snack clockNot 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.

modern snacking model

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:

  • Smaller size. Even if the small eating happens at a mealtime, it is often thought of as a stand-in until the next “large eating.”
  • Between times. Snacks intuitively fall in the gray areas between socially/culturally assigned “mealtimes.”
  • Low prep & cleanup. Snacks typically involve little to no construction or preparation; any heating is brief and unattended.

Snacking represents a significant and dynamic portion of nearly everyone’s daily eating and drinking behaviors:

  • Nine in ten (90 percent) consumers snack multiple times throughout the day.
  • Seven percent of these consumers forego meals altogether in favor of all-day snacking.
  • Eighty percent of all snacking is purposeful, meaning it fulfills a physical, emotional, social or cultural desire.
  • Twenty percent of all snacking is aimless and is driven by an awareness of the availability of food, rather than the fulfillment of any particular physical, emotional, social or cultural desire.
  consumers changing snacking behavior



Modern snacking trends are increasingly supported by health and wellness cues in on-the-go, single-serve formats and orient to significant attributes, including:

  • Protein-centric
  • Fresh, less processed (but packaged)
  • Free-from foods and beverages (gluten, dairy, soy)
  • Snackable “nutrient density”
  • Health neutral, rapid-hand-to-mouth snacks
  • Digestive superfoods
  • Alternative slow carbs
  • Lower-sugar-content energy foods

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

  • At half of all eating occasions, snacks are no longer just whimsical, throwaway or anomalous moments; they are an essential part of how we eat in modern food culture.
  • Snacks are bound by fewer rules than meals, and yet the lines between meals and snacks are blurring. Because snacks can essentially be anything, the competitive set for “snacks” (wholesome or otherwise) is broadening.
  • Our eating is more fluid overall, as consumers eat whenever and however they want. Nine in ten consumers are engaged in ‘modern’ snacking, characterized by highly flexible rules and structure.
  • Consumers expect snacks to “do” more for them than ever in terms of the physical, emotional, social and cultural experiences they offer. 
  • The “physical” work that snacks do (73 percent of all snacking) — from hunger abatement to nutritional support — is one of the biggest drivers for snacking today. Yet emotional, social, cultural and even inexplicable, aimless snacking underlies much of our snacking.
  • The key trends in snacking today: Fresh, less processed, sustained energy, going global and flexible formats can all work together to provide consumers with a healthy, convenient and inspirational snacking experience.

Additional Resources on Snacking Behavior

Culture of Food: New Appetites, Daily Routines, 2015 report

Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors, 2013 report

Hartman Food & Beverage Occasions Compass program