In his 2010 best-selling memoir, Life, Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards describes his solitary eating habits as an artist and performer. Then, he even offers a theory about the genesis of traditional eating.

“We’ve been trained from babyhood to have three square meals a day, the full factory-industrial revolution idea of how you’re supposed to eat. Before then it was never like that. You’d have a little bit often, every hour. But when they had to regulate us all, “OK, mealtime!”

Smaller meal portions are driving trends in both the retail and foodservice sectors. Snacks, portion-control and single-serve packaging are generating a frenzy of activity at retail, while small and shared plates showcase innovation in foodservice. The trend of eating smaller amounts of food has sparked discussion about the future of eating three square meals per day. 

As is the case with most consumer trends these days, the will of Millennials now resonates through the snack category.

A recent Mintel study found that with snacking now ubiquitous, more than three in five (64%) consumers agree that snacking is necessary to get through the day, including 77% of Millennials, who are the most likely generation to visit specialty snack shops (85% vs 68% of consumers overall). And while 60% of Americans visit snack shops on a mission to treat themselves, Millennials are more likely to be motivated by healthy snack options (68%).

By and large, studies show that the majority of Americans still eat the traditional three: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The NPD Group recently reported that Americans continue to view the day as generally having three main meal occasions that align with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Alongside that finding, the report also acknowledged that “between-meal-snacking accounts for about a third of all eating occasions.”

This is where the discussion about traditional eating habits becomes murky. If we have four primary eating occasions — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacking — and a third of the occasions is devoted to snacking, that leaves two-thirds to be divvied between the traditional three. 

As a collection, breakfast, lunch and dinner still dominate our food consumption. But viewed as individual eating occasions, they each stand in the shadow of snacking.
A recent savory snacks market report found that the global savory snacks market in 2015 was valued at $94.5 billion and is expected to post a value CAGR of 7.9% and per capita value CAGR of 7.1% during 2015-2020.

A recent Packaged Facts study found that meat snacks (jerky and other snacks such as meat sticks) have become a darling of the snacking world in the last couple of years. Between paleo dieters and CrossFitters espousing the benefits of a high protein diet, the gluten- and wheat-free tribes avoiding anything to do with breads, and the continued negative press that carbs have been receiving, meat has come galloping to the rescue for many different types of snackers.

 At some point, this debate drifts into the shallows of semantics. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks… they are all just words that represent moments when we put food in our mouths. The important aspect of this discussion is to acknowledge that Americans are eating more often throughout the day. The motivation for doing so is varied. 

For some, more frequent eating is essentially based on time restriction. With less time to prepare meals, many consumers find themselves reaching for convenient, smaller portion food products that can be consumed quickly while standing (or more dangerously, while driving). 

For others, frequent eating of smaller portions is driven by health concerns. Simply put, smaller portions can be easier on the digestive system. For physically active consumers, frequent eating can offer energy boosts without the systemic drowsiness that can be a side effect of eating larger meals. 

The notion of a “meal” may eventually be reserved for special occasions. Holidays, celebrations, and other events will continue to bring people together around meals. But in our daily lives, when work, school and errands command our attention, there isn’t enough time left in the day for traditional meals. 

I’ll wrap this up with another quote from Keith:

“Better to have a bit here, a mouthful there, every few hours a bite or two. The human body can deal with it better than shoving a whole load of crap down your gob in an hour.”