Most college students are now members of Generation Z, a group that favors healthful, inexpensive, and flavorful food and beverage options. This generation of snackers is currently influencing not only college dining programs, but the restaurants that expand onto college campuses, as well.

So how can operators get in at the ground floor and appeal to a generation that’s set to determine the future of foodservice? Technomic’s new “2017 College & University Consumer Trend Report” reveals a few ways to appeal to college students today. (See chart, “Campus Cuisine.”)

Like the rest of the population, college students are increasingly relying on off-premise foodservice for their meals. And considering the growth of delivery services, this reliance helps explain the decreased importance students are placing on convenient location—an attribute that’s of little import when food is delivered to the doorstep. A combination of fast-paced lifestyles and off-premise demands are likely spurring the heightened demand for speedy service.

Above all else though, it’s no surprise that college students care the most about price. More than three-fifths of college students say low prices are the most important concept attribute when they’re deciding where to eat. This is in line with Generation Z as a whole—the generation placing the greatest emphasis on low prices at restaurants. This also helps to explain their high usage of quick-serves.

College students’ tastes are changing, too, and in some pretty unexpected ways. Some of the former hit menu items, like smoothies and juices, are no longer their most preferred beverage choices. (Smoothie and juice chains take note.) Instead, they prefer to drink water with lunch and dinner above all else, and they’re increasingly turning to functional sports beverages, as well. This aligns with the popularity of high-protein athlete diets at colleges and universities today.

Elsewhere on the menu, things also are shifting. Breakfast burritos are a buzzword menu item at restaurant chains these days, but college students are moving on from them. Fewer students today than in 2015 are interested in eating breakfast burritos. On the other hand, more college students today than two years ago are interested in trying French, Indian, Thai and Mediterranean cuisine. They’re also more interested in healthy options, like fresh fruit as a snack or chicken for dinner.

Operators and universities alike should make sure they’re not making assumptions about the types of menu items that are trendy among this young demographic. They’ll want to consider making foodservice available anywhere via takeout and delivery. And, above all else, brands will want to offer healthful and balanced menu items—especially snacks—at an affordable price point to appeal to today’s college students.   

Originally appeared in the July, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as How to Appeal to College-aged Consumers.

Darren Tristano is chief insights officer at Technomic’s parent company, Winsight. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information on Technomic’s “2017 College & University Consumer Trend Report,” visit