Food is often a battle ground between new parents and kids. Kid-friendly food brands have often tried to fill that space with products that are fun, with “kid-friendly” often relating to not-so-healthy options. But today’s parents are more health conscious than previous generations and food manufactures will need to follow the trend to stay in touch with current and future generations of eaters.

If there’s one topic which has the potential to worry even the most laid-back parent, it’s food. An empty plate and a belly full of vegetables can leave parents feeling pleased and relieved; while an untouched plate and a belly with just a few chips in it can make parents feel (wrongly) like failures. 

Today’s parents are increasingly more well-informed about ingredients, good food and healthy eating. So it should be no surprise they are now also becoming more and more conscious about ensuring their children are eating as well as they are. This is easily seen in current trends for health and wellness products, and sustainable and responsible eating alongside a movement towards more plant-led, vegetarian and vegan diets. Today’s parents are influencing how a new generation will eat. In addition to this, with access to foods and ingredients that their parents probably didn’t have growing up, there will a new generation developing more sophisticated palates through eating and enjoying a variety of exotic flavors and global cuisines. These days, children are just as likely to be feasting on sushi or quinoa bowls as they are on chips and chicken nuggets. 

But is the children’s food industry keeping up? 

Providing healthy foods that kids will eat is an age-old struggle between parents and kids. Kid-friendly food brands have often tried to fill that space with products that are fun, with “kid-friendly” often relating to not-so-healthy options.  

With this changing demand, brands have an opportunity to create imaginative and healthy kid products, gaining not only kid loyalty, but parent trust and loyalty. Food brands are taking notice for the next generation, the next “foodies”, expanding beyond nostalgic kid food staples like mac n’ cheese with better-for-you ingredients. As lines between children’s and regular food products blur, brands have new opportunities. While traditional kid food packaging relied on bold colors, fun shapes and even cartoons to indicate kids’ products, brands can take alternative path to stand out on increasingly crowded shelves, garnering attention and trust from today’s parents.   

Millennial parents  

Leading the change in parent shopping habits are millennial parents. Long of interest to marketers, analysts have been trying to crack the millennial consumer code for years. According to population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, millennials are expected to surpass baby boomers as the nation's largest living adult generation as soon as next year. By 2026, roughly 80% of millennials will have children. With more than 11 million millennial households with children currently, 42 percent of all households with children, the total number of millennial households is expected to swell to 40 million by 2025. Already, millennial parents are the primary population segment having kids. It's also estimated that they'll continue to be the largest group of parents through 2050 as many millennials choose to have children later in life.  

Trends tend to be dictated by younger generation and food culture is no different. Millennials, being more dedicated to wellness, are exercising more, eating healthier and smoking less than previous generations. Parents are taking a fundamental shift in their approach to healthy living as they choose fresh over frozen and natural over processed for both themselves and their families. 

For food brands, millennials have been very tricky to figure out. They tend to like a diverse range of cuisines, they’re not known for their brand loyalty, they’re more health-conscious and experimental, and they’re busy, and even busier now as (often working) parents. Through parenthood, these consumer preferences will also be influencing a new generation, and brands will need to create food products that fit the “healthy but busy” lifestyle for this and the next generations. 

The kid-friendly food and beverage space is uniquely challenging because there is no distinct way to differentiate kids’ food from regular products, offering marketers an incentive to adapt products to meet kids’ demands or to go bigger and innovate more family-friendly offerings, especially for today’s more demanding pallettes.  

The idea of what is “healthy” is changing for Millennials 

Millennials are shifting away from defining healthy as low calorie to less processed, fresher food that contains fewer artificial ingredients. More wholesome meals and snacks make them happy. With positive food trends comes increased knowledge about nutrition in general. The way people shop for and think about food has a lot to do with their personal philosophies about health, the environment and where that food comes from. Many of these philosophies take seed in broad concerns, ranging from the impact of buying certain food items to whether or not buying high quality foods is worth the money spent. 

Many millennial parents, in particular, prefer foods produced with familiar and nutrient-packed ingredients and they are teaching their kids to choose food wisely. To appeal to these ingredient-savvy consumers, some food brands are simplifying their ingredient lists. When shopping, they often read package labels in order to choose food and beverage options with fewer additives and have greater confidence in brands that are known for aligning with the new definition of healthy than brands that are traditionally over processed. Meaning millennial parents may no longer be loyal to big-name kid-friendly brands. 

Millennial parents are willing to place their dollars behind high quality foods and responsible sourcing practices. A recent study conducted by YouGov for Whole Foods Market showed that millennials are becoming more cautious in how they shop for foods with 60% of US adult millennials saying they are more concerned about food additives and growth hormones now than they were five years ago. One in two millennials (51%) suggest they buy more organic products now than they did five years ago, driving the surge in organic products.  

