BELLEVUE, Wash. (Hartman Group) — Did you know that eating alone has become as normal as eating together? Eating alone is fast becoming the new normal. The Hartman Group’s analysis of how we eat as a culture shows that today a fairly astounding 46% of all adult eating occasions (up from 44% in 2010) are undertaken alone.
For a majority of consumers, what constitutes a "meal" today has transformed from traditional, sit-down "meat and potatoes with the family" into a constantly shifting assortment of snacking and eating alone occasions. We’re giving up meal occasions with others or combining eating with other tasks as the need for productivity compels us to move forward. In just the past few years, our ethnographers, working within households all across America, have witnessed the rapidly developing habit among consumers to eat alone even when dining with others—much of this brought about by mobile technology proliferation.
The rare event of the "Oh, I guess I have to eat by myself" solitary meal occasion (typically fulfilled by the likes of Swanson TV dinners or heating a can of Campbell's soup) is now a normative meal occasion. Many companies continue to market to traditional family occasions and are missing out on the emerging possibilities concealed within the eating alone occasion for a vast number of adults.
You may have heard us refer to the notion that our culture is evolving from a traditional, status-quo culture to one that is reimagined, consumer-driven and experiential. One stunning example of this is the manner in which many of us eat today, which nearly half the time is completely alone. In fact, in certain settings (such as the workplace), eating alone has become so pervasive that many of us don't realize we’re doing it anymore—underscoring what a ubiquitous behavior solitary eating is. 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 rise of technology (e.g., television), all of which made inroads on traditional, social, sit-down "family meals."
- A gradual loss of focus over the past fifty 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.”
- A continual 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. A common 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 a personal right, and satiety is often the goal. Consumers increasingly believe that eating smaller meals more frequently is healthier and that snacking bridges gaps between meals due to long work and commute times.
Dismantling Social Dining
One of the most interesting aspects of the trend toward eating alone is the notion that it represents the dismantling of the communal meal and the way we "used to eat": historically, eating was something social, and often implied something done with others where 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 what are believed to be adequate portions
- Shifting the focus: From the nutritional, mechanical aspects of the meal toward conversation and even celebration of the occasion
The Ins and Outs of Eating Alone
While there are positive aspects to eating alone, which we'll describe later in this discussion, of great interest is our finding that consumers eating alone tend to veer far away from some of the positive effects of social dining just described. In particular, we see them:
- 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 to the point that the nutritional parts become “everything”: here, narrow dietary preoccupations (e.g., veganism, paleoism, glutanism, etc.) processed introspectively become larger than life, especially when compared with the dynamics (and often welcome distractions) of social eating.
And yet, while eating alone is often described as a lonely prospect, riddled with pitfalls related to poor dietary judgment and introspective nutritional fixations, we see that the growing trend of eating alone is also influencing some profoundly positive and different ways of looking at such an occasion. Consider the following:
- With eating alone becoming the norm, consumers are seeking ways in which to celebrate it. So, the roast beef dinner has evolved into what is often a search for customizable components that can be crafted to form a meal for one. Food to go, portable foods and premium “snacks” all can be crafted together to form a meal for one. For many consumers, solitary dining is a new way of eating that can be customized and personalized.
- Packaging, such as used in Trader Joe’s salad kits or Sabra Hummus singles, 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 to become a meal—thereby underscoring just how much eating styles have changed.
Food for Thought
Rules no longer really 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, missing the opportunity to market to the vast number of adults who are increasingly eating alone. Consider:
- 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. Within food retail, significant opportunities exist 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. Prepared foods sections (such as those found in Whole Foods and Wegmans) can be masterfully constructed for this behavior. A caution: we continually see portion sizes creeping upward (e.g., sushi for four) in prepackaged refrigerated meals and snacks, while for solitary diners just a sleeve of sushi (i.e., a portion for one) will suffice.
- Connect with consumers on these solitary occasions—both with marketing and product innovation. CPG food manufacturers can connect with consumers relevantly by creating new forms of packaging and ingredients that encourage interactivity and a sense of personalization. Trader Joe’s is often praised by consumers for its two-person meal solutions.
- For food retailers, remember that consumers are cooking for themselves on alone occasions! Provide them with the meal components they need to enjoy this occasion.