Gen-Y: mashed, baked, with ramen noodles, spuds OKCOLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Until recently, I was unaware of these people called millennials, probably because they were mostly referred to as “Gen-Y.” Because they’re the target demographic of just about everything sold these days, produce companies are using new ways of reaching millennials. That’s social media, for the most part: contests using Pinterest, enticements to like products on Facebook, pleas to shoot and upload pics to websites.

Thanks to the U.S. Potato Board, which presented research on millennials during its annual meeting March 10-13, I’m well aware of what makes this group — roughly anyone born between the late 80s and early 2000s — tick. A six-member panel of millennials on March 14 reinforced many of those survey findings.

But if the informal panel conversation proved anything it’s this — don’t expect millennials to behave in the same way. Responses were all over the board when moderator Kate Thomson of Sterling Rice Group, which is the board’s research consultant, posed questions to the group, identified only by first names.

An over-arching theme, as you might guess, is that processed food is bad, natural and organic is coveted and originality and an open mind to try something different is the norm.

Except in the cases where that’s not the norm.

Mat seemed to be the outlier, embracing all-you-can-eat buffets like Ci Ci’s, buying food at the Dollar Store and throwing fried potatos, ground beef and ramen noodles into a pan. All this from someone who attended culinary school.

Everyone brings their own background to the table, literally. Tristina, a mother, is mindful of her family budget and the time constraints raising children put on her meal choices: “When I shop with the kids, it’s all about speed ... If I don’t have the kids, I’ll go up and down every aisle to think about something I missed.”

AI enjoys Sundays, when the family gathers for international meals, which forces whoever’s cooking to learn new cuisines. But throughout the week, it’s mashed and baked potatoes. At one point, she referred to the Yukon Gold, but then followed it by referring to Idaho potatoes as “the small round potatoes,” causing some titters in the audience.

One of the potato board’s missions this year is to attack the false perception that potatoes aren’t healthy. In the case of these millennials, the USPB doesn’t have to worry.

“It’s not about the calories as much, but nutrition,” said Amanda, who no doubt caused a ripple of concern with the “dehy” and processor members in the audience when she followed that up by saying she shops for fresh potatoes, not frozen or potato flakes. If price is an issue when buying fresh fruits and vegetables, Amanda said she’d cut corners elsewhere when making a meal.

Damaris said her preferences for food have changed in the past year, and that while flavor is still important, nutritional aspects are more important now. But — she confessed to growing up in a “meat and potatoes” family, and she cooks potatoes multiple times a week, particularly as a side dish to meatloaf, fried chicken and other comfort foods.

“We have the right to make healthy food and healthy choices without have to make a ‘food-like’ product. More people are willing to invest in their health now, rather than a 99-cent burger,” said David, who commented repeatedly on the versatility of potatoes, preferring to spice up his meals.

When Thomson asked them to describe a potato if it were a person responses included conservative, quirky, full of potential, and an “awesome” person. If potatoes were a car, according to the panel, they’d be a Suburban, a Lexus, but mostly just reliable, they said.

“We probably have an opportunity to give potatoes a little bit of an image makeover and highlight what all these folks are talking about today, which is more about versatility,” Thomson said.

Other important factors to know when marketing to millennials:

  • “Picture-worthy” recipes are a bonus.
  • Highlight the “closer to the source” of nature aspect.
  • Position your fruit/vegetable as a fun item to include in meals.

A lot of this is just common sense. One thing that caught my eye in the USPB’s research on millennials who fit in the “explorer” category: “Alcohol has a big influence on explorers — and often gets in the way of how they aspire to eat.”

Ah, yes, I remember many Saturdays spent on the couch eating Cheetos all day. Some things don’t change after all.