In a not-so-distant past, consumers sat down to three regular meals a day and snacked only in between meals: Eating was a pretty traditional, predictable behavior. In that bygone era, meals had culturally defined guardrails, passed down through generations, and mealtimes reflected rules telling us when meals should happen, who should be there, how we should act and what we should eat. Meals traditionally helped structure the day, providing focal points marking beginnings, endings and transitions.

Today, we live in an eating culture that’s in constant motion—modern eating styles are marked by fragmentation and an upending of tradition. We idealize three balanced meals but rarely eat that way. Planning, shopping and cooking is decentralized, and there are fewer rules about what to eat and drink—we’re much more comfortable with eating on the fly. Eating and drinking can happen anywhere and everywhere and at any time.

No eating or drinking occasion typifies the fragmented, decentralized and no-rules modern eating culture than snacking.

Snacking occasions reflect consumers’ more-flexible approach to eating and drinking overall and represent 50 percent of all food and beverage occasions. Today’s consumers eat around their schedules rather than scheduling around mealtimes. Dinner becomes a mere pause between other activities. Lunch is often scheduled out to accommodate an overflow of meetings and must-dos. And breakfast can be multitasked between commuting and working.

This ad hoc approach to mealtimes is increasingly part of the new routine. While dinner remains an important social meal occasion, breakfast and lunch occasions are routinely “snackified,” especially during the workweek. This opens up schedules and frees up time from planning, cooking and cleaning.

Traditional snacking was infrequent and very much based around a three-meals-a-day paradigm. Modern snacking patterns look very different. While meals are not going away, ultimately this all-day approach to snacking impacts the significance of meals: Meal quality is less important now because snacking is more important.

Snacks differ from meals in three distinct ways. Typically, snacks are viewed as:

  • Smaller size. Even if the small eating happens at a mealtime, it is often thought of as a stand-in until the next “large eating.”
  • Between times. Snacks intuitively fall in the gray areas between socially/culturally assigned “mealtimes.”
  • Low prep and cleanup. Snacks typically involve little to no construction or preparation; any heating is brief and unattended.

When considering the changing landscape of eating styles, snacking insights that food marketers should consider include:

At half of all eating occasions, snacks are no longer just whimsical, throwaway or anomalous moments; they are an essential part of how we eat in modern food culture.

Snacks are bound by fewer rules than meals, and yet the lines between meals and snacks are blurring. Because snacks can essentially be anything, the competitive set for snacks (wholesome or otherwise) is broadening.

Our eating is more fluid overall, as consumers eat whenever and however they want. Nine in 10 consumers are engaged in “modern” snacking, characterized by highly flexible rules and structure.

Consumers expect snacks to do more for them than ever in terms of the physical, emotional, social and cultural experiences they offer.

The physical work that snacks do (73 percent of all snacking)—from hunger abatement to nutritional support—is one of the biggest drivers for snacking today. Yet emotional, social, cultural and even inexplicable, aimless snacking underlies much of our snacking.

The key trends in snacking today involve foods that are fresh, less processed, sustained energy, increasingly global and have inherently flexible formats. Together, when imbued in snack foods, these factors can work together to provide consumers with a healthy, convenient and inspirational snacking experience.