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Home Alone and What to Eat? Welcome to the Era of “Food-Choice Autonomy”

Teenage girl cooking in the kitchenKids alone at home, often after school, face a daily daunting dilemma: what to eat? With parents or parent working, these kids are left to fend for themselves. Welcome to the era of “eating autonomy.”

Busy household schedules mean that teens do much of their own food prep and often eat alone for every at-home meal except dinner (though, occasionally at dinner, they’re on their own too). Our Gen Z 2018 report finds that today’s teens have a lot of sway over what they eat within their own homes — especially snacks.

Today’s teens often put together their own breakfasts, select their own lunches, and make their own snacks. As the following chart shows, seven in ten (70 percent) of Gen Z say they have “total control” over what they eat for snacks. Dinner tends to be the meal most likely eaten with family and thus likely planned and cooked by parents and subject to others’ desires.

This means that Gen Z are not afraid of the kitchen. They are willing and able to look up recipes and techniques — thanks, YouTube! — to get the job done.

The Teenage Kitchen

Many Gen Z households have optimized their kitchens and pantries for teenage food autonomy. Parents make sure to stock easy-to-grab snacks, lunchbox items, frozen meals and snacks, and pre-prepped fruit and veggies so that teens are able to easily feed themselves.

Here's how one parent of a male 18-year-old described her strategy to us:

“I just do a lot of cooking on Mondays so that he can grab and go. Like a bacon-and-egg bake with a lot of vegetables. Then he scoops into that for breakfast.”

With limited time to eat during the school day, teens often rely on snacks — the food they have most control over — to manage hunger, energy, and nutrition. The after-school snack is a key cooking occasion for teens; it’s one of the few times when hunger, freedom, and time all come together. And, of course, a teenager’s snack is often the size and has the components of an adult meal, underscoring how the lines between what constitutes a snack or meal are blurring.

Food-Choice Independence

Autonomy over food choice means that many teens have a personal set of food/beverage options, sometimes things that no one else may touch.

Older teens tend to prepare more of their own food. They often have whole sections of the pantry that belong just to them. These items have been specifically requested and occasionally even directly purchased by teens and are not meant for others in the home to consume.

For some households, this is a parental strategy to encourage independence. In others, it may just be a way to avoid arguments.

Food-Choice Autonomy Now, Informing Behaviors Later in Life

Keep a watchful eye on Gen Z’s early behaviors, as we believe they will inform their shopping, planning, prep, cooking, and eating behaviors later in life.

Focus on how to further Gen Z’s exploration of food and cooking through food “infotainment.” Food learning for Gen Z may be through entertainment, but favored sources that cater to their specific search behaviors and food/beverage needs are well advised to be quick, entertaining, mobile-friendly, multi-platform, highly visual, and video-based, with tools and recipes relevant to their life stage.

Gen Z 2018 report cover

About Gen Z 2018 Report

The Hartman Group’s Gen Z 2018 report explores this generation’s values, attitudes, and approaches when it comes to food and beverages, eating and cooking, health and wellness, sources of information and inspiration, food retail, and restaurants. Gen Z 2018 focuses on Gen Z teens aged 12-20, with relevant comparisons to older generations – Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers. Download report overview and order form


Consumer Demographics Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Retail/Shopper Insights Trends Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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