Not so long ago, people sat down to eat three regular meals a day, drank beverages to satisfy thirst and snacked only in between meals. It was a time of tidy, predictable eating behaviors.
In that bygone era, meals had culturally defined guardrails, passed down from generation to generation, and mealtime reflected rules telling us when meals should happen, who should be there, how we should act, and what we should eat. Meals traditionally helped structure the day, providing focal points marking beginnings, endings and transitions.
Oh, but we pine for the good old days. It all seemed so much simpler then.
The culture of food and beverage is in constant motion — modern eating culture is marked by fragmentation and an upending of tradition. We idealize three balanced meals but rarely eat that way.
Planning, shopping and cooking is decentralized, and there are fewer rules about what to eat and drink — we’re much more comfortable with eating on the fly. Eating and drinking can happen anywhere and everywhere and at any time.
No eating or drinking occasion typifies the fragmented, decentralized and no-rules modern eating culture than snacking.
What Does Modern Snacking Look Like?
Snacking occasions reflect consumers’ more flexible approach to eating and drinking overall and represent 50 percent of all food and beverage occasions.
Today’s consumers eat around their schedules rather than scheduling around mealtimes. Dinner becomes a mere pause between other activities. Lunch is often scheduled out to accommodate an overflow of meetings and must-do’s. And breakfast can be multitasked between commuting and working.
This ad hoc approach to mealtimes is increasingly part of the new routine. While dinner remains an important social meal occasion, breakfast and lunch occasions are routinely “snackified,” especially during the workweek. This opens up schedules and frees up time from planning, cooking and cleaning.
Traditional snacking was infrequent and very much based around a three-meals-a-day paradigm. Modern snacking patterns look very different. While meals are not going away, ultimately this all-day approach to snacking impacts the significance of meals: meal quality is less important now because snacking is more important.
Snacks differ from meals in three distinct ways. Typically, snacks are viewed as:
Snacking represents a significant and dynamic portion of nearly everyone’s daily eating and drinking behaviors:
Modern snacking trends are increasingly supported by health and wellness cues in on-the-go, single-serve formats and orient to significant attributes, including:
And let’s not overlook beverages. Beverages are an integral element of the snack arsenal. Sipping for playful wellness has become a cultural norm, for instance. Beverages highlighting health benefits (e.g., digestive health and inflammation, which are currently cues to weight management) are gaining significant relevance because they are fun and playful and not prescriptive and stodgy.
Six Key Takeaways to Nosh On
Additional Resources on Snacking Behavior
Culture of Food: New Appetites, Daily Routines, 2015 report
Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors, 2013 report
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.