Mozzarella Sticks to Carrot Sticks: Chewing on the Millennial-Driven Shift around Kids’ Menus

“It has the same nutritional value as the box it came in, and it can’t go stale because it was never fresh.” – Jerry Seinfeld on Pop-Tarts®


Leave it to Mr. 90s himself to perfectly sum up a favorite childhood “breakfast” of millennials. And leave it to your friends at Marriner to examine not only how far millennial taste buds have come, but how these sophisticated palates are now getting passed down to the next generation.


First, back to the Pop-Tarts®. While no kid would deny the awesomeness of being served fruit-flavored sugar gel, frosting and rainbow sprinkles for the most important meal of the day, millennial rug rats weren’t the ones stocking the cabinets. It was their parents who willingly adopted the oh-so-sweet convenience of Pop-Tarts®, not to mention Lunchables, soda, Dunkaroos®, Happy Meals®, more soda and countless other food-like meal solutions. Yes, the 80s and 90s can safely be defined as the “Era of Easy” thanks to busy young parents looking to navigate the parachute pants, snap bracelets and neon with satisfying and, most importantly, convenient meals.


According to a Pew Research Center study, “America’s sweet tooth peaked in 1999, when each person consumed an average of 90.2 pounds of added caloric sweeteners a year, or 26.7 teaspoons a day.” As for nutritious and all-natural options, who had time for that with all the rollerblading, faxing and TGIF-ing on the schedule?!


Then came the Internet. As millennials started growing up, so did previously fringe culinary movements, thanks in no small part to the shared knowledge brought on by the information superhighway. Throughout the 2000s, the use frequency of phrases like “farm-to-table,” “organic,” and “local” went from obscure to overwhelming all because of one simple fact: consumers had learned about the alternatives, and they wanted the alternatives. Cultural phenomena like Supersize Me and Food, Inc. only further fueled a seismic shift in what, how and why we eat. And which generation was entering the workforce, gaining newfound disposable income and starting families through this unprecedented food awakening? You guessed it. Millennials.


In reflecting on the action-packed culinary journey that many millennials have experienced over the last two decades, it’s no surprise they demand much more transparency and nutrition in their families’ diets, compared to what they were offered as kids. Knowing the characteristics around the sourcing and makeup of each ingredient is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a big, fat, juicy must-have. And as anyone who has ever tried to get the full story behind what’s on their plate knows, with added curiosity comes more effort. Perhaps that’s why, according to a survey by Time magazine, 58% of millennial parents say they’re finding all of the information out there to be overwhelming. So where does this leave a population of 83 million people with very specific goals around food, who aren’t always willing to put in the work to deliver on those goals?




According to a report published by Mintel in May 2019, 58% of the millennials surveyed consider themselves “foodies,” and 57% think planning meals takes more time than they would prefer. So, they tend to eat out more, bringing with them strong appetites for expectation-exceeding, insta-perfect meals every time. For chefs and operators, it’s no longer just about addressing hunger with great-tasting food. It’s about indulging guests with a satisfying narrative around that food.


Restaurants and menus that line up with the right values will succeed because they are the ones who can complement millennials’ diligence with convenience. This is especially true as these young moms and dads look to fill their kids’ bellies with un-fried plant-based mains, nutrient-packed sides and just water, please.


This 2018 study from Statista shows “ethnic-inspired dishes,” “gourmet items” and “healthful meals” as the top three leading trends in kids’ meals, as forecasted by professional chefs. Also of note, according to a Sweet Earth Foods survey of 2,000 millennial consumers, millennials try 46 new foods each year and count “cost,” “nutritional density” and “no artificial additives” as their top three priorities when making food purchasing decisions.


Restaurant owners like Bryn Davis are acting on these trends and seeing positive results. As the founder of Bryn + Dane’s, a healthy quick-service chain in the Philadelphia area, he has placed extra emphasis on the ingredients and nutritionals of his kids’ menu. On it, you’ll find items like a cheese quesadilla made with hormone-free cheese, baked sweet potato fries and organic milk.


With plans for 100 additional locations across the Northeast over the next 5-10 years, Davis’ approach will remain laser-focused on superior nutrition– especially on its kids’ menus.


“The key is taking something kids already like and making it healthier,” Davis says.


On a larger scale, Panera has revamped its kids’ menu in recent years by removing toys and artificial ingredients. The 2,300-unit chain has also added new options such as organic yogurt, sprouted grain rolls and apples. Water is now the first beverage option, with organic milk and juice bumped to less prominent menu positions.


According to Sara Burnett, Panera’s director of wellness and food policy, “We believe that our cafés should offer the same choices and transparency to children as we do to adults.”


So, now you know. Whether it’s engineering kids’ menus or marketing to the ever-valuable millennial parent, ditching the deep fryer and grabbing the veggie slicer is the future-proof move.


For a group that comprises roughly 22% of the US population and, according to Accenture, spends an estimated $600 billion annually, looks like these ex-SunnyD® chuggers are worth listening to after all. Newman!


To sharpen your strategy around reaching millennial parents, or any other type of hungry customer, contact David Melnick, VP of Strategic Partnerships.




  • Desilver, Drew. What’s on your table? How America’s diet has changed over the decades, Pew Research Center, December 2016.
  • Donnelly, Christopher, and Scaff, Renato. Who Are the Millenial Shoppers? And What Do They Really Want?, Accenture, 2013.
  • How Millennial Parents Think Differently About Raising Kids, TIME, October 2015.
  • Lock, S. Leading trends in kids’ meals on restaurant menus in the U.S. in 2018, Statista, February 2019.
  • Shoup, Mary Ellen. A year in food: Survey reveals millenials’ eating and spending habits, Food Navigator-USA, August 2019.
  • Yue, Frances. How millennials eat: Are they killing beer, American cheese and canned tuna? USA TODAY, August 2019.
  • Horovitz, Bruce. How to Develop a Better Kids’ Menu, QSR Magazine, June 2017.


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