Whether you consider the American cultural landscape to be a melting pot or a salad bowl, one thing's for certain: Mealtime habits are almost as diverse as the medley of cultures that comprise the nation.

Consumers eat both in their cars and at their domestic dining tables; both alone and with groups of friends and family; and both early in the morning and late into the night. 

Despite the diversity of American mealtime tendencies, food industry players still have many opportunities to target a wide range of consumers in a nation that remains united on three inalienable food principles: health, convenience, and variety. 

According to “How We Eat: Retail and Foodservice Opportunities in When and Where America Eats,” a just-released report published by Packaged Facts, the single factor that most influences variations in the interpretation of these food principles is age.

Adults under 45 years old claim they have busier lifestyles than Baby Boomers and Seniors, making snacking and the consumption of fast food far more common due to the portability and convenience of these foods.

Snacking is so integral to the lifestyle of Millennials (adults under age 30) that Packaged Facts considers them a driving force that will propel the U.S. snack market to sales of $77 billion by 2015.

The repercussion of this haste is a greater tendency for younger adults to have either poor eating habits or blatantly unhealthy diets, as they are more likely to feel they are too busy to take care of themselves as they should. 

Between Millennials and Gen Xers (adults age 30-44), the latter segment is far more conscientious about their mealtime habits, largely because Gen Xers are more likely to be parents. Because of this, Gen Xers are largely advocates of the thunderous—if financially necessary—return of the home-cooked meal that has swept the nation since the onset of the recession.

Meals at home—even meals in the form of ready meals or frozen foods—give Gen Xer parents the opportunity to better control the nutritional health of their children while spending bonding time with their families. 

Boomers and Seniors, meanwhile, are much more conscientious eaters who prefer to know the nutritional value of and ingredients in their foods. They are also more willing to pay extra money for quality goods than younger adults. Though they rarely snack, when older Americans do indulge, they typically choose healthier snacks.

Meals at home are also far more common for older Americans. Baby Boomers are fond of cooking, while Seniors favor easy-to-prepare meals. Either way, their avoidance of fast food and dining on the go is closely tied to their penchant for counting calories and avoiding artificial additives and other harmful ingredients. 

Older Americans also tend to dine early, especially Seniors who are active eaters from 6 a.m.–6 p.m. Both Boomers and Seniors tend to eat meals alone more than younger adults, though solo eating overall is on the uptick nationwide. Seniors, more so than Boomers, have a strong tendency to eat socially during the early morning and early evening hours. 

Meanwhile, both Millennials and Gen Xers are frequent indulgers in what has been colloquially dubbed the “fourth meal”, a dining occasion that is an expansion of the midnight snack and is typically eaten outside the home and with at least one other person. In the report, Packaged Facts defines fourth meal dining as occurring between 10:00 pm–5:59 am. When Millennials eat, especially late, they are tremendously social. This social tendency is inherently linked to the college crowd that comprises a portion of the cohort and is an extension of Millennials' penchant for social networking.

Consumer Trends, News