The future is here and it does not love broccoli.
“I hope, when I’m older, I’d be a bit better at eating vegetables,” says James Walton, 9. “I’m not the best right now . . . ”
Walton had some reservations about this interview. For example, he confides, he quite likes eating meat.
“When I was younger I watched Peter Rabbit and they ate a lot of radishes. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I need to try one, it looks so yum!’ Then, when I did try one . . . it didn’t taste the best.”
The future is here and it is thinking much, much harder about what it eats.
Climate change. Animal welfare. Plant-based diets. Food shortages. Healthy snacks. Sugar v fat. Social media. Reality television. Crop failures. Allergies. Cellular agriculture. Influencers. Veganism. Waste minimisation. 3D printed food. Online ordering. Meal delivery kits. In short, deciding what’s for dinner has never been more complicated.
Lulu Slaat, 10: “I’ve heard they make vegan burgers and they make the patty out of mushrooms?”
Jamie Will, 10: “I want to like salads. At the moment, I detest salads.”
Harry French, 11: “We occasionally try goat’s milk. It’s not bad, it’s just weirdly different.”
They look like regular kids. Track pants and leggings, T-shirts and hoodies. Articulate and polite, this group of senior students from Auckland’s Pt Chevalier Primary School, has been selected by their teachers to tell the Weekend Herald exactly how they plan to rule the world - gastronomically speaking, at least.
They are Generation Alpha. Social researchers say the collective of kids born since 2010 is the most materially endowed and technologically savvy ever. By 2030, there will be 2 billion of them - nearly a quarter of the global population, representing the single biggest generational cohort in the planet’s history. At the dinner table, we’re already feeling its impact.
“Forget Gen Z,” says food futurist Tony Hunter, “How do we prepare for Generation Alpha?”
Australia-based Hunter is a guest speaker at this Monday’s Hospo Hui, an annual event hosted by the New Zealand Restaurant Association. His key take-home: “Gen Alpha has an outsized influence on family purchasing.”
Hunter cites a recent international study that revealed 81 per cent of parental purchases were influenced by their children and another that showed 70 per cent of Millennial parents would buy products relating to their child’s favourite character or television show.
You have only to watch reality TV, says Hunter, to witness the seismic shift in influence wielded by modern kids.
“Think about something like House Hunters International - you’ll see parents sit down with their kids and say, ‘Do you like this house?’ That would never have occurred to my parents. They bought the house and, as kids, we lived in it and hopefully they gave us a nice room.
“We had no influence on where we lived or what our parents did or the house they bought or the food that was served on the table. But that has dramatically changed.”
Hunter says children are not just more empowered to have an opinion - there are also more opportunities for them to exercise that power.
“Their parents are more accustomed to having control over what they see and do and view. Go back to the days when there were four TV channels. That was it. And if you didn’t like what was on, well tough luck, you watched the least-worst programme.
“Now, I can stream it on Netflix, I can go to YouTube, I can get a TikTok video. Choice has dramatically, exponentially, expanded. That has bled down into the raising of Millennials who are basically, of course, the parents of Generation Alpha. They’re passing that choice on, and their kids are taking it up - and they are informed. I mean, they are far better informed than any of us could ever have been.”
Social researchers have been applying “generational” labels since last century.
Exact dates vary but, roughly, if you were born between 1928-45 you are from the Silent Generation. Boomers were born 1946-64, Generation X from 1965-80, Millennials from 1981-96 and Generation Z from 1997 until (depending which research company you speak to) the 2010-ish advent of the Alphas.
That means the oldest Alphas have just started entering their teenage years. The problem for retailers who want to capture this new cohort?
“Marketing to children is frowned on,” says Hunter. “But you can have a look at what their attitudes and opinions are, and then position your company to demonstrate those values. If those values are aligned with those of Generation Alpha then you, as a brand, are going to resonate with them.”
What’s going to resonate most, he says, is technology. (And he’s not just talking an abundance of digital screens - this is the first generation born entirely in the 21st century; the generation that might, for example, see a colony on Mars).
Imagine telling a hungry Gen Alpha, accustomed to driverless cars, artificial intelligence systems and milk made from hemp (or a genetically programmed yeast), that they’ve got to walk up to a counter and talk to a real person who will take their cash, give them a printed receipt and ask them to wait five minutes.
“It ain’t gonna work!” says Hunter. “They’re going to want to do all of that on their phone before they get there.”
Hunter calls it “frictionless technology”. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean the death of sit-down or communal dining, it might be a problem for degustation-only restaurants. Those multi-course, zero-choice dinners where the chef won’t even let you add salt and pepper to taste are, well, goneburger.
