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 departing from traditional eating routines 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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.