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College Student Snacking Habits

College students depend on nourishing snacks to keep them energized during the day as they go from classes to meetings and other activities. On days with fewer breaks in their schedule, students may even rely on snacks more than meals. To ensure students stay properly fueled throughout the day, college campuses need to provide suitable snack options.

To help university leaders know what their students are looking for in a snack, this article looks at a few defining features of today’s college students, what drives their snacking habits, some specific snack qualities they look for and how meal programs can best fit students’ needs.

What Are Today’s College Students Like?

The students currently enrolled in college are members of Generation Z, or Gen Z for short. This generation includes anyone born after 1996, which means many Gen Z members are just on the cusp of adulthood. To better understand college student food service preferences and their campus food purchasing behaviors, we must first understand what the members of Gen Z are like.

The defining feature of Gen Z that sets it apart from any other generation is that its members are technology natives. Gen Zers can barely remember a time before smartphones, if at all. The constant presence of technology in their lives has affected Gen Zers in many ways.

Here are three of the biggest ways technology has shaped snacking habits for Gen Z members:

  1. Connection: Nowadays, 95% of teenagers have access to a smartphone, which means many Gen Zers also engage in some form of social media. Social media connects Gen Zers to family, friends and even strangers around the globe as well as influences their snack selections by pushing trends and advertisements.
  2. Casual: Having grown up in the Digital Age, members of Gen Z are accustomed to a fast pace of life. Many Gen Zers participate in multiple extracurricular activities and are used to juggling a jam-packed schedule, which frequently involves rushing through everyday activities like eating. Casual dining allows Gen Z members to remain on-the-go while receiving sustenance.
  3. Convenience: Consistent internet access grants the ability to purchase almost anything at any time, which Gen Zers often take advantage of by ordering takeout or delivery. The power to order anything with the click of a button has led to Gen Zers being a bit more impulsive in their buying and snacking habits than previous generations. However, Gen Z members are also financially minded and know how to scour search engines for the latest deals and promo codes.

What Drives College Students’ Snacking Habits?

Thanks to the internet, food is readily available to college students at nearly any hour of the day. Because students have the ability to order food at their fingertips, snacking has become more about the why than the when. While many college students say they simply eat because they are hungry, about 51% of the students in one survey reported they tend to snack when they’re bored.

These answers indicate that college students’ snacking decisions directly correlate with whatever else they happen to be doing at the time. In fact, 50% of students said they typically eat snacks while studying because doing so helps them concentrate better. Women are more likely than men to snack in general and 15% more likely to snack when they are bored.

In addition to boredom, stress can greatly contribute to an increase in college students’ tendency to snack. Stress and anxiety are on the rise for young people, with 63% of American students reporting they felt overwhelming anxiety within the past year.

Although the cause of the recent uptick in anxiety among college students is not clear, some researchers suggest that the growing amount of time spent on social media could be resulting in higher levels of anxiety and depression for many members of Generation Z. Combining the effects of social media with the pressure placed on college students to achieve academic success while balancing a full social calendar can compound the amount of stress students feel.

Being stressed out or anxious can make college students more likely to reach for a snack to distract their minds or cope with intense emotions. When considering stress and eating habits in college students, research points toward a positive correlation between stress and snacking — as their stress increases, the amount of food they consume increases as well.

The strong connection between college students’ stress and overeating is especially evident during finals week. It’s no coincidence that many campus dining services offer extra options or special deals the week of final exams. In fact, the number of food delivery orders from college students increases by 21% during finals season.

Along with stress and boredom, convenience is a guiding factor for college students’ eating habits and snack choices. Because college students have such busy schedules between classes, extracurricular activities and social commitments, snacking and multitasking often go hand in hand for them.

With 46% of students looking to snacks to serve as a meal replacement, it is clear that eating on the go has become a normal part of the college lifestyle. For this reason, the majority of students prioritize convenience when looking for a snack, such as easy to eat and clean up (71%), the ability to be eaten quickly (62%) and the ability to be consumed in one serving (55%).

While convenience is a huge factor in college students’ snacking habits, price plays the largest role in determining their snack decisions. The cost of the snack topped took the top spot among what students find most important when considering a snack, with 72% of college students citing price as their number one priority.

What Do College Students Look for in a Snack?

Now that we’ve covered when and why college students tend to snack, it’s time to discuss what types of snacks students like the most. To recognize which snacks are most appealing to college students, think about what students are looking for in a snack. A few key characteristics make certain snacks more likely to catch college students’ attention than other snack options.

These are the five main qualities college students are searching for in a snack:

1. Easy

As previously discussed, the average college student is extremely busy and always on the move. To fit within a student’s cluttered schedule, a snack must be easy to eat on the go as they head to their next activity. Snacks that are hand-held, transportable and not messy are ideal for accommodating the growing grab-and-go demand. Snacks that cannot be made hand-held or mess-free should be packaged in portable containers or bowls.

2. Healthy

Gen Zers are more likely to pick snacks they perceive as healthy, with 58% of college students saying they would feel inclined to purchase a healthy snack. Of the other types of snack options, 46% of students said they would buy a salty snack, 37% would be likely to purchase candy and only 24% said they would be interested in something sweet. When it comes to candy and sweet snacks, these less healthy snacks are more likely to be an impulse buy for students.

