Food Habits in a Time Shifted World

A Newsweek article last month suggested that food has become an indicator of class in America (“What Food Says About Class in America”). While educated and affluent consumers agonize over buying organic and locally grown foods, economically disadvantaged people are struggling to overcome living in virtual ‘food deserts’.

“Among the lowest quintile of American families, mean household income has held relatively steady between $10,000 and $13,000 for the past two decades (in inflation-adjusted dollars); among the highest, income has jumped 20 percent to $170,800 over the same period, according to census data. What this means, in practical terms, is that the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season at Whole Foods—the upscale grocery chain that recently reported a 58 percent increase in its quarterly profits—while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.”

Our research suggests there is another factor at work, shaping both what we eat and how and when we eat it: TIME.

Irregular work hours, time shifted entertainment and 24/7 access to games, shopping and communication are  impacting more than just how we communicate, shop and consume entertainment. They are also impacting eating habits.

In our discussions with consumers about their eating habits, both home and away from home, we are struck by how seemingly uninvolved American consumers of all ages are in food as a ‘dining’ experience. Increasingly, food is seen literally ‘fuel” rather than an important activity and event in its own right. Even eating out is no longer a special event, but a practical alternative to eating at home when no one feels like shopping or cooking.  It should be no surprise that ‘fast casual’ is one of the fastest growing segments of the restaurant business and the majority of fast food transactions are consummated at the drive-thru window.  Fine dining is nearly an anachronism, replaced by ‘sports bars’ where we often ask, “Can we sit at the bar?’ rather than wait for a table.

Cooking ‘from scratch’ at home is generally reserved for special meals, not everyday. Most meals are now planned spontaneously. Decisions about ‘what’s for dinner?’ reflect a solution to an equation that involves three variables: 1) what’s on hand in the fridge, cupboard or freezer, 2) the time available to cook and eat and 3) urgency of hunger.  Often, even waiting  20 minutes to cook a frozen item in the oven rather than the microwave can be ‘A Plate Too Far’.  As my 16-year old son has observed, “if the microwave broke, it would affect 75% of what I eat.”

Preparation aside, ‘the eating experience ‘ itself has also been squeezed into a narrower time frame. Sitting down together at a table is becoming less and less common. Multi-tasking now extends to meals – eating, whether alone or with family, often is an accompaniment to another activity such as the computer or TV, texting, or reading, not an event unto itself.

Even the lines between lunch, dinner, and snacks are blurring to the point where these classifications may not even make sense anymore. Is it lunch or breakfast when you wake up at noon? If you microwave a burrito, pizza or chicken strip as a ‘snack’ at 4:00 PM and don’t eat again until you go out for Chipotle or pizza at 10:00 PM, which one is dinner?

What’s especially fascinating about these trends is that they are happening at a time when interest in quality food is at an all time high.

It’s ironic that, even as we collectively become more aware of the importance of healthy eating, we have become increasingly a nation of grazers, eating when and where we want, often on the run or while multi-tasking. Millennials in particular, are quite sophisticated about food. They are fascinated by the Food Network, even as they have little in their refrigerators and rarely contemplate attempting an at home ‘scratch’ meal in favor of cereal, freezer food and ramen noodles.  Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor of technology and culture at Queens University in Canada, says her students laugh when she describes the voyeuristic aspect of watching cooking shows as ‘food porn‘.

The demand for on-demand food is not going to diminish. As we become more frantic in our eating there is a growing tension between our desire to eat well and to eat instantly. Food manufacturers and restaurants wishing to appeal to Millennials, should strive to offer sophisticated food that can be stored and prepared, consumed and cleaned up quickly with a minimum of fuss.

While the idea of a ‘free range chicken nugget’ or ‘all natural ramen noodles’ may sound contradictory, there seems to be room to reinvent ‘convenience’ food to a new standard. Fully-cooked, frozen, ‘gourmet’ foods, made from quality ingredients, that can be prepared quickly are highly appealing and may underlie the success of stores like Trader Joe’s. A popular offering from one of our food clients, Maple Leaf Farms, is a fully cooked half rotisserie duck that is a far step up from your usual TV dinner, but cooks just as fast.

Manufacturers of classic, instant ‘standby meals’, like soup, jarred pasta sauces and boxed meal kits would also seem to have an opportunity to reposition as a short order, quality meal for the multi-tasker.   And all manufacturers should be looking closely at preservatives, sodium and other ingredients that suggest a high degree of processing.