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Our Fragmented Modern Eating Culture

The bowl of cereal, the lunchtime sandwich, a quick bag of chips, or a family sitting down to meat and potatoes. Many food and beverage companies continue to market to what we imagine as “meals” or “snacks.” By speaking only to these images, companies may be missing out on opportunities emerging from the dynamic changes taking place in American culture (in general) and our eating culture (specifically).

Our culture is changing, and so is how we eat. Shifts in the culture and demographics of the U.S. are impacting the what, when, where, who and why of consumers’ eating habits. Consumers are eating more often, in greater isolation, in the moment and on the go. Who we live with, how we spend our time, where we live and the things we value are morphing.

In today’s modern eating culture there are fewer rules about what to eat and drink. Food decisions are driven by availability, wants and whims, aspirations and ethics. We’re more conscious of health outcomes when choosing what to eat, yet we seek cultural discovery through food and eat things our grandmothers never even thought of.

We often idealize having three balanced meals but rarely actually eat that way. The reality is that the snacking “between moments” have become as culturally prominent as meals, and the definition of snacking is also evolving.

These shifts have sent shockwaves through our eating patterns and resulted in a new, modern eating culture marked by fragmentation. Overall we are witnessing a blurring of boundaries, an upending of rituals and a deconstruction of formerly idealized food traditions.

Macro dynamic shifts include:

  • Who we are and demographic changes in the size, structure and “complexion” of American households, including the rise of single-person households, non-traditional family structures and racial diversification
  • What we do and economic shifts in the type and amount of work we do and its perceived impact, including a shift from manufacturing to service industries, the rise of women in the workplace and expanding work demands and perceptions of harried-ness
  • Where we live, an environmental shift in where we live and the retail and technical landscape around us, including a return to metropolitan city centers, diversification of food retail and food service and increasing digital connections
  • What we value and cultural shifts in how we define a high quality of life. Shifting values include perceptions of high-quality food, an evolving culture of health and wellness, the fresh revolution as the symbol of quality in food and an appreciation of personal, customized and global foods

Eating occasions are an expression of today’s modern eating culture and thus provide snapshots of how fragmentation happens in the daily eating moments of consumers’ lives. Three eating occasions that most poignantly reflect the fragmentation of today’s modern eating culture are:

Source: Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors


Eating Culture Has Changed: It’s Time to Modernize


Cultural, social and economic shifts are changing how we should think about our world.


  • WHO: Reimagine your primary consumer and how they live and who they’re (not) living with.
  • WHAT: Recognize that snacks (and meals) are becoming increasingly diverse, in both definition and physical, emotional and social drivers.
  • WHEN: Consumers pencil in food plans rather than set them in stone (if they make them at all).
  • WHERE: Today’s consumers are surrounded by food sources. With competition so fierce, standing out from the crowd requires making a stand that is responsive to today’s food culture, not founded in routines and categories of yesteryear.
  • HOW: Consumers love the idea of cooking from scratch but also see the value in doing other things.


Help consumers find joy and pride in their new way of living by embracing their modern eating habits. Don’t treat new eating habits as a compromise or a problem that needs a solution. Rather, think through strategies from an eating occasions perspective: Is there an occasion or eating style in which you are already well placed to lead? Put a stake in the ground and use that strength to help build your brand’s identity.


Syndicated Research: Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors



Food & Beverage Occasions Trends


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.


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