The Evolution of the Mealtime

Foodservice operators find the mealtimes they are a-changing.    


Not so long ago nearly everyone was on the same page at mealtimes. People ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at standard times and consumed mostly the same things. Between-meals eating, if not officially frowned upon, was limited to occasional treats.


But that is obviously no longer the case. Harried office workers are often hard pressed to find time for breakfast or lunch. Shift workers and the growing ranks of telecommuters eat on varied schedules. To satisfy their needs, snacking, all-day breakfast, late-night eating and on demand takeout and delivery are augmenting the main meal dayparts.


“We are finding consumers today are approaching meals and snacks with a very different lens than at any other time in our history,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president, culinary insights at the Hartman Group, a research company.


“What that means is there is a lot less commensality,” [eating together] adds Abbott. “We are certainly not having breakfast together as much. Breakfast is absolutely on the go, eaten in the car or on mass transit.”


Satisfaction in snacking

For millennials eating is largely unscheduled, with meals and snacks occurring throughout the day, according to a report this year by the Private Label Manufacturers Association. Half of the consumers have no set schedule for meals. Sixty-two percent snack throughout the day and 47 percent average four or more snacks a day.


Millennials, with their much studied behavior, have influenced overall attitudes toward snacking, which the Hartman Group says accounts for about half of all eating occasions. They consider snacking to be everyday eating behavior, Abbott says, in contrast to the attitude of baby boom and Generation X consumers who were brought up to consider snacks as infrequent treats. However, the consumers in the older cohorts are now snacking much like their millennial counterparts.


Today, consumers expect snacks to be more than palate-pleasing, indulgent treats, Abbott says. They increasingly demand “quality convenience” foods which reflect prevailing notions of freshness, flavor trends, nutrient density and social responsibility which might have been found at traditional mealtimes.


Call it a snack, a meal or what you will, convenient, high quality, globally inspired food is increasingly available for those with unconventional lifestyles and work schedules. For example, consider the two Breakfast Republic restaurants in San Diego, where 20- and 30-something foodies are key customers. They are enthusiastic takers for dishes such as Breakfast Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese, Breakfast Hot Dogs and Vietnamese Chicken Wing Breakfast Bowl, often accompanied with draft beer, wine or cocktails, which are served beginning at 7 a.m.


“There is a line out the door every day,” says Breakfast Republic owner Johan Engman.


Around the time when the majority of people are waking up and starting their days, Engman says his customers may be ending theirs and craving a libation and something zesty from his breakfast only menu.


“They might work on Saturday and Sunday and be off on Tuesday and Wednesday,” says Engman. “They might finish up that architecture job or that app they are working on at 6 a.m., and say, ‘I’m done with my day. I’ll go have a beer now.’”


Changes in how Americans work and shop are negatively affecting lunch visits to restaurants, according to the NPD Group. The research firm cited a 24 percent increase over the last decade in the number of people working from home and an 8 percent increase over the last year in online shopping as factors contributing to four quarters of consecutively steeper declines in foodservice lunch. In the quarter ended June 2016, lunch visits declined by 4 percent versus the same quarter a year earlier, the steepest decline of all main meal dayparts.


“When you work at home you are not as likely to go out for lunch,” says NPD Group restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs. She adds that the “sticker shock” of menu prices raised by operators to deal with higher labor costs, among other factors, is contributing to softer traffic.


At the same time lunch has been declining, the p.m. snack occasion has been increasing strongly, with four consecutive quarters of growth in the 6 to 9 percent range. The data reveals that the snack orders were mainly breakfast sandwiches, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and some burgers. “It was people trading down, not getting a full meal, and calling it a snack,” says Riggs.


Late-night snacking, either at home or in restaurants, is also an evolving, alternative meal occasion. “It is the 'me time' after a busy day,” Abbott says. “That is when you can unwind, watch TV or sit at the computer and feed yourself whatever you think can ground you and provide some level of indulgence.”



SNACK: Millennials and older generations are snacking more frequently. Offer smaller portion sizes with flavors that satisfy each age group.

The Evolution of the Mealtime

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