Millennials—those born between 1981 and the mid-2000s—are now the largest living generation—surpassing Baby Boomers—in the United States. That’s why their purchasing behavior greatly influences the current retail landscape.

But, are the food shopping habits of Millennials different from other generations? A new study from Economic Research Service (ERS), Washington, D.C., analyzed a recent year of grocery store data to see how Millennials’ purchases differ from those of older shoppers. The study found that Millennials, on average, devote less of their food budgets to grocery store (food at home) purchases and make fewer trips to the grocery store than the other generations examined. Millennials are demanding healthier and fresher food—including fruits and vegetables—when making food-at-home purchases, and they place a higher preference on convenience than do other generations.

Millennials and Baby Boomers with similar incomes differ in at-home food expenditures

ERS researchers used 2014 data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago, to track household food-at-home purchases and receive detailed demographic information, including household income. The researchers assigned each household to one of four generational cohorts based on the age of the household head responsible for the grocery shopping:

  • Traditionalists—born before 1946
  • Baby Boomers—born between 1946-1964
  • Gen X’ers—born between 1965-1980
  • Millennials, age 18 or older in 2014—born between 1981-1996

Millennials made up roughly 20% of the households included in the ERS analysis. U.S. Census Bureau data, on the other hand, show Millennials accounting for 26% of the total population in 2014. Since some Millennials may still live with their parents, who are the primary shoppers, the lower share for Millennial households in the ERS analysis is not unexpected.

Income is recognized as an important influence on food purchasing behavior. Consumers adapt their purchasing behaviors depending on budgetary limits. Food budgets are driven not only by income, but also family size. For instance, Millennials who are early in their careers may earn less than Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers, but their food budget may stretch farther than higher earning Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers with larger families and more mouths to feed. Recognizing this fact, ERS researchers used the survey respondents’ reported incomes to divide households over all generations into 10 income groups based on annual household income divided by household size, with equal numbers of households in each group. In this way, purchases are compared across the generations for people with similar per capita incomes.

Millennials and Gen X’ers were found to spend the least money per person per month on food at home at all income deciles. As income rises, there is a small positive effect on per capita food-at-home expenditure for most income deciles. While each preceding, older generation spends more on food at home than the younger generation after it, there is a larger gap between the spending of Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers. Per capita food-at-home spending by Traditionalist and Baby Boomer households is similar in size to each other, and higher than spending by Gen X and Millennial households. For example, of households earning between $14,000-20,000 per household member annually, Millennials spent just under $80 per month per person on food at home and Gen X’ers spent $85, whereas Baby Boomers in that income decile spent $135 and Traditionalists spent $154.

The differences in food-at-home spending between the generations suggests that the younger generations have a stronger preference for eating out at restaurants, fast food places and other away-from-home venues. Data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, D.C., support this finding—survey respondents under the age of 25 allocate the highest proportion of their food budgets (6%) to eating out vs. the 4.8% by respondents between the ages of 55-64 years old.

Perhaps reflecting a preference for eating out by Millennials, the number of times a month a household frequents a grocery store follows the same generational pattern as for monthly food-at-home expenditures. Frequency generally decreases with each successive generation, with Millennials frequenting grocery stores the least. Higher Millennial households spend less on groceries, so they’re patronizing grocery stores less frequently makes sense. Traditionalists, who have the highest per person spending on food at home, frequent grocery stores more often. Also, traditionalists are of retirement age and may have the leisure time to grocery shop more often.

Having a higher income seems to reduce the frequency of grocery store trips as well. Millennial households in the top income decile went to the grocery store on average 4.5 times per month vs. the 5.6 monthly trips made by Millennials in the lowest income decile.

Millennials purchase more prepared foods

ERS researchers classified the IRI purchase data into three beverage categories and 19 food categories—13 fresh or minimally processed categories and six processed categories. Processed food categories included bakery items (breads, rolls and cakes), sugar and candies, baby food, snack items, prepared foods and other foods (condiments, seasonings, sauces, etc.). Snack items such as chips and crackers are foods not consumed as the main part of a meal. The researchers defined prepared foods as foods that require no preparation after purchase—the food is ready to eat or ready to heat and then eat. Examples include canned soup, frozen pizza and items from the deli section, such as sandwiches, pasta salads and rotisserie chicken. Once separated into categories, the researchers calculated monthly expenditure shares by category and household type.

Millennial shoppers generally purchase a larger share of prepared foods, pasta and sugar and candies than the other generations. On average, Millennials devoted 13.6% of their at-home food expenditures to these three categories, compared with 12.4% by Gen X’ers, 11.5% by Baby Boomers and 11.2% by Traditionalists. Millennial households also devote the smallest share of their at-home food expenditures to grains, poultry and red meat. Prepared foods, sugar and candies and pasta all require minimal preparation for consumption, while grains and meats require cooking.

Examining at-home expenditure shares by income, some noticeable patterns appear. As income rises, expenditure shares for vegetables, fruits, red meats and sugar and candies for all four generational groups increase, while shares for poultry decrease as incomes rise. Poorer Millennials assign lower shares of at-home food spending to vegetables than poorer Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, but they increasingly apportion more of their food budgets to vegetables as income rises, surpassing Traditionalists when per capita household income reaches about $30,000. Specifically, the wealthiest Millennial households (per capita income greater than $100,000) dedicated 8.1% of their food budgets to vegetables, compared to around 6% for the other generation groups in the same income decile. The share of at-home expenditures for fruit was similar for Millennials and Traditionalists—just over 6%—with fruit’s share of expenditures also rising with income.

Millennial households generally allot the lowest shares of their at-home food budgets to red meats and poultry. On average, expenditure shares for red meats and poultry decrease with each younger generation. For each of the generations, higher income deciles generally devote a larger share of at-home food expenditures to red meats and a smaller share to poultry.

Like purchases of poultry, grain and pasta purchases exhibit a negative relationship with income; as households become richer, they buy less grains, which are often shelf stable and cheaper, and shift toward purchasing more perishable foods like red meats and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Millennial households devote more of their at-home food spending to prepared foods, such as frozen entrées and instant breakfasts, than the other three generational groups. In addition, the slight negative relationship between income and prepared food purchases for the three oldest generations was absent for Millennials. In fact, Millennials’ preference for convenient, prepared foods could be due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps, some Millennials may lack cooking skills or interest in cooking. Or, maybe some Millennials prefer to spend their non-work time on activities other than cooking and cleaning up afterwards. In fact, Millennials spend significantly less time on food preparation, presentation and cleanup. An ERS analysis of 2014 time use data revealed that, on average, this generation spent 88 minutes doing food preparation, presentation and cleanup—55 minutes less than Gen X’ers who spent the most time at 143 minutes.

The food purchasing behavior of Millennials determines their own dietary quality and may shape the eating habits of their children and future generations. Grocery store shopping behaviors, however, are not necessarily fixed and may shift for Millennials with age and life events, such as marriage and children. Millennials could find themselves saying good-bye to a frozen dinner for one and hello to a home-prepared spaghetti dinner for four.