The way Gen Z eats, thinks and feels informs new wellness series at UPenn

Bon Appetit’s new Dine Well, Eat Smart monthly takeover series taps into the college-age generation’s wants and needs, from lowering their carbon footprint, to elevating their mood, all in a chill, low-key manner.
young woman with a skateboard
Gen Z is responding differently to in-your-face, heavy-participation culinary events. | Photo: Shutterstock

Those who track generational eating habits pretty much agree that Gen Z is obsessed with customization. A more nuanced look will show that this generation might be more introverted, as well, especially when it comes to the in-your-face, participation-driven chef demos and “Fear Factor” style dining hall community-building events of the past.

According to University of Pennsylvania (UPenn)’s Director of Communications Barbara Lea-Kruger, while students still appreciate seeing a guest chef do a demo, many of them would prefer to send a message to that chef online later that night, rather than shouting out a question. 

Lea-Kruger finds a low-key dining hall experience is preferred a lot of the time. “Our students do so much multi-tasking that sometimes they just want to go and have a meal, and they may not respond to us shouting, ‘Hey! Look what we’re doing over here!’”

Emotional health gets talked about (finally!)

The dining team at UPenn paired their own in-person conversations and student surveys with outside research on Gen Z. Evidence-based wellness data and trends played into a new series called Dine Well, Eat Smart that develops holistic programming to create synergy between Gen Z and the dining team.

The Dine Well, Eat Smart series is comprised of monthly dining hall takeovers (unique to each location), with wellness themes, such as “Good Food, Good Mood,” where balanced meals to support mental and emotional health were in the spotlight.

“When we decided we wanted to focus on something important to Gen Z, emotional health has come up again and again, from studies we’ve seen and what we are hearing on campus,” says Penn Dining Wellness Manager Sarah Goff. “Emotional health is being talked about a lot more, especially with social media. We’re hearing a lot from students. Especially after the pandemic. It’s okay to talk about it and one of the top health benefits students are looking for [from food] is better mental health.”

mushroom birria tacos with dipping broth

Birria Mushroom tacos were a hit at the Dine Well, Eat Smart plant-based taco bar. 

Culinary meets culture

Goff works with chefs on menus, leading with idea starters and letting the chefs add their own culinary stamp. For the "Good Food, Good Mood" event, a mood-elevating "performance bowl" framework was given to each chef, and they all ran with it.  

“We included an implementation guide with culinary guidelines: At least two leafy greens, two whole grains, three to five veggies, lean protein and healthy toppings like sunflower seeds,” Goff says. “When they’re done, I go through their menus. It was a lot of fun to see every café do their own thing and you could really see each chef’s point of view.”

Many of the menu items have elements of “build your own,” further driving home the customization factor.

Be here now

The “Mindfulness” theme centered around intentional eating, and as was held during the winter, what better focus than hot chocolate? “This one was a fun one and a little bit different,” Goff says. “We did a separate table in the cafes and did a hot and spicy hot chocolate and a sweet one, using Mexican chocolate, not too much sugar and a mug giveaway. It was something flavorful and fun where they’d pay attention while drinking the beverage.”

Cocktail napkins with the phrase “Pause, taste, tune in, enjoy” helped spell out the message even further.

Other monthly themes in the series have focused on eating sustainably (with locally sourced choose-your-own bento box compartments) and plant-forward street food, featuring a plant-based build-your-own taco bar. For the “Sustainable Eats” takeover, the series turned competitive with a “Wellness Cup” for the chef with the best new wellness-focused recipe. The winning dish was Indian-inspired eggplant sliders, dosas and three types of chutney (there’s that customization again).

Looking to the future and bigger picture, Lea-Kruger hopes to foster creativity with food choices for students. “The students keep asking for healthy options and it’s not that we don’t have them, but students don’t know how to be creative around them. They’re looking for us to help them find creative ways to eat healthy.”



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