Within the realm of healthy snacks, protein proved to be the most important nutritional aspect, with 44% of students ranking it as their top priority. Following close behind, natural ingredients and a low number of calories also ranked high on students’ lists. While students look for these qualities in all of their snacks, they have especially high expectations for snacks marketed as nutritious to meet these standards.

3. Affordable

Considering most college students have a tighter budget than those already in the working world, affordability is a big factor in college students’ snack decisions. A snack that can keep students feeling full for a long time for a low cost is almost certain to be a hit. For this reason, cost-effective snacks like protein bars or peanut butter are often popular snack choices among college students.

4. Trendy

College students are naturally drawn to what’s popular, and that includes snacks. Trendy snacks will appeal more to students, especially if the snack happens to be hot on social media or have an attractive ad campaign running at the moment. Currently, mini snacks are in the spotlight, with foods like snack-sized candies and cookie thins on the rise. These miniature foods are great for students because they are portable, easy to eat and provide portion control.

5. Sustainable

Because they can easily scroll through the news on their smartphones, most Gen Zers are well informed on current events, which means many of them care about social issues and their global impact more than previous generations. College students, in particular, are engaged with social issues and activism. For this reason, snacks that are eco-friendly and use local, organic ingredients will interest students more than less sustainable snacks.

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What Snacks Do College Students Like Most?

As we’ve discussed, college students generally look for snacks that are portable, healthy and inexpensive. Stocking a university’s retail dining options with snacks that fall within these categories can help drive sales up. But what are some specific snacks that meet these criteria?

Based on students’ snacking preferences, here are some of the best foods to offer in college campus micro-markets:

  • Granola bars: College students will consume a wide range of granola and protein bars, especially as a convenient breakfast replacement.
  • Fresh fruit: Fresh fruit earned the highest spot among nutritious snacks, with 79% of students saying they’d be likely to choose a piece of fresh fruit.
  • Greek yogurt: Students typically enjoy their yogurt topped with some sort of fruit, granola or both.
  • Trail mix: With so many flavor varieties and ingredient combinations, there’s a trail mix for every kind of snacker.
  • Nut butters: Spreading some sort of nut butter on toast or fruit is a great way for students to customize their snack choice.
  • Cheese: Combining slices of cheese with fresh fruit, nuts or crackers is a popular student snack.
  • Hummus: Like nut butters, hummus is a delicious healthy spread that pairs well with pre-cut veggies, pita chips or pretzel sticks.

What Should You Consider When Creating Meal Programs for College Students?

The snacking habits and campus food purchasing behaviors of college students can tell us a lot about how to design a meal program that will best meet their needs. Along with indicating students might be less likely to have three full meals each day, college student snacking habits offer insight into what they’re looking for in a meal plan.

Similar to their snacks, college students have high expectations for their meal programs and need one that will match their standards and fast pace of life. Below are five crucial factors to keep in mind when creating a campus meal program.

1. Flexibility

Because food trends are subject to change in the blink of an eye these days, on-campus dining options need to be flexible and able to adapt quickly. Snacking has grown to become a staple of college life, which means a campus meal program should accommodate this trend by offering more snack-sized portions. Serving more snack foods during off-hours or staying open later to offer late-night snacks could also help on-campus dining options enhance students’ meal plan experience.

2. Authenticity

Gen Z is more diverse and connected with the rest of the world than any other generation before. While members of Gen Z want to see their diversity reflected in their food options, the key is authenticity. Instead of an Americanized version of Chinese food, college students look for genuine Chinese food cooked using authentic techniques. Campus dining centers should focus on delivering high-quality ethnic food as opposed to unique cuisine fusions.

3. Portability

Of course, campus meal programs should offer portable to-go options to fit within the non-stop life of a busy college student. Part of making a meal plan portable includes streamlining the payment process to make it as quick and easy as possible. Convenience is often the main reason college students opt for a campus meal plan, so it is important to make on-campus dining options accessible and prompt.

4. Socially Conscious

Just like college students want sustainable snacks, students want their meals to come from sustainable sources, too. Along with tasting great, campus food should be socially responsible by incorporating fresh, local ingredients produced using environmentally friendly practices. University leaders should try to forge strong partnerships with eco-conscious suppliers for their food services.

When looking for a food service provider, prioritize corporations with socially conscious initiatives, such as recycling and energy efficiency. Students want to know where their food comes from and whether it was responsibly sourced — using a socially responsible service will satisfy that hunger.

5. Customization

College students enjoy controlling exactly what goes into their food and the proportions, which is why build-your-own and do-it-yourself stations are often successful on university campuses. In addition to granting students more control over what they consume, having stations where students can personalize their food, such as a salad bar, lessens the need for omitting or substituting ingredients at other stations.

Partner With American Food & Vending for Your College’s Dining Services

If you’re looking for a fresh, reliable and socially responsible hospitality partner to provide your campus with flavorful and nutritious dining options, contact American Food & Vending. We’re proud to offer high-quality, customizable higher education dining solutions your students will love. As both a culinary and hospitality company, we are driven to deliver delicious, on-trend meal programs tailored to your students’ needs.

For more information about how bringing more innovative, portable and nourishing food to your campus can enhance student life, reach out to us today.