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meal planning“What to eat?” “Cook at home or eat out?” “Takeout or home delivery?” Modern eating is fraught with a great deal of uncertainty. Given the nature of today’s complex, chaotic lifestyles, eating occasions are increasingly unplanned and impulsive, and they are often about mood and whimsy. In a word, “spontaneity” reigns supreme.

Ah, it used to be so easy — back then, in the good old days of regular, routine meal management. Meals and even snacking were often planned well in advance, and food was sourced from well-stocked pantries throughout the day. As such, spontaneous, impulsive eating was an infrequent behavior that primarily occurred:

  • when it really mattered: A thoughtful, special, anticipated meal or treat; conversely, an unforeseen or emergent need
  • away from home: A conscious decision to forego the ritual of home eating in favor of a restaurant

It was a time of regularly scheduled trips to the grocery store to stock the fridge, freezer and pantry and then rotate through about five to six very predictable dinners that never, ever changed.

Today paints a much different picture: routine has given way to spontaneity and impulse. The mother of yesteryear would have gasped in horror at the idea that at 4PM someone has no idea what they’re going to have for dinner that night. But this is the new reality, this is the food culture we live in. It is a culture of:

  • Increasingly unplanned eating
  • A la carte eating
  • Increased willingness to overturn our pre-made plans in the service of our food moods
  • More than 15 percent of all adult eating today includes foods or beverages consumed within one hour of purchase (this is a 4-point increase from 2010, according to our Hartman Eating Occasions Compass data analysis) — what we call “immediate consumption.”

What we have seen over the past decade is that there appears to be a growing share of eating occasions that are about impulsive, unplanned cravings — unexpected moments where we find ourselves eating without much forethought.

This unplanned style of eating is about a long-term shift toward impulsive eating of all kinds, and while seemingly small, it highlights big opportunities for both retailers and restaurant operators.

Impulsive eating and dining out reflect the fact that as our modern lifestyles, priorities, challenges, and desires have shifted, food culture has also evolved into a dynamic, modern eating culture, one that stands in stark contrast to traditional ways of engaging with food.

Unplanned shopping and eating has become a normal part of food management as consumers use retailers and food service alike as extensions of their personal pantries and kitchens. This almost immediate consumption of foods and beverages occurs very regularly, encompassing everything from the slightest whims and inconveniences to daily and routine meals and snacks. Unplanned eating can happen anywhere and is as much about creating flexibility in planning for home occasions as it is about eating out. 

This is a reflection of what we’ve long called the "roadside pantry effect" — the notion that consumers now navigate a world of 360-degree food availability, picking and choosing from a huge pantry of roadside as well as virtual options where culturally we have developed strategies and systems for keeping food around us at all times. In addition to food retailers, consumers regularly patronize food service establishments and utilize other emerging channels to fulfill their unplanned food and beverage desires.

Why are unplanned, immediate consumption occasions on the rise?

Examine the evolving relationship between work and home life. These two worlds are merging, and consumers are feeling the pinch of conflicting priorities. With both “Mom and Dad” out of the house and the shift from manufacturing to service sector work, it feels harder to make food at home and easier than ever to access food at work. Product innovation, merchandising and marketing should legitimize and support today’s modern eating realities.

Here are some thought starters to take advantage of this dynamic and evolving eating occasion.

Food marketers should help consumers find joy and pride in their new way of living, by embracing their modern eating habits. Don’t treat changing 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.

In food retail, create experiences that engage with consumers in finding inspiration and solutions for modern eating: reimagine your store as more than simply “a place to get stuff.” Create in-store experiences that intentionally intersect with consumers’ cultural desires around food and their needs around emerging occasions. For example: create destinations and develop focal points in-store where consumers can find product solutions and ideas for the needs and desires emerging from our modern eating culture. For example: a “what’s for dinner station” that changes regularly, providing an inspiring destination for shoppers on the (planned spontaneity) modern meal planning mission.

In restaurants, set snacking as the next frontier for food service. As meals fragment and snacking sustains or grows, we believe there will be less and less demand for traditional meals. Restaurant operators should think moderate: miniature to medium-sized versions of menu favorites allow eaters to better choose items that fit into the gray area of the downsized meal/upsized snack. Also, continue to explore takeout by creating more takeout opportunities that allow eaters to enjoy higher-quality and special food experiences in the environment of their choosing. In particular, continue to use social and digital technologies to streamline call-ahead services and consider extending into grab-and-go-like offerings where appropriate.


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Retail/Shopper Insights Foodservice/Restaurant


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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