It’s no secret that U.S. consumers now snack more, eat alone more, and grab food more on the fly—the fascinating part is why. U.S. food culture is undergoing a seismic shift that has people simultaneously more fascinated by what they eat and less inclined to cook it, according to consumer research firm The Hartman Group.
“This cultural shift puts a new burden on U.S. food companies to create products that are fresh and healthy enough to eat regularly, plus tasty and interesting enough to compete with a host of restaurants, taco trucks, coffee shops, and other food venues,” says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group. “To fully understand what consumers want, it is important to study the cultural forces underpinning what and how they eat.”
Take snacking, for example. While it’s clear that people’s busy lifestyles are contributing to a decline in traditional meals and a rise in snacking—which now represents half of all eating occasions—it is not so obvious that consumers put more cultural weight on snacks than they used to. According to The Hartman Group’s 2013 report, “ Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors,” there are several key drivers for snacking:
• 73 percent of snacking is physically driven: That includes 44 percent hunger abatement plus 15 percent nutritional support and 12 percent bursts of energy to combat lethargy.
• 36 percent of snacking is emotionally driven: That includes 23 percent “time markers” to create structure in the day, plus 13 percent boredom alleviation, and 6 percent reward, encouragement, or temporary alleviation of discipline.
• 28 percent of snacking is socially or culturally driven, including people bonding around food without committing to a full meal and those discovering new cuisines and flavors.
The percentages don’t add to 100, because there is overlap. However, they do not overlap with aimless snacking, which represents a whopping 27 percent of all snacking, boosted by the constant availability of food and beverages. Aware that food is always nearby, people eat even when other drivers are not present. Aimless snacking is often underreported, because consumers forget or re-categorized it as “purposeful,” and it has major implications for obesity and other health and cultural issues.
Eating alone is on the rise, too. Nearly half (47 percent) of all eating occasions now take place with a single person eating alone, many of whom live in multi-person households. Consumers now enjoy eating alone. It gives them time to catch up on work, reading and television programs and allows them to nourish themselves without having to wait for family members who are going in all different directions.
Finally, there’s the advent of “immediate consumption,” an occasion that goes beyond restaurant meals to include food bought on the go—and often eaten at home. This occasion stems from a variety of changes in lifestyle and values including: the diffusion of food management within families, less food planning because of busy schedules as well as individuals—including children—wanting to customize their own meals (a vegan daughter, a gluten-free mother, a paleo father). The result is people grabbing whatever looks good just before they eat it.