spy” with my boyfriend—tiny, but special, memories I wouldn’t have gotten out of a grab-and-go grocery store experience.
It wasn’t about the doughnut or the ice cream cone, it was about the experience waiting in line, talking to the people I was with, with the people around me who endured the hour with us.
If you didn’t Instagram it, did you really eat it?
Of course, the socialization of food reaches past our in-real-life social interactions to our online social lives as well. If you’re active on Instagram, you’re probably inundated with #foodporn—pages of pictures of eye-pleasing good eats, for both the health nut and the glutton. With #Food ranking within the top twenty hashtags on Instagram, these posts are hard to miss.
Nearly each week, there’s a new food trend popularized and sensationalized by visual social media. Exhibit A: Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino. Those who got their hands on the unnaturally colored drink didn’t put down six dollars for superior taste; the frenzy was all about the photo op.
According to Turow, we take to social media with our food choices in attempts to brand and express ourselves. In an interview with Forbes, Wanda Pogue, chief strategy officer at creative advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, echoed this sentiment: "Just as people have always sought to express who they are through the clothes they wear and possessions they own, Gen Z and Millennials will further explore and express their identity through the foods they eat."
So, what are you saying about yourself when you post a picture of a Unicorn Frappuccino? And is that different than the message emitted from a photo of a kale salad?
Putting our money where our mouths are
Turns out, the Millennial self-identification is significant. As the largest generation of buyers in the United States, Millennial spending decisions make an impact. And when it comes to food, this impact is trending in the green direction.
In a 2016 publication from the Organic Trade Association, Millennials were reported as being the largest group of organic buyers in the United States. Millennials, according to Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, “are more aware of the benefits of organic... they place a greater value on knowing how their food was grown and produced, and… are deeply committed to supporting a food system that sustains and nurtures the environment.”
Said Batcha, this awareness and commitment are igniting a shift in the food landscape across the country, bringing organic options to more grocery stores in more locations. This is, in turn, making healthy options more widely accessible.
Something to chew on
Back at the Pinterest house in Austin, Texas, Eve Turow brought the food conversation back down to earth. Yes, food is about self-branding, regaining our senses, and sharing experiences with others, but most importantly, “food is about connecting on what makes the human existence joyful.”
For Millennials, food does a lot—definitely more than we realize when we stand in line for an Insta-worthy ice cream cone or when we whip up an organic meal at home: it brings us closer to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet. Yes, food is joyful, but it’s also a powerful tool—enjoy with intention.
Sara Lighthall is a content marketer at Zendesk and a student of life. When she’s not demystifying the Millennial generation on Relate, you can find her with her toes in the sand and a latte in her hand. See what she’s up to on Twitter: @saralighthall.