Plant-base products, not limited to soy-based foods, are of interest to new parents. Brands have been slowing down on soy-based products, which has traditionally dominated the plant-based protein space. Some of the products touting “no soy” in the next year will be replacing it instead with innovative blends (like grains and mung beans) to mimic the creamy textures of yogurts and other dairy products. As the plant-based movement gains traction with flexitarian eaters, brands will be looking to avoid as many of the top allergens as possible, including plant-based prepared foods (especially meat alternatives). 

Not only do they want healthy ingredients, but millennial parents want the best foods for their money. Eighty percent of millennials consumers agree that when it comes to buying food, quality is most important and dictates how they spend their money. 68 percent of millennials agree that they are willing to spend more for high quality foods. This shift includes attention to how food products and ingredients are sourced. More than 65% of millennials consumers report that transparency in ingredient sourcing is important to them and they prefer to buy from brands and products that use responsible sourcing for ingredients.  

Out-of-the-box, into-the-fridge snacking  

The biggest opportunity may be in the snacking space in general.  

Life doesn’t slow down even with kids. A key word for new parents is “fresh” in grab & go snack and food options. Interesting in granola bars and mini pretzel bags, consumer parents now find the refrigerated section is filling up with wholesome, fresh snacks typically prepared and portioned in advance at home, all perfectly portioned and in convenient single-serve packaging. Even nutrition bars have made their way from the shelves to the refrigerators with the addition of fresh fruits and vegetables.  

Millennial parents have blurred the line between snacks and meals, preferring better-for-you snack and nutrition enhanced options such as protein- and fiber-packed bars. They are also more likely than any other generation to snack four or more times a day, according to Mintel. A recent study from the Center for Generational Kinetics showed that millennial moms are conscious of buying better-for-you snacks for their children. With more than 50% suggesting that their children were more likely to choose a better-for-you snack over another prepackaged snack. 

The preferences and decisions aren’t just made by parents. Millennials are teaching their children to make better choices. A recent study by Amplify Snack Brands Inc. and the Center for Generational Kinetics found that nearly 69% of millennial parents said their kids understand that some snacks are healthier than others, while 55% said their kids are more likely to choose a better-for-you snack. Examples of these crossover opportunities include snacks with real fruit and vegetables, “healthy” cookies with ingredients such as ancient grains, yogurt, and the breakfast and protein bar category. 

Convenient, on-the-go packaging of healthy snacks works well for both busy adults and messy kids. While some brands use a “one-healthy-snack-fits-the-whole-family” approach, others are more specifically targeting the kid space. Ultimately, these snacking innovations mean ingredients lists are shrinking and there’s a lot less guesswork in picking up a quick snack parents can feel better about. 

These changes have resulted in a shift in the typical menus offered to kids whether at home or in restaurants. The days of pizza bites and chicken nuggets may be more a thing of past generations. As millennial parents, and consumers, fill their carts for their families and kids, chicken tenders and fries likely won't top their lists. Instead, it seems they have more interest in brands who provide the same transparency and quality on kids’ products as they offer to their adult versions, including more variety. 

Marketing to the new parent 

When making a plan for product development for this discerning group of new parents, there are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • Don't assume food decisions are made by moms. Millennial parents have broken down the stereotypical gender roles, and dads are involved more than ever. Research may need to adapt, focusing not only on moms, but also on dads, or grandparents who may be deciding on menus and shopping lists. 

  • Do consider conversations with kids. Millennial parents have a more intimate and less traditionally hierarchical set family roles with their children than parents in previous generations. They encourage kids to have more opinions and help in decision making, encouraging open, honest dialogue with their children. Therefore, it may be important to get consumer insight from the kids.  

  • Millennials parents are more than just parents. Even as parents, millennials hold onto their personal passions and lifestyles, more than other generations. This may mean they continue to make time for themselves, incorporating their kids and spouses into their hobbies. Millennial parents care about preserving a sense of self as they face parenthood. Becoming "Mom" or "Dad" doesn't mean they can’t also be a "kayaker" or "dancer" or "baker". From creative development to targeting and product innovations to packaging, don't forget that "parent" is just one part of a millennial parent's identity. Fitting product to lifestyle may be a key to success for many products. 

  • Do be there for new parents in their moments of need. There is no rulebook for parenting, and millennial parents are open to guidance, often craving it. Brands can help. Millennials welcome branded content with helpful advice and tips. 

Nutrition has vital and long-lasting effects on children's development. Good nutrition helps children learn better and promotes lifelong healthy eating habits. Having products that fit these needs is of utmost importance to many parents and should be of great interest to brand managers and food manufacturers.  

Rethinking children’s food