groceriesSometimes you can have piles of excellent data about consumer behavior – people are snacking more; they’re stocking pantries less; fresh foods and ethnic cuisines are in – and remain flummoxed about the cultural changes that unite these trends and point the way forward. (See accompanying Hartbeat, “Cooking not the ‘simple solution’ Mark Bittman claims.”)

At The Hartman Group, we’ve found that a deceptively simple tool – one-on-one interviews, also known as the power of the small ‘n’ – makes all the difference. Come to consumers’ tables, stovetops and grocery carts with an anthropological understanding of what you’re seeing, and it is possible to plow past people’s stories about themselves and how they eat to what’s really happening.

Consumers do not wake up in the morning chatting about cultural shifts in terms of changing values and how important digestion has become to them. They’re more likely to rave about the freshness of a grocer’s produce section, its local sourcing and how they “feel” after eating a bag of potato chips.

Similarly, they will not come right out and tell you that part of the reason they no longer cook from scratch has little to do with their ability or interest. Quite the opposite. They’re likely to say they want to cook more; mothers are particularly susceptible to feeling guilty if their children do not have home-cooked meals.

What we see beneath the surface is a struggle with money and time – as well as relief that retailers and restaurants are offering more fresh, healthy options at affordable prices. People are eating on the run, grabbing snacks instead of meals, and they want that food eaten on the go to be delicious and nutritious. For snacks, they gravitate toward increasingly healthy options, such as chips and hummus, fruit cups, yogurt cups and small deli plates.

They’re also eating more meals alone, even when they live with other people. It’s not considered a lonely activity like it used to be, but instead a chance to catch up on reading, work and television shows – or just enjoy “me” time, particularly for Millennials.

People want food that helps them manage the challenges of planning, variety and waste that comes with eating alone.

Food companies can help by offering customizable options that can be eaten alone or mixed with other products for variety or a bigger meal. Inspiration might come from tapas and dim sum, where people eat small plates of all sorts of foods. Base ingredients are another opportunity, giving people a base of grain or protein to build on with vegetables, sauces and other ingredients. Many of these items could be snacks when standing alone.

An overarching theme for snacks and eating alone is that people want fresh, interesting flavors. They’re interested in global cuisines and new ingredients, and they’re willing to visit more than one outlet to get just the right combination for any given meal. Their loyalty toward brands is similarly splintered, with more consumers now behaving agnostically toward brands amid a sea of choices.

They want what’s new and exciting, not what they bought last year – unless it was sufficiently captivating to stay on the menu.

The fact that these options are increasingly available – interesting, delicious, healthy prepared and semi-prepared foods that people can afford – may eventually take the edge off that guilt about not cooking. If consumers press hard enough for healthier options, primarily by buying them when they see them, it might even take the edge off America’s obesity epidemic, although other changes need to occur as well.

If there’s one thing The Hartman Group has learned from 25 years of watching how people are shopping and eating, it’s that consumers’ choices lead the way forward and that what they want is health and happiness and maybe a little ginger in their stir-fry.