With summer on the wane and back-to-school season in full swing, many parents of school-age children are pivoting their food purchases in order to accommodate their kids’ new schedules. But what factors influence what parents decide to put in their grocery carts—for their children and themselves? IFIC’s 17th annual 2022 Food and Health Survey explores Americans’ perceptions and behaviors around food and food-related purchasing decisions, including some particularly interesting findings regarding parents with children under the age of 18. Read on for some fascinating insights on this influential demographic.
Perceptions on Health
It won’t come as a surprise to any parent that the top health benefits this demographic seeks from foods, beverages, and nutrients are “energy/less fatigue” (with 35% saying so) and “improved sleep” (30%). The nutritional needs and sleep schedules—or lack thereof!—of their young children, coupled with work and other family demands, make a clear case for these health benefits topping the list.
Parents of school-age kids are also more likely to say that they seek out “emotional/mental health” benefits from what they eat or drink, with nearly one-quarter (24%) saying so. Additionally, this year’s survey found that parents were more likely to report feeling “very” or “somewhat” stressed over the past six months (69% versus 48% of those who don’t have children under 18).
Among parents who reported feeling stressed, 33% said they made changes to their nutrition or diet to help manage or reduce stress; the most common changes included consuming foods or beverages intended to reduce stress, consuming less caffeine, and taking dietary supplements intended to relieve stress.
Diet and Eating Patterns
This year’s survey found a surge in the number of Americans following a specific diet or eating pattern in the past year, and parents of school-age kids were no exception, with 70% doing so. Among parents who followed an eating pattern, they said they were more likely to do so because they wanted to eat in a way that would be good for the environment (29% versus 13% of those who don’t have children under 18) and because they wanted to improve their relationship with food (28% versus 12% of those who don’t have children under 18). The focus on wanting to improve their relationship with food may be attributed to the fact that 28% of parents say they “always” or “often” feel guilty about what they’ve eaten, with 37% also reporting that they eat when they are feeling stressed.
The uptick in parents following an eating pattern mirrored another increase: in snacking. Specifically, nearly eight in ten (79%) parents of school-age kids snack at least once a day and are more likely to do so because they need energy (with 26% saying so). Additionally, when it comes to their diet, most parents (80%) say they are trying to limit or avoid sugars. This is an instance in which priorities for their children are aligned with parents’ personal goals; results from IFIC’s 2021 Knowledge, Understanding, and Behaviors When Feeding Young Children survey showed that 89% of parents are trying to limit or avoid sugars in their child’s diet.
When it comes to purchase drivers, parents of kids under 18 were more likely to say that healthfulness (71%), convenience (67%), and environmental sustainability (57%) had “a great” or “somewhat” of an impact on their decisions to buy foods or beverages.
The appeal of convenience is a likely contributor to the popularity of online grocery shopping among parents. Over four in ten parents of school-age kids (43%) buy groceries online at least once a week and are more likely to do so than those who don’t have children under 18 (43%, versus 14%). Whether shopping online or in person, parents’ attentiveness to labels prevails. Approximately six in ten parents of school-age kids say they “always” or “often” pay attention to labels when shopping in person (64%) or online (61%)—and are more likely to do so than people without kids under 18.
The influence of environmental sustainability across food decisions is one of the most notable distinctions about parents with children under 18. Over two in three parents believe their individual choices about food and beverage purchases impact the environment, and this group is more likely to say so than people without kids under 18 (69% versus 41%).
It’s important to note that this parental concern also goes beyond purchases. Nearly three in four (72%) parents say they are concerned about the amount of food waste their household produces, and these parents are more likely to say they are concerned about food waste because of its environmental impact (50% versus 32% of those who don’t have children under 18).
This commitment to environmental sustainability is correlated with the generational makeup of parents with young children, particularly Millennials. According to data published by the Pew Research Center, Millennial women accounted for 82% of births in the U.S in 2016 and also account for the majority of annual U.S. births. When diving into this generation’s perceptions on the environment in this year’s Food and Health Survey, Millennials were more likely to say that environmental sustainability was a purchase driver and to believe that their food choices had a significant or moderate impact on the environment.
When it comes to information sources, parents were more likely to say they know “a lot” or “a fair amount” about the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (68% versus 43% of those who do not have children under 18). This also extends to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s MyPlate, with parents being more likely to express familiarity with this visual (51% versus 35% of those who do not have children under 18). The understanding of these resources could be, in part, because many Millennial parents have grown up with the MyPlate graphic as a reference for nutrition guidance. (MyPlate replaced MyPyramid in 2011.) As these findings suggest, parents of school-age kids tend to trust nutrition information from government agencies. When asked to rate how much they would trust information about what foods to eat and avoid from a variety of sources, 63% of parents said they would trust information from a government agency; they were also more likely to say so than those without children under 18 (62% versus 43%).
From their concern about environmental sustainability to their snacking habits, it’s apparent that parents with school-age kids have a unique set of priorities and influences when it comes to the food decisions they make. To learn more, check out our full survey here and our infographic below.
This article was written by Marisa Paipongna. Kelly Yu, former IFIC intern, assisted in developing the infographic.