For much of the past decade, millennials have been portrayed as nonconformists—a departure from the behaviors and preferences of previous generations. They’ve been heralded as out-of-the-box innovators and derided as Peter Pan–like slackers in equal measure.

But just as the counterculture kids of the ’60s retired their revolutionary designs, so too are millennials settling into more orthodox habits. Members of this demographic may have delayed getting married and starting families, but now those numbers are compounding every year.

“Millennials are getting older and raising families. Just like the generations that preceded they lead hectic and busy lives and time is a limited and precious commodity,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor. “Going to a restaurant and letting someone else do the cooking for you is an easy way to save effort and time.”

An interesting blend of their single peers and older generations with children, millennial parents are a burgeoning consumer group worth watching.

Who are they?

While the year range can vary somewhat, millennials are generally defined as those born in the early 1980s through the mid- to late-1990s. At present, they are the largest living generation, having recently surpassed baby boomers. Last year, a special report by Morning Consult for The New York Times found that about half of millennials were parents. Of those without children, 42 percent said they wanted them, 34 percent said they were unsure, and 24 percent said they did not want children.

Assuming those who want children eventually have them, an estimated seven out of 10 millennials will be parents in the future. Add others from the currently undecided group and that portion could move closer to eight or nine out of 10. Nevertheless those numbers could be a ways off since many millennials are waiting to start families. In 2016, 48 percent of millennial women ages 20–35 were parents, according to the Pew Research Firm. Comparatively, in 2000 when Gen-X women were within the same age range, 57 percent of them already had children.

It should also be noted that the majority of millennial parents, at present, are women. Data from market research firm Kantar Consulting found mothers comprise 57 percent of millennial parents, compared to fathers at 43 percent.

When foodie met family

If ever a group reflected the current market forces shaping consumer preferences, it would be millennial parents. The group prioritizes two sentiments that are shaping the evolution of restaurants, particularly those on the limited-service side.

Across the board, millennials with children under the age of 12 score higher on various “foodie” checkmarks. According to Kantar, 60 percent of these millennial parents prioritize buying high-quality food over other spending areas, compared to 53 percent of the general population. The gap is even more pronounced in terms of identity: 73 percent of young parents consider food/cooking to be a major part of who they are as people; it’s 59 percent for the overall population.

But even this devotion health and quality—historically not the forte of fast food—doesn’t preclude trips to the drive thru. Kantar Consulting found that 18 percent of millennial parents eat fast food a few times a week (with 4 percent reporting almost daily visits). Twelve percent visit “non–fast food, quick-service restaurants” a few times a week with 2 percent going nearly every day. These numbers drop off dramatically for sit-down restaurants as only 6 percent of millennial parents visit such establishments a few times a week.

More to come

As if these purchasing behaviors weren’t incentive enough for restaurants to court young families, new findings from the NPD Group indicate that visits from this group increasing in frequency. Millennial parents (with children under the age of 13) were twice as likely as older generational parents to report that they are eating out more now than they were a year ago. This translates to a 5 percent uptick, totaling some 2.8 billion restaurant visits in 2018.

Furthermore, millennials with children are eating at different restaurants than they used to. Although this behavior could simply be an extension of their foodie roots, it may also be a reflection of shifting households. More so than Gen X or baby boomer parents, millennials encourage their children to pick which restaurant to visit.

A combination of high-quality food in a convenient format might be the perfect playbook for young families today, but as the children grow and have more of a voice, kids menu options as well as atmosphere (Playground? Games? Toys?) will play a stronger role in dining decisions for their millennial parents.

Customer Experience, Story