The concept of the “fourth meal” seems to have been coined sometime around 2006 with the launch of Taco Bell's website “” and developed further in its 2012 ad campaign "You're Craving Fourthmeal" (with the tagline "Fourthmeal: The Meal Between Dinner and Breakfast"). During that time period, trend watchers in the food and beverage industry (including us here at The Hartman Group) began to investigate the rise of snacking as an emerging and alternative "Fourth Meal" eating occasion in addition to traditional meal dayparts like breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

To understand more about what turned out to be a tectonic shift in eating behavior, The Hartman Group began conducting a long series of studies on eating occasions and snacking and determined that while snacking now comprised at least 50% of all eating occasions within a day, at least 26% of consumers were also eating late-night snacks. Hartman Group founder Harvey Hartman commented in 2012 on the trend to Supermarket News, noting “The fourth meal is the period from after midnight to about 4 a.m. where there’s an enormous amount of eating going on ... It’s become a significant opportunity for a lot of retailers recognizing that, during that time, people are looking for comfort food, they’re looking for snacking during that time and for a long time it’s been an occasion that retailers didn’t know existed."

Beyond retailers, certainly restaurant operators like Denny's have long explored the concept of late- night eating with 24-hour operations, and today many QSR and fast casual operations offer a late-night menu. Outside of late-night restaurant operations, late-night eating and its relation to consumer issues with sleep have recently caught the attention of food and beverage manufacturers. A recent article in Food Business News notes, "A small but growing number of products designed for pre-bedtime snacking are entering the market. They’re healthier than traditional late-night fare and carry the added benefit of promoting sleep and relaxation." With brand names like Nightfood, other companies like Goodnight (backed by Nestlé) and Good Source Foods also are getting into the "late-night, sleep-friendly sweets game."

Such foods are being formulated with a functional purpose in mind, offering ingredients like melatonin and lavender to aid sleep. The functional aspect intersecting with indulgent foods is interesting, since our own research finds that as the day progresses, consumer orientations toward snacking move from nourishment to pleasure. Specifically, evening snacks figure as vehicles for pleasure, as a reward to balance out healthier eating through the day or as part of a social experience.

Some of our most recent studies on changing eating habits include insights derived from our Compass Eating Occasions database and our Transformation of the American Meal 2017 report, which found that long-term shifts in American culture have reshaped the way we live and eat today. Daily rhythms focused on three “square” meals a day have undergone a long-term transformation as traditional diets and eating routines have yielded to a more fragmented, less structured way of eating that includes snacking, skipping meals, eating alone, and a high level of social acceptance of personal dietary preferences.  

Looking at snacking specifically, our Future of Snacking 2016 report found that the future of snacking presents multiple opportunities for companies to relate with consumers around new, flexible eating styles. With fewer cultural constraints than meals, understanding snacking requires exploration of eating occasion dynamics in addition to needs in order to develop the most compelling solutions. Broad themes around the time of day, the day of the week, and the presence of others — as well as how these themes impact consumers’ needs and orientations to specific snacking occasions — will continue to provide directional guidance for product development and marketing.