What does a young mother who is looking for organic kids’ cereal have in common with a freewheeling 22 year old on their way to Taco Bell for “Fourth Meal?” They’re both part of Generation Y, or the Millennials, a group that ranges from mid teens to early 30s, living with mom and dad or on their own.

People from this generation make up about one quarter of the U.S. population and they are making dining decisions in just about every segment of onsite foodservice, from a high school cafeteria to a college dining commons to cafes for employees in healthcare and B&I.

“As members of this large demographic group have matured, it has become important to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that influence their food decisions away from home," says Sharon Olson, executive director of Y-Pulse, a research and consulting firm. "Young consumers who are still finishing college and living at home behave differently than those in transition to their own financial independence or those who are heads of their own households with young children.”

Obviously it’s a group that’s worth marketing to, but big corporations are finding out it’s not so simple. With so many different subsets and lifestyles, it’s hard to market to this group as a whole, but not impossible.

A recent article on mediapost.com, How to Appeal to the Millennial Palate explored the commonalities of Generation Y when it comes to eating.

Gen Y is on the Go: “Many don’t have a regular eating schedule and they need food that’s quick, cheap and easy to get at off-times…foods that are convenient and fit into this demographic’s variable schedule are all the more alluring, such as the increasingly popular ‘fast casual’ dining experience offered by restaurants such as Panera, Chipotle and McAlister’s Deli,” according to the article.

Gen Y is made up of foodies: They’ve watched the Food Network since they were toddlers and now they’re ready to host dinner parties and picnics on the beach with Ina Garten. They see food as a “cheap adventure.”

Gen Y have shared values: “Millennials seek authenticity in the food they eat, the products they buy and the experiences they have,” according to the article.

That search for authenticity sometimes translates into cynicism, which is something brands are aware of when trying to market to this group.

Marketing to Gen Y was a key component of a recent initiative by Compass Group North America to introduce healthier meat-swapped-for-mushroom menu items. In the research phases of this project, Compass teamed up with the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone, the Mushroom Council and the University of California-Davis.

Millennials are known to seek transparency, so the blended menu names are a departure from the “stealth health” trend of recent years. The descriptive names on the Mushroom Blended Favorites menu come right out and say it: Blended Beef and Mushroom Burger; Blended Turkey and Mushroom Meatloaf; Blended Green Pork and Mushroom Chili and Blended Lamb and Mushroom Kofta.

“They’re a growing consumer group who are looking for a nutritional win-win,” says Deanne Brandstetter, MBA, RD, CDN, vice president, Nutrition and Wellness, Compass Group North America. “They want food that enhances energy, that’s not artificial and it has to taste great.”

Hispanic Millennials are also looking for transparency, according to recent studies by Mintel, cited at last year’s MUFSO.

According to the research, young Hispanics are seeking out better, less processed ingredients, more transparency/readily available nutritional information and healthier fare.

Understanding Millennials, and what they want in food, is becoming more critical to every segment of onsite foodservice as the demographic grows in numbers.