18 December 2015
Norman Rockwell might be disappointed to learn that nearly half of all the eating occasions in the U.S. today are spent alone. But just because Americans aren’t gathering their families around the communal kitchen table as frequently for shared meals doesn’t mean those ‘occasions’ can’t be meaningful.

In fact, for many, these solitary meals and snacks have become a form of ‘me time,’ since eating alone now comprises 47 percent of all consumption occasions, as documented in a recent Hartman Group survey called “Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors.” Forty-three percent of those surveyed said they enjoyed eating alone as a way to multitask and catch up on work or leisure activities. And though physically alone, some reported they visit with others while eating via cell phone or video conference services such as Skype.
A related trend—snacking, that most flexible of all eating occasions—was also analyzed in the survey.

Findings show it also cuts into the communal kitchen routine and now accounts for 50 percent of all eating occasions—even though just 26.7 percent of the population lives alone, according to the most recent census.

But snacking no longer means a bag of chips or can of soda. A better-for-you trend has seen healthy options take precedence, including raw or flavorfully spiced nuts, seeds, seaweed and kale chips and, on the beverage side, coconut and other plant watershigh-end teas and probiotics like kombucha. Not surprisingly, some 60 percent of snacks now feature labeling and promotions that position them as healthy, notes Hartman.

Retailers aren’t wasting any time to meet these emerging marketplace needs. Some new retail formats, including Target Express, are taking aim at these trends with a wide variety of individually portioned, ready-to-consume meals. One-sixth the size of a regular Target, these locations also stock a plethora of snacks, which some of its younger customers refer to as “meal chasers,” according to Kamau Witherspoon, Target’s senior director of store operations.

Eating alone is a prevalent default position thanks to changing demographics; the 80-million strong Millennial generation, now ages 18-32, is delaying or opting-out of marriage and childbearing and still more prone to grab-and-go than to stock up. Divorced co-parents are another driver, with this lifestyle leading, in many cases, to a week of family meals followed by a week of going it alone.

So what are manufacturers, marketers and retailers doing to make the most of all this solitary consumption?
  • Appealing to consumers’ sense of adventure and independence is one strategy to embrace, since eating alone means not having to compromise with a companion about how garlicky or spicy a food is, for example, or whether, as might be the case with a shared meal, it is vegetarian, gluten-free or packed with satisfying carbs.
  • Highlighting a ‘homemade’ appeal in formulation, packaging and/or design can also help alleviate consumers’ negative or guilty feelings about eating meals or snacks they don’t have the time or energy to prepare.
  • Embracing healthy indulgence is another effective approach—urging consumers to treat themselves to the occasional solitary splurge and emphasizing the benefits, such as a sense of renewal, which can come from it. Häagen-Dazs’ pomegranate dark chocolate ice cream bars were clearly aiming for this not-too-sweet spot.
Demographic realities and consumer trends forecast that eating alone is probably here to stay. Savvy food and beverage companies are innovating to give these solitary diners easy, flavorful and healthy foods and snacks to satisfy and sustain them between those times they do sit down with friends and family at a dinner table to share a meal.

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