The way we eat is changing. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are no longer seen as being as important as they were a generation ago, with consumer research in seven European countries finding that over half of all consumers admit to frequently combining several snacks as a substitute for a “proper” meal.

On average every European will eat 11 fewer meals per year by 2006; however, they will snack on average 19 more times per year to compensate for this change, according to independent market analyst Datamonitor’s new report, Changing Mealtimes.

Looking at differences between the sexes when it comes to eating, Datamonitor found that women are more likely to skip lunch or dinner but will snack more throughout the day. The changes in our eating habits are important for manufacturers – they will need to provide a more varied and nutritional range of snacking options as well as convenient small meals that are targeted at consumers throughout the day, rather than at specific mealtimes.

Need for speed, indulgence and experience

“Mealtimes are increasingly being treated as flexible periods of time that can be made to fit around the needs of consumers’ more hectic, individual and stressful lifestyles,” said Dominik Nosalik, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor and report author: “Flexi-eating has become more prevalent as consumers fit food around their other commitments.

“While snacking and eating on-the-go have been noticeable trends for a few years, its no longer just about rushing – a flexible attitude towards eating has become the norm and we may rush a lot of meals or skip them altogether, however at other times we take more time to enjoy our eating or make a special occasion of it,”

Meal occasions declining – as we pick the meal that fits the need

Fast and functional eating is growing as the number of people that have neither the time, inclination nor skills to eat and prepare meals rises. Its growth is apparent in the rise of snacking, eating on-the-move, desk-dining and the use of ready meals. All of these types of consumption offer convenient, time-saving solutions to the need to eat or prepare proper meals. They allow people to get more done in a day or multitask while we eat. Even conscientiously missed meals are symptomatic of mealtime fragmentation – 11% of survey respondents who missed meals cited dieting as a reason for doing so.

As a backlash against increasingly individual lifestyles, consumers are also making a greater effort to make some of our meals “special occasions” and meet up with friends or family for a dinner party or night out. The frequency of eating out is rising as consumers seek to maximize their leisure time. The number of evening meals served in the foodservice sector in Europe has grown by 2.9% over the past five years. 

The main meal is a floating occasion

Over the last couple of decades, the concept of three square meals a day has changed, and its now normal for many consumers to have one ‘main’ meal a day. However, the timing of the main meal of the day is no longer set in stone. In France and Italy, many consumers are eating dinner as their main meal in a shift away from the traditional main mealtime as lunch.

The same thing is happening in the UK and the Netherlands, except in reverse – lunch is increasingly being eaten as the main meal instead of dinner. Consumers take an increasingly flexible approach to when they eat their main meal to accommodate their specific needs on a given day. Overall proper meal occasions will decline in the future as we snack more often. However, in certain instances, such as dinner in France or lunch in the UK, there will be an increase in the number of meals eaten. As consumer lifestyles become more complicated and individual consumers’ main meal will increasingly shift, or ‘float’, between breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Breakfast is changing the most

Breakfast is the most missed meal in Europe. On average European consumers skip 18% of breakfasts per person, per year, but only 3% of lunches and 4% of dinners. UK consumers are most likely to miss breakfast, with the average British consumer eating 256 breakfasts a year  – meaning that 30% of all breakfasts are skipped.

Snacking is an important source of food intake

The most common reason for snacking is hunger – a response given by 67% of those surveyed, implying that consumers are not receiving enough food intake at proper mealtimes. 55% of consumers also regularly combine several snacks to form a “substitute” meal. This behavior was found to be typical among consumers who had no time to prepare a proper meal before a busy night out or when on-the-move. 45% of respondents indicated that they snack to be sociable; the need to ‘fit in’ and ‘keep up to date with gossip’ with work colleagues is likely to be a key driver of social snacking, particularly among non-smokers since smokers often form their own cliques at work.

Lunch – Europe’s favorite meal?

Lunch is the most commonly consumed meal across Europe – European consumers ate 97% of available lunches in 2001. However, the significance of lunch is declining. Traditionally, lunch has been the main meal of the day for the majority of Europeans, yet only 47% of survey respondents quoted this as their typical main meal, compared to 49% who said dinner was the main meal. This illustrates the strong time-pressures surrounding the lunch occasion, particularly for urban workers, across Europe.

Women more likely to skip meals, but snack more

Men skip more meals earlier in the day whereas women are far more likely to miss meals that occur later in the day. 21% of men miss breakfast five or more times a week compared to only 8% of women who do likewise. The fact that there are more men in the workforce than women is a key factor in this outcome. Women are more likely to miss the typically larger meals of lunch and dinner than men. The dominant reason for missing any meal for both men and women was a lack of time. However, missing meals for dieting reasons
featured significantly more prominently among women then men for the lunch and dinner occasions. Around 10% of lunches and 18% of dinners are skipped by women due to dieting, compared to 7% and 11% respectively for men. Despite a stronger propensity to miss meals for diet reasons, women were found to be more likely to snack. Women are twice as likely as men to snack to be sociable or because they are bored.

Set mealtime occasions will decline

Over the next five years meals will increasingly give way to snacking. On average every European will eat 11 fewer meals per year by 2006; however, they will snack on average 19 more times per year to compensate for this change.  On average, European consumers will skip more meals earlier in the day, since these occur during non-leisure time (including pre-working time) and are most time-pressured. However, breakfast market growth will be strong despite morning mealtime dissolution. Despite an average 6.8 fewer breakfasts being consumed per person per year by 2006, the value of the breakfast market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 2% over the next five years as consumers spend more on breakfast from foodservice outlets.

Marketers need to adapt their offering

As snacking becomes a more important source of consumers’ daily food intake, the nature of snacking can be expected to become less frivolous and more functional in nature.  Manufacturers and retailers will need to focus on providing consumers with a more varied and nutritional range of snacking options. The need for convenient small meals that are targeted at consumers throughout the day, rather than at specific mealtimes, will also rise. Marketers need to be aware of consumers’ greater willingness to shift their
main meal to other times of the day. On the one hand, there is increased opportunity to target other dayparts. For example, for retailers there will be a need to adapt their offering to provide more hot offerings at lunchtime in the UK and the Netherlands and at dinnertime in Italy and France. Meanwhile, foodservice operators that focus extensively on one daypart should consider re-aligning their focus to provide a balanced range of meals during others. On the other hand, there will be increased competition across the dayparts as a greater number of food and drink marketers target the same meal occasion.

To get 50% off the Datamonitor report “Quick Snack Meals 2002” (offer available until 31 May 2002), click here.