BELLEVUE, WASH. — The rhythm of eating, including when and how much Americans are consuming across the day, has shifted in 2021, according to data from The Hartman Group, Inc.

More adults now are participating in early morning snack occasions, while fewer are participating in lunch, afternoon snacks, dinner and after-dinner snack occasions on an average day.

Nearly a quarter of consumers reported eating early morning snacks in spring 2021, compared to 18% in 2020 and 17% in 2019. The portion of consumers eating breakfast and morning snacks remained relatively unchanged, while the portion of consumers eating lunch fell 8 percentage points to 62% in 2021. The portion of consumers eating dinner and after-dinner snacks fell 5 percentage points over the two-year period.

“Eating has shifted from the afternoon toward the morning, which is something we haven’t previously seen,” said Shelley Balanko, PhD, senior vice president of The Hartman Group. “Eating was dispersed throughout the day in a fairly consistent manner, even in the throes of the pandemic. Now, as we’re coming out, we see a greater portion of consumers eating pre-lunch.”

More qualitative research is needed to understand the shift in eating patterns, she added. One possible explanation involves the ongoing adoption of more home-centric lifestyles.

“My hypothesis is that consumer lives have shifted more toward the early part of the day with more work from home.” — Shelley Balanko, PhD, The Hartman Group

“My hypothesis is that consumer lives have shifted more toward the early part of the day with more work from home,” Ms. Balanko said. “You’re gearing up for more cognitive and physical demands earlier on in the day than you were previously.”

The drop in afternoon and evening eating hides the overall growth in food and beverage categories present during eating occasions. Specifically, snack occasions are playing a more important role in how Americans eat, with the decline in participation in eating occasions per day corresponding with more items consumed per occasion.

The average number of food and beverage categories present at any given occasion has increased significantly, reaching 3.1 items in spring 2021, compared to 2.8 items in both 2019 and 2020. Morning and after-dinner snacking occasions saw the greatest increases in the number of food and beverage items present over the two-year period.

“You might think, ‘Are they just going with less calories?’” Ms. Balanko said. “It would appear not. In those morning occasions, people are adding more items, whether that’s food items or beverage items, which will then allow them to not participate in eating in the afternoon.”

Couple eating restaurant takeout food at homeThe Hartman Group also found Americans are turning to foodservice for snacking occasions more often than during and prior to the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of snacking occasions were sourced from restaurants in spring 2021, up significantly from 13% in 2020 and 17% in 2019.

“Consumers are relying on foodservice for sourcing their foods but not necessarily for being the location of eating,” Ms. Balanko said. “We’ve turned to takeout and delivery as a way of alleviating the burden associated with cooking and cleaning up.”

Despite rising vaccination rates and precautions taken by foodservice operators, many consumers still do not feel comfortable dining in to the extent they did previously, she added. Eight percent of eating occasions took place at a restaurant in spring 2021, up from 4% in 2020 but still down slightly from 10% in 2019.

“We’re engaging with foodservice in a different way,” Ms. Balanko said. “We’re getting more bang for our restaurant buck. There’s more use of restaurant food as leftovers. It’s not an on-premises dining experience anymore, but we’re actually using restaurants to stretch across occasions.”