16 to 24-year-olds spend more on food than any other age group, says research

Young people spend more than any other age group on meals – much of it on fast food, thanks to a lack of cooking skills

They are the generation saddled with more student debt than ever before, yet 16 to 24-year-olds are spending more on food than any other age group because they know so little about cooking, research reveals.

Young people shell out more money than any other age group on food – an average of £63.65 a week compared with a typical spend for all adults of £57.30, polling for the BBC’s Good Food magazine shows. 

A lot of this cost comes from eating out and takeaways. Despite earning the least, they spend £19.61 on takeaways on average, compared with the adult average of £11.31 and £3.20 for over-65s. Young people also spend an average of £28.26 eating in cafés and restaurants, while the typical spend among all adults is £17.22.

The problem seems to stem from a lack of cooking knowledge. The average 16 to 24-year-old knows how to cook only four recipes from scratch, compared with an overall adult average of six. 

Children’s food campaigner Henry Dimbleby, who co-founded the natural fast-food chain Leon, said the results were “depressing”. “We’ve got two generations now where primary cooking skills have been lost,” he explained. “Learning to cook is so important. It’s very expensive if you don’t learn to feed yourself but it can also be a one-way ticket to a life plagued by diabetes and obesity.” 

Good Food has launched a campaign called “Take It to Ten”, which is aimed at equipping people  with 10 recipes. While a third of the population cooks from scratch every day, only 17 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds do so.

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There is also a nutritional impact to young people’s reliance on takeaway and ready meals. A staggering 14 per cent of adults under 24 say they eat no fruit and veg at all, according to the Good Food survey of more than 5,000 adults.

Jane Sixsmith, director of the food education charity Focus on Food, said: “There’s something about this generation which makes them know less about cooking. That might be just because it’s easier because of time, but also the availability and cheapness of ready meals. 

“Sometimes we see an absolutely terrible low level of understanding about food and nutrition. You come across children who have never tasted broccoli before, or fresh sweetcorn.” The polling also suggests that young people are skipping meals. More than 40 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds admit that they always or mostly always skip breakfast compared with an average of 31 per cent.

Christine Hayes, editorial director at Good Food, was more optimistic about the findings. “To be able to cook four recipes from scratch isn’t too bad if you’re 16 to 24, because some may not have left home,” she said. “I’m actually quite impressed. There are so many other things vying for our time, especially at that age, that being able to cook that much isn’t that bad. The fact that they’re spending more when they go out is interesting. While cooking can be quite a sociable thing, going out and eating with friends is what young people like to do.”

Many believe that schools hold the key to improving the next generation’s eating and cooking habits. Last year, the Government made schools obliged under the curriculum to teach children a repertoire of savoury dishes up to the age of 14. But they face a bigger problem in older age groups: the number of pupils taking a GCSE in home economics has dropped by 20 per cent since 2004.

Mr Dimbleby is lobbying the Government to keep universal free school meals in primary schools as a way of preventing more young people from being unaware of how to eat and cook healthy food. He is one of the signatories to a 35,000-strong petition on the issue. 

“Children learning to eat proper food at school rather than sugary packed lunches is really important,” he said. “At the moment 10 per cent of children arrive at primary school obese and 20 per cent leave it obese.”  In a statement on the issue, the Department for Education said: “The Government is currently conducting a spending review across all its programmes. No decisions have yet been taken.”

Case study

Joe Clarke, 19, student, Reading

“I spend less than five minutes preparing the few meals I know from scratch. If it takes longer than that I probably won’t bother. Takeaways are quick and easy. I’ll eat at least a couple per week to save time. Last night I ate a Domino’s [pizza] after going out, which is pretty standard practice for students. Most of my weekly budget seems to go on pizza and drinks. I’ll also buy lunch on campus if I’m in a rush. 

“I’m a big fan of cooking shows like The Great British Bake Off. But I never watch a programme and think: ‘Oh, I’m going to cook that now.’ It’s just for entertainment.

“Tonight I’ll make a wrap, but nipping out to the local fast-food chicken place is always tempting. There are so many convenient fast-food places in Reading that it’s hard not to get involved. I usually spend about £30 per week food shopping, with a few ready meals thrown in. Other than that it’s lots of pasta dishes. 

“But eating the odd meal out for a mate’s birthday and getting regular takeaways can easily add another £40 to my food bill. And that’s before I’ve even bought alcohol. Despite all this I rarely have a proper breakfast – it’s usually something quick, like a slice of toast. But I didn’t eat anything this morning because of early lectures.”

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