Student culinary habits may be the greatest sign of our generational divide

When I was at university I cooked pasta in a kettle. Today’s students share their carrot and coconut porridge and home-made bread on Instagram.

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I recently received an email advertising “back to uni – for less” deals on items including a £219 Le Creuset casserole and a £35 German-engineered can opener, which reflected badly on my greatest culinary achievement as a student: cooking pasta in a kettle. It took 25 minutes, as it was impossible to keep the water at a constant boil, and some welded itself to the element, ruining tea for months, but it felt satisfyingly self-sufficient as I struggled with Sir Gawain’s more decadent dinner at my desk.

Pasta was just one of the many bland, beige carbs that made up a balanced scholarly diet in my time: value cornflakes, cheesy chips, and one sadly memorable term, a jacket potato for lunch every single day. Yet if the stats are to be believed, the current crop of school leavers seem to be a quite different kettle of fusilli: a 2015 international survey commissioned by Unilever found 63 per cent of 18-34-year-olds described themselves as foodies, and according to US investment bank Piper Jaffray’s biennial teen report, today’s teenagers are spending 20 per cent more on the stuff than their equivalents in 2003.

This might well be partly explained by the fact that alcohol consumption has fallen off a cliff: over a quarter of the UK’s 16-24-year-olds are now teetotal, with teens preferring to “kick back” at home and order in (the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association names them as the biggest users of delivery services) or cook for each other instead. Indeed, the mum of one current student tells me that half his housemates turned up with slow cookers this term. They use them for pulled pork, chilli con carne, and slow-roast chicken, which is a definite step up from pasta and pesto.

Generation Z – those born in the mid-1990s and later – have been described by retail strategists as gastronomic “explorers”, turned on to global flavours by social media at an early age. This is borne out by the sample menus displayed online by various university catering services: Bristol tempts with an Indonesian theme night; the University of Liverpool has chickpea balti and salmon teriyaki; and Queen’s University Belfast hosts regular street food markets on campus.

They’re health-conscious too, though: although cost remains the biggest factor in choosing where to eat, 41 per cent of this age group told a Unidays survey this year they’d be prepared to pay more for healthier food, compared to just 32 per cent of millennials… which may well be why the latter is projected to be the most overweight generation on record. Z consumes 57 per cent more tofu and 550 per cent more non-dairy milk than its predecessors, but that doesn’t mean the future’s entirely plant-based: paleo occasionally, vegan during the week – far from the fun-free clean-eating fanatics portrayed in the media, today’s teenagers appear to be way more flexible than their forbears, swayed by the fleeting trends of social media.

Izy Hossack, a recent Leeds graduate, has 217,000 people following her diet of carrot and coconut porridge, and home-made bread on Instagram, while Rachel Phipps’s “student suppers” of mussels with sun-dried tomatoes and kale and laksa ramen noodles in a mug were recently published as a good old-fashioned book.

Yet for all this, the University Caterers Organisation’s 2018 report on eating habits found the most popular food was still pasta. Strip away the Snapchat study groups and turmeric lattes, and it seems we’re not so different after all. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war