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According to analysis by The Hartman Group, eating alone is fast becoming the new normal, representing 46 percent of all adult eating occasions (up from 44 percent in 2010).
The Hartman Group’s investigation of American eating trends reveals that the way in which many consumers define a “meal” has transformed from traditional, sit-down “meat and potatoes with the family,” into a constantly shifting assortment of snacking and eating alone occasions.
In just the past few years, Hartman’s ethnographers, working within households across America, have witnessed the developing habit among consumers to eat alone even when dining with others—much of this brought about by mobile technology proliferation. Many companies continue to market to traditional family occasions and miss out on the emerging possibilities concealed within the eating alone occasion.
The rise of eating alone has been fed by a number of trends:
Transitions within households post-World War II. The decades after WWII saw the movement of mothers into the work force, the rise of single-parent households, and the influence of technology, all of which compromised traditional family meals.
Losing focus during the past 50 years on the importance of dining communally during specific meal occasions. Consider the now nearly-forgotten practice of workers and school children returning home midday for family lunches or the increasingly rare “family dinner.”
Movement away from a focus on taking time to consume foods. In modern culture, many meal occasions, especially those that are solitary, are now characterized by the mechanics of eating and not the celebration of food occasions. An example is the now-pervasive practice of Americans eating alone at their desks while they work.
The snackification of meals. America is now a snacking culture where eating any time of day is commonplace. Many consumers believe that eating smaller meals more frequently is healthier and that snacking bridges gaps between meals.
Dismantling social dining
Eating alone represents the dismantling of the communal meal and the way we "used to eat." Historically, eating was something social in which stories were told and events of the day might be shared. While less acknowledged, eating socially also serves several purposes with nutritional and dietary benefits, including:
- Regulation of portions: People eating together will often point out if someone is "taking too much" or as a group will discuss how to "fairly" divide a meal into adequate portions.
- Shifting the focus: From the nutritional, mechanical aspects of the meal toward conversation.
The ins and outs of eating alone
While there are positive aspects to eating alone, consumers tend to veer away from some of the positive effects of social dining. In particular:
- Self-creating standards for what constitutes a portion: within the vacuum of eating alone, consumers left to their own devices are often unaware that they might be consuming much more than a single portion.
- Reducing solitary meals to a kind of "ism" where elemental meal parts and ingredients become the fixation of the individual. For example, veganism, paleoism, glutanism, etc., when processed introspectively, become larger than life, especially when compared to the dynamics of social eating.
And yet, while eating alone is often described as a lonely prospect, the growing trend of solitary eating is also influencing some profoundly positive ways of looking at such an occasion.
With eating alone becoming the norm, consumers are seeking ways in which to celebrate it. Food to go, portable foods and premium “snacks” can be crafted together to form an entire meal for one.
- Packaging can shift solitary dining from a lonely occasion to something fun by serving as an interactive and pleasurable distraction.
- In food retail, deli food stations such as olive bars enable consumers to have higher-quality, global food experiences on everyday occasions by providing a combination of premium, small tastes. As they eat alone, consumers increasingly aggregate snack items into one meal—thereby underscoring just how much eating styles have changed.
Food for thought
Rules no longer apply for eating occasions, especially when it comes to eating alone. Many companies continue to market to family occasions and iconic meals of the past, failing to take advantage of this common trend.
- Over half of adult alone eating occasions take place in the home, and marketers need not cede the sourcing for alone occasions to QSR or other foodservice channels. Food retailers have the opportunity to develop single-portion-oriented baked, prepared and refrigerated stations that enable those shoppers assembling meals-for-one to mix and match new tastes and cuisines.
- Connect with consumers on these solitary occasions -- both with marketing and product innovation -- by creating new forms of packaging and ingredients that encourage interactivity and a sense of personalization.