Better-for-you snacks such as yogurt and fruit are increasingly being consumed during mealtimes.

CHICAGO — Lines are blurring between meals and snacks as more consumers pack their plates with such items as yogurt and fruit, according to The NPD Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Traditional snack foods consumed at main meals is expected to grow approximately 5% to 86.4 billion eating occasions in 2018.

“What seems to be happening is consumers are using these convenience types of foods to maybe round out their meals a little more,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for The NPD Group, in an interview with Food Business News. “It’s more of those snack foods that can flexibly go between being a snack food and maybe something that can go alongside a main meal. Examples would be refrigerated yogurt and fresh fruit. For each of those, about half the time they are eaten at a main meal and half the time eaten at snack time. It’s flexible in its usage, and that’s what’s allowing this growth to happen.”

Better-for-you snack foods such as nutrition bars and Greek yogurt are leading the growth of snacks consumed at mealtimes. Sweet and savory snack foods, including chips, pretzels and candy bars, are expected to be flat or decline in the next five years.

“The population is expected to grow just under 5% over the next five years, and so are better-for-you snack foods,” Mr. Seifer said. “So it’s going to keep pace with the population. Savory snack foods are not going to keep pace, and sweet snack foods are basically going to be flat or slightly down. If you think about that, anything less than the population growth, you’re really falling behind because that should be your new base each year.”

The rise in solo dining may contribute to the increase in snack foods eaten at mealtime. NPD found that more than half of eating occasions happen when consumers are alone, which may also be a factor in the long-term decline of side dishes.

“People don’t want to prepare something else in addition to their main dish,” Mr. Seifer said. “Categories like fresh fruit and refrigerated yogurt allow consumers to have additional items at their main meal without really having to do much at all. With yogurt, you just have to peel off the top, and there is your accompaniment to your main meal. Same thing with fresh fruit.”

Driving growth in better-for-you snack foods between and at main meals are Generation X, ages 38-48, millennials, ages 24-37, and Generation Z, ages 0-23, who have positive attitudes about snacking, a desire to eat more healthfully and a need for convenience. Popular items also include granola bars and protein bars, nuts and seeds, trail mix, rice cakes and cottage cheese.

“People are not just thinking of snacking occasions as that time when we get extraneous calories anymore,” Mr. Seifer said. “In fact, 30 years ago we asked a question that said ‘I try to avoid snacking,’ and about 70% of people used to agree with that. Now more people disagree with that statement. People now think of snacking as a way to get extra ingredients into their bodies or as a way to eat more sensibly throughout the day.”

Fast and fresh

Younger generations also favor fresh foods, including produce, meat, fish and poultry.

“We’re expecting to see breakfast and even lunch showing some growth with fresh foods,” Mr. Seifer said. “And we do see millennials and Gen Z as some of the biggest drivers of that. Part of that could have a lot to do with the multicultural aspect of that generation. There is a strong Hispanic presence, and with traditional Latino cooking you do see a lot of freshness and an emphasis around fresh fruit and vegetables being consumed.”

Food marketers and retailers may benefit by positioning products as convenient while allowing consumers some involvement in the preparation.

“Not everyone is becoming a chef by any stretch of the imagination, but one thing we’re certainly seeing is that, because millennials have been forced to source foods from home because of the recession, it looks as if they are getting used to preparing meals out of their home,” Mr. Seifer said. “And we see a lot of what we’re calling ‘sensible involvement’ with their foods. So, it doesn’t mean they want necessarily to have a completely finished package they can throw in the microwave. It does seem as though they want some involvement, as in they take it across the finish line.”

NPD predicts the trend will grow at breakfast time, particularly in items such as eggs and pancake batter.

“Not frozen pancakes, but batter is expected to grow with this group a lot,” Mr. Seifer said. “So the message should be around ‘how can you make it convenient, but let me finish it.’”