Snack foods are becoming a substitute for main meals by US consumers, especially young adults. According to The NPD Group, a leading global information company, some of the reasons are health consciousness, more solo households and convenience.

Snacks eaten at main meals now represent 24 percent of all snack food consumption, which is up from 21 percent five years ago, according to NPD’s continual tracking of US consumers snacking attitudes and behaviors.

“Although consumers are not adding new snacking occasions to the day, there is a shift in what’s eaten at main meals and how snacking is viewed,” said David Portalatin, vice president, industry analysis, The NPD Group.  “Consumers today expect snacks to work for them; the snack is no longer just a reward. 

“Snack foods that offer consumers flexibility on price, portion size and portability allow them to compose an eating occasion that fits their specific needs at the time, whether they look at it as a snack, meal replacement or part of a main meal occasion.”

Generation Zs and millennials are driving the trend toward eating snack foods at main meals. The study also found that younger adults are more comfortable eating alone than previous generations, and snack foods offer a low-cost, smaller portioned alternative that fits that lifestyle. They are also shifting toward fresh foods and foods with a healthy halo, which is why fruits and refrigerated yogurt are among the top snack foods included in main meals.

There are 12 billion snack visits made to restaurants and other foodservice outlets, reports NPD. When snacking replaces an away-from-home meal, the meal is most often lunch. 

Gen Zs and millennials are expected to continue the trend of eating snack food at main meals well into the future. Annual eatings per capita of snack food at main meals is forecast to grow by 12 percent by 2024, according to NPD’s Generation Study: The Evolution of Eating.