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Future Kitchens: What the Trends Say

Current preferences around eating, cooking and lifestyle anticipate a shift toward faster, urban lifestyles, designed more for socializing than cooking. Forget what you see on television or on cooking shows—future householders will cook less, order prepackaged food online and treat the kitchen more as a sanctuary than a meal factory.

Look at the trends behind the trends. That was the theme of a presentation I did a few months ago on the future of “green” kitchens. After many hours of research and number crunching,

I found as many truisms as myths about consumer preferences, eating and cooking—at the same time making connections with larger trends, such as online shopping. What about foodie fantasies of gourmet cooking at home? Surveys show that many Americans dislike cooking—or, at the least they consider it a lousy way to spend the afternoon.

Indoor Air Quality: Talk Is Cheap Mothers, in particular, express concern about asthma and other air pollution effects—but few seem willing to adjust their cooking habits in response.

Water: Undervalued Asset Manufacturers keep improving technology in the kitchen. But they can’t seem to imprint upon end users the real value of clean, potable water.

Some of the familiar kitchen memes, of course, are correct. The preference for white is unshakeable. The kitchen continues to be the most actively used space in the modern home, but its use is shifting. It has gone from a place for a “Leave it to Beaver” -type family meal, to a “hang out” space, where diverse families can heat up a flatbread pizza or whip out some sushi and craft beers.

The reality is that in times of financial plenty, kitchens are used less than during down times. That doesn’t mean we’re headed for a world without kitchens and appliances. On the contrary, kitchens will be expected to run themselves, much like autonomous cars. Millennial buyers (and renters) will want quiet dishwashers, steampunk-looking expresso machines they can program from a smartphone, juicers, stain-free white countertops, and any number of what they perceive as labor-saving devices and gadgets. Throw in online grocery ordering and the texting of all but 10 words a day, and you’re beginning to speak their language.

The Cooking Conundrum: Despite an obsession with cooking shows and “foodie” tours,
many simply don’t feel warm and fuzzy about slaving over a hot stove.

Recent surveys show that contrary to the way the “typical” American family is portrayed as happily turning out three squares a day, every day, few people actually prefer to use their time that way. In fact, almost ANY other activity is preferred over cooking. This trend is similar to what we’ve seen in the shelter magazine business forever. Many of us love to browse the pages of aspirational magazines like Fine Homebuilding, but we have no intention of taking on any of those projects ourselves.

Also of note, a Bosch appliances study found that 28 percent of adults have no cooking skills. Other research found that about half of Americans believe they have less cooking skill than their parents. Whether you blame it on bad parenting, or the cutting of domestic skill courses in high school, the results skew toward less cooking, not more.


Houzz favorite kitchen

Sterile Dreams: If you think future clients will embrace a wider color palette for the kitchen, you may be betting on exceptions, not rules.

The proto-typical sterile-white kitchen at right is a model kitchen chosen by thousands of HOUZZ readers as their ideal kitchen look. 

Desire for clean, white spaces is nothing new, of course. Production builders have taken it as their template for decades. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that the preference has grown even stronger now that we have been let to believe that we live in a world full of dangerous germs. It’s rare to visit a public restroom these days without encountering a bottle of germ-killing hand sanitizer.

But germophobia, as WebMD succinctly points out, can actually be a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where people habitually try to wash away contaminants. The color white is not simply a matter of “taste,” nor is it, as some might argue, a “neutral” option. It’s an indicator of many other baseline assumptions about the world, an attempt to make order out of chaos, to maintain a clean and carefree sanctuary, free from messy realities. This is not a cooking kitchen. You don’t haul in a load of beets from the garden and slap them on the countertop with soil still clinging. You order prepackaged, prewashed carrots online, and rinse them again before serving them up on a veggie platter.

Generational Shift: Evolving attitudes toward food are affecting how it is purchased and stored.

food: generational shift

Have you ever tried to teach a baby boomer the finer points of using Instagram? Often, it’s a real challenge, and that same dynamic is playing out in how, when and where we eat our meals. We’ve already pointed out that many young people are “cooking averse.” The implications of that change send a ripple through traditional food networks and affect how how kitchens will be used.

You may have noticed the shadow side of this trend when going out to eat with friends. About 60 percent of people (skewing toward young people and women) now think it’s important that they be able to customize their food choices at restaurants. What to older generations sometimes appears as entitlement and bad manners is the new normal for the nation’s 20-something crowd. Thanks in part to “build your own” meal-making experiences at places such as Whole Foods, gourmet fast food joints such as Panera, and (lately) the digital tools to order healthier food online, expectations of instant, hyper-personalized meals are on the rise. No gluten? “No problem.” On the side? “All of our salads come that way.”

Don’t get hooked on the idea that everything in the future will be local, organic and healthy. Labor saving is a MAJOR interest of the millennial generation. Anything that frees their hands up for mobile devices interests them. As the chart below shows, future “engineered” food may look like green vegetable protein or powder in its raw state (a brand called Soylent really exists), but if a machine can turn it into food, they’ll bite.


Online Groceries: Once considered a failed idea, online food distributors are now growing exponentially. 

Back in 2010, the age of online groceries seemed to have come and gone. The pundits announced the idea a non-starter. For example, Forbes in 2011 explained that “Families go to the grocery store together to browse the aisles and plan their next week’s meals. Single people even visit specific stores in order to attract potential dates. None of these activities are feasible with the online shopping experience.”
Beware punditry. Back then, of course, smartphones were just becoming popular. Today, the whole digital landscape has changed—not to mention the dynamics of families, and how younger people feel about cooking, eating and shopping. Online grocery shopping now appears likely to become more robust, not less.

A key indicator of why online groceries are becoming more feasible is the fast-growing market for ready-made, refrigeratable meals. Cooking-averse Americans are buying instant meals in greater quantities every year. The market is segmented, still in flux. Millennials, especially, want locally grown or fresh foods, Tapping this niche is a new category of pre-made food called “fresh prepared,” sold as “restaurant quality” meals. New technology keeps these meals fresh longer, so some can be sold online, but they still require reliable and precise cold storage in the kitchen.

Packaging and Leftovers: Cardboard packaging and plastics are crowding kitchen spaces, and food waste is not far behind.

Due to increasing use of online vendors, the volume of recyclable materials landing at homes keeps growing. Add to this a high volume of food waste, and you understand why clients are clamoring for recycling stations and composters.

Also, food waste in the U.S. sometimes makes up 40 percent of the waste stream. The fast-rising cost of city trash bags makes curbside composting much more economically compelling. Future kitchens will need large, odor-trapping and flexible storage areas for both solid materials and food waste.

recycling combined.jpg


Keys to Selling Sustainability: Selling modern buyers on more-sustainable kitchens goes over better as giving them what they want than as a moral imperative.

No one likes to be lectured, and that’s doubly true for the next generation of renters and buyers. Most Americans, across all generations, would like to be told what they SHOULD eat, not what they shouldn’t. Give them the tools and toys they like, and correct for blind spots in the background with technology. This is a key to improving the energy and water footprint of clients or renters. Often, sustainability overlaps with client interests, as in the case of upcycling, induction cooking and garden spaces (indoor and out).