Column: Feeding 'Generation Z'

You can tell a person's age by his teeth.

No, not by whether they're missing or yellowed (or, if they're really old, wooden!). They key is what the teeth are sinking into. "Generation Z" - the folks born after 1995 - have already established different eating patterns from the rest of us.

At least, so said an article I was reading in Nation's Restaurant News. (Yes, I love reading trade magazines!) Fascinated, I called up the editor to ask, first of all, what new food trends are coming down the pike? And second of all, ye gads - does the generation born after 1995 really have a name already?

The answer to the second question is apparently yes. And the answer to the first, according to editor Sarah E. Lockyer, is that Gen Z is even more Millennial than the Millennials.

"We always believed that Millennials were the first digital natives," she says. "But they really weren't. They weren't born with a phone in their hand. They got them at 10 or 12."

That makes them practically pterodactyls compared to the Zs. The newest kids on the block want to eat what they see on social media, and they want to put on social media whatever they eat.

That isn't news. Food porn is possibly more popular than good, old-fashioned porn porn. What is news is how the restaurants are responding. Take, for instance, Taco Bell.

"Taco Bell used to be food that you ate at 2 am," says Lockyer. "You really didn't think about it. And while that still happens today, now you can go on the Taco Bell app and you can add guacamole and take off sour cream and add extra cheese. It's very mobile friendly. You order on your phone, you pay on your phone, you go pick it up."

Restaurants that are completely interactive are the ones that are going to win, she says.

So are the ones that allow you to, in the words of an ancient Burger King jingle, "Have it your way." Even McDonald's is jumping on that trend. My husband went to the tricked-out Mickey D's near Bloomingdale's and ordered from a kiosk rather than a human at the counter. He was served a giant, juicy burger slathered in chipotle mayo that made the Big Mac look like the meat equivalent of a flip phone.

Maybe even a landline.

Burgers themselves are still cool, but Gen Z is not eating as many of them as their elders. The Zs prefer chicken, pizza, and food that is ostensibly "clean" - a word that is both holy and amorphous. Ask me, it roughly translates to "$1 extra."

YPulse, a New York market research firm specializing in young people, calls this trend the "healthifying" of fast food. Young folks aren't rejecting milk shakes or cheeseburgers, they just want them organic, or locally sourced, or something more "pure" (i.e., labor intensive) like that.

So "clean food," light-colored, ostentatiously healthful restaurants are winning out, as are places that feel communal: You walk in and sit at a big table with people you don't know. Maybe you don't actually strike up a conversation, but at least you feel like you aren't alone. (Except if everyone else is having a great time and you're poking at your oatmeal.)

Communal tables are popular with older folks, too, particularly those folks willing to forgo a couple of car payments to afford a cup of soup at Le Pain Quotidien. But for young people, communal eating is not a new concept, it is just the way they expect to eat: in groups and sharing food.

And then comes the sharing of the experience of the sharing of the food. Everything is documented to the point where showing friends what you ate is almost like showing them your closet or (I'm dating myself again) your bookshelf.

So if you wonder who the Gen Z kids are and what are they bringing to the table (as it were), it is: organic ingredients, hyper-customized entrees, lots of sharing each other's food without getting (visibly) annoyed about it, and phones busy every step of the way, from finding the restaurant to videoing the very last drop of Sriracha dipping sauce.

This generation may still be too young to earn a living. But the way they're going, they better start soon.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author, and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.