Restaurants may increase traffic and check spend by rethinking day-part strategy, messaging and menu options, according to research from Partners + Napier.
As the trends and behaviors that accelerated during the pandemic have become part of our everyday fabric, the lines between work and home, Sunday and Monday, breakfast and lunch, and meal and snack have dissolved. For many Americans today, breakfast is at 10 a.m., lunch happens around 3 p.m., and dinner comes later in the evening. We call these diners “Mealtime Outsiders,” and they’re 32 million strong. Upwards of 61% of Americans are eating outside of traditional mealtimes, according to a survey led by my team at Partners + Napier.
Mealtimes have become just another thing to stress about
We’re still as stressed as ever. Inflation, polarization, climate issues and global tensions are all on the rise. With everything that’s happened in the last three years and all that’s going on now, mealtime is the last thing people want to worry about. About 52% of our respondents believed that sticking to an eating schedule is stressful. They’re looking for ways to simplify and regain control. They’d rather eat when hungry, not at a set time. That means restaurants portraying mealtimes as fitting neatly into traditional day parts are creating a narrative that’s out of step with consumers’ reality.
Working (and not working) affects meal times
Millions of Americans have retired early and those who haven’t are working longer hours and facing increased demands. Those who are still working — whether onsite or remotely—are facing more demanding working conditions. Even if they still want to eat lunch during the traditional lunch hour, they may not get a break from their work until 2 p.m. or later.
“Lots of work assignments thrown in my direction prevent me from eating on time throughout my workday,” said one participant, (male, 45, Black, married with kids, and living in New York). Many more participants echoed that sentiment.
Working Mealtime Outsiders are pulled in a gazillion directions. Like most of us, they don’t have as much control over that as they’d like. Giving them more flexibility and control could be an opportunity.
Conversely, those who retired are no longer bound to a set schedule, a freedom they enjoy.
“Our meals are taken at times that are convenient for us or when we are hungry,” said one participant (male, 68, White, married/no kids, living in Illinois).
Living arrangements matter, too. Household composition also plays a part in determining Mealtime Outsiders’ eating habits — whether or not they’re making eating decisions solely for themselves or with those they live with.
“My eating schedule depends widely on what activities my family has in a day,” said a female participant (35, White, married w/kids, living in Missouri.) Another added, “I have to deal with a partner who eats at weird hours…[so I] mostly eat alone lately” (male, 70, white, partner/adult kids, living in Florida).
Food moves Mealtime Outsiders throughout the day
Meal timing is a matter of our new reality. Instead of just sticking to a schedule for the sake of it, Mealtime Outsiders use their meals to meet the moment, whether that’s to focus and be productive or to relax and indulge. Mid-afternoon, 44% of participants turn to snacks to avoid fatigue, and 51% indulge in treats to ease into the evening. Those need states become even more important when a person’s schedule is in flux, which creates an opportunity for brands to pair this insight with a media strategy designed to reach them where and when they’re making their meal decisions, instead of following the traditional day part playbook.
Bottom line: Today’s diners want flexibility
Now more than ever, people are looking for food and restaurant brands to meet them where they are and create more flexible solutions. The brands that will succeed are those that help our growing cohort of Mealtime Outsiders find freedom and ease in meeting the demands of their present-day situations, rather than boxing them into an outdated schedule.