One overnight trip. Two pieces of luggage — one for clothes, the other for snacks. What, really? Yes, a suitcase full of snacks. This occurred nearly ten years ago, when one of our cultural anthropologists documented a consumer who carefully packed a suitcase full of snacks for a short overnight stay away from home. The snacks she packed then were to satisfy her need to maintain a customized diet on her own eating terms. This was one of our earliest ethnographic observations about the transformation of America’s eating habits from three square meals a day to a snack-obsessed food culture.
As we’ve often observed, cultural imagery is a very sticky thing. Mention the word “dinner,” and our mind envisions a set of people gathered around a table. The words “family dinner” narrow that vision onto a mom, a dad and, usually, two or more kids. Mention the word “snack,” and most people begin talking about a child’s after-school snack or munching on chips while watching TV.
But given the dynamic change in American culture (in general) and our eating culture (specifically), these cultural stereotypes have all but lost any relevance they once had.
While it was one thing to suggest ten years ago that snacking was on the rise (a suitcase full of snacks!), today, the nuance and level of snacking have taken on a whole new meaning: the modern era of snackified eating has fully emerged. As documented in our The Future of Snacking 2016 report, traditional eating patterns built around three “square,” structured meals a day have given way to frequent snacking that occurs throughout the day.
With 91% of consumers snacking multiple times throughout the day, snacking is essential to daily eating for most Americans now and accounts for 50% of all eating occasions.
Traditional eating patterns centering on three “square,” structured meals a day remain a defining paradigm for Americans as an ideal. But in practice, modern eating styles are characterized by frequent snacking — so much so that 37% of the time, a snack provides one of the three most substantial eatings of the day for American consumers.
Culture of Snacking
The confluence of several shifts in our lifestyles, eating culture and food values has led to the prominence of snacking.
  • Upending of traditional, daily food rituals. Eating patterns/times disrupted by time pressures, competing commitments. Declension of meal planning and cooking skills (even as appreciation for food and love of eating increases). Democratization of planning, shopping and cooking in households.
  • Changing wellness and culinary trends. Elevated desires for food and beverage to support nutrition and deliver targeted functionality. Emphasis on pleasure and exploration as preferences around taste and texture broaden and globalize. Reevaluation of size, frequency and choices for our food and beverage (in service of the above).
  • Growing accessibility to food and food types. Access to food anywhere and everywhere, allowing constant consumption (and requiring greater restraint). Diversity of food types and new brands suggest a plethora of options from which to experiment.
Net effect: Despite the continued importance of meals, the inherent fluidity of snacks allows them to meet a new and diverse set of demands in ways that traditional meals perhaps cannot. Ultimately, consumers are defining new snacking occasions and ultimately redefining what snacking is. Some additional context on snacking:
  • Snacks are not just complementing but also replacing meals: 42% of consumers who snack more today do so while cutting back the number of meals eaten in a day.
  • The types and size of food and beverage classified as a “snack” are broadening with meal components and entrees being used: 38% of consumers say they often have leftovers as a snack.
  • The size, frequency and timing of meals are changing and creating non-traditional “meals” that fall in a gray space between meal and snack: 50% of “mini meal” eaters say that the occasion replaced a traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The Future of Snacking
Our The Future of Snacking 2016 report uncovers numerous opportunities for food and beverage companies to relate with consumers around new, flexible eating styles. Here is a sampling of thought starters:
We are in a new era of exploration. With fewer cultural constraints on meals, the future of snacking will give consumers opportunities to explore new kinds of food and new brands and bend traditional eating patterns to their personal needs and wants.
  • The Opportunity: Position snacks as a chance to engage in playful food exploration. Be explicit about the disruption of traditional (perhaps outmoded) ways of eating and drinking and position your offerings as a customizable solution that meals are not able to fully enter.
The differences between meals and snacks are blurring. As snacks maintain their prominence, the future of snacking will continue to involve an interplay with meals as we know them, particularly breakfast and lunch. The blurring of the boundary between meal and snack will accelerate, leading to the emergence of more undefined eating occasions.
  • The Opportunity: Create and promote new offerings that service the malleability of the snackified meal. Consider how to create even more gray spaces of eating behavior that speak to the consumer desire for foods and beverages that reflect the intersection of snack and meal and the desire for nutritional balance on those occasions.
New language for new eating occasions. Despite the commonplace use of the term “snack” and a skeletal set of cultural assumptions about snacking, it will continue to be redefined — in regard to the terminology used as well as the elements of the occasion that distinguish it from meals.
  • The Opportunity: Draw on the variety of existing consumer language around snacks to define new snacking moments. Use whimsical or descriptive language to assign new snacking occasions and help situate your product within the future consumer snacking landscape (e.g., consider how the popular film series The Lord of the Rings playfully introduced new hobbit eating occasions that augmented traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner — “elevenses,” “second breakfast” and “tea time”).