“The personalisation of everything is inevitable and restaurants and food service are not going to be immune. It’s just ridiculous to think that people will accept that,” says Hunter.
Customisation is a given in Generation Alpha homes. One international study showed 28 per cent of the cohort’s parents ate a different dinner than their children and our Pt Chevalier sample group concurred - from a pescetarian parent, to a brother who preferred canned foods over home-cooked, and the rise and rise of “customisable” meals. Meat and three vege don’t get a seat at tables loaded with personalised burgers, tacos, pizza and smoothies.
James: “If we have spaghetti bolognese, which is one of my favourite dishes, they might make meatballs out of the leftover mince, without the tomato base for my brother, because he doesn’t like anything with tomato - except for tomato sauce.”
Grace Walker, 10: “My mum makes the best chicken burgers and my dad makes the best actual burgers. We call them fight burgers. The first time he made them, my brother wanted to put nothing on it - just cheese, a bun and a pattie.”
These young diners are fully involved in the “what’s for dinner” conversation. They concede they don’t always get their first choice, but they are nearly always consulted ahead of parental supermarket grocery shops. They contribute to the weekly meal planners and, in some cases, help fill in a family whiteboard where everyone is invited to write meal suggestions (dinners in one column, lunchbox fillers in another).
Meanwhile, they are literally eating new technology. Their Gen Z siblings have led the charge (one study shows 77 per cent would try food made using technology, versus 67 per cent of Millennials and 58 per cent of Boomers and Gen X). Hands up who’s had fake meat?
Lulu: “Probably somewhere. You don’t really know. Sometimes you’re just eating something and you don’t really know what it is.”
Jamie: “Well, I had a square sausage in England . . . "
Lily Alcock, 10: “I had fake bacon, which is bacon made out of plants and herbs and stuff. It was okay. It tasted the same as normal bacon. My mum wanted to try something new, I guess. My dad hated it.”
More pertinently, perhaps, these students are able to articulate exactly why meat alternatives are more readily available.
James: “It means we’re not killing as many animals.”
Harry: “It’s better for the planet. You see all these things going on and you think, well, it would be really good to change some of our ways and help the planet. Like being vegan or vegetarian, or something along those lines.”
Once, the future of food was going to be grasshoppers and mealworms (the Pt Chev students are relaxed about bugs in their lunch: “I feel like it would be fine . . . If you didn’t think about it . . . I would have it in a curry . . . I mean, I’ve had one fly into my mouth”). Today, futurists like Tony Hunter suggest insects are more likely to enter western food chains as fuel for other proteins (why grind up fish, for example, to feed to farmed fish?).
The hot new future foods?
“The biggest one we’re looking at is mycoprotein,” says Hunter.
Made from fermented fungus (with added water, glucose and nutrients) it’s already on the market as a vegan product called “Quorn”. Hunter says it grows so fast, “you could put in an order on a Tuesday and I’d say ‘come back Friday morning and I’ll cut you out a cow-sized piece with my chainsaw’.”
Meat producers shouldn’t necessarily be alarmed. Hunter says as the world’s population continues to grow, demand will remain (although the geographic - and generational - distribution of meat might change).
“In the foreseeable future, we cannot do without animal protein ... but I think looking at Generation Alpha at the moment, it looks like less animal protein consumption. And if you want something provocative, particularly for New Zealand, the most vulnerable animal agriculture industry on the planet is dairy.
“Dairy lives on a knife edge and it is under siege from all angles, in terms of technologies for infant formula, cheeses . . . there are a lot of technologies coming along that are going to provide viable alternatives to milk or the raw product.”
Hunter says “if the best technology continues to be a cow, it will continue to dominate. If not - that is the day things will change”.
At the intergenerational coalface, educators are already seeing a shift. We spoke to one Queenstown-Lakes District primary school teacher who says when she started working in the late 1980s, dairy and wheat allergies were “very rare”.
“Now, we have many that either have allergies or parents who choose not to give them certain foods.”
Her observation of Generation Alpha lunch boxes?
“They fall into two different categories. The busy parent who mostly buys pre-packaged foods that contain either a lot of sugar or salt or both. Some kids have a lunch box full of packets and maybe the token piece of fruit.
“And the amazing designer lunch boxes that have lots of little compartments full of amazing wholesomeness . . . everything is home-baked or sourced from whole foods. They eat mainly ‘in season’ and there’s not a packet to be seen. These are the families that are obviously more conscious of the environment - and the children are aware of it too.”
Kim Knight is a senior reporter for the New Zealand Herald and a restaurant critic for Canvas magazine. In 2019, she completed a Masters in Gastronomy and was recently named one of New Zealand’s Top 50 most influential & inspiring women in food and drink.