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Meals are for squares

In Canada, and nearly universally now around the world, the frequency and variety of snacking is going up. Are your snack aisles ready?
Snacking statistics

Ever wondered where the term “square meal” comes from? According to popular lore, sailors on board British Royal Navy ships in the 1700s were served their main evening meal on square-shaped plates called trenchers.

It’s more likely, however, that the phrase is American in origin, and that it derives from literary and biblical associations of the word square with reliable, solid, proper, and substantial.


Snacks, historically, have been viewed as the antithesis to square meals. In his review of Snack Consumption Patterns among Canadians, Hassan Vatanparast describes a traditional eating pattern where people “obtain the majority of their energy and nutrient requirements from three planned meals… which are often consumed with family, friends, colleagues, etc. at relatively predictable times and in dedicated places. All other eating occasions occurring outside the context of main meals are considered ‘snacks’, which are different from regular meals in terms of nutritional profile, time of consumption, and frequency of consumption.”

That was the way things used to be. In Canada, and nearly universally now around the world, the frequency and variety of snacking is going up. Broad consumer research on snacking leads to the following general conclusions:

  • People are consuming more calories overall per day, and the percentage of calories coming from snacking continues to increase.
  • Younger Canadians are likely to snack more frequently than older consumers—on average snacking contributes roughly about 25% of their daily calorie intake.
  • More than 90% of Canadians are currently eating at least one snack per day.
  • Low intensity snackers represent about one-third of snackers, and high intensity—four or more snacks per day—are roughly 10% of the population.

Kathy Perrotta, VP at Ipsos Canada, has been tracking snacking in Canada since 2013 via the Ipsos FIVE daily consumer-diary. Findings for the 12-months ending February 2021 reveal that two-thirds of all consumption/eating occasions in an average day are now occurring in-between meals, and almost half of all food and beverage occurrences consumed in an average day are eaten at snack. While the majority of snacking in Canada occurs in the afternoon, “morning snacking remains driven by health-oriented or better-for-you needs while evening (snacking) is about treat/reward, relaxation and sharing.”

BFY snacks are trending

There may be some debate about what constitutes better-for-you snacks, but there’s little doubt as to consumers’ growing preference for healthier snack nutrition.

Sebastian Emig, director general of the European Snacks Association, recently presented data that supports both the overall shift from Square Meals to Snackification, as well as emerging facets of healthier savoury snacks.

In Europe, close to half of consumers aged 16 to 24 “frequently eat snacks instead of eating a proper meal” and “75% are trying to find balance in snacks, healthy versus indulgent.” Further, “half of consumers (are looking) for healthier snacks all or most of the time (and) 80% all/most/or some of the time.”

Better for you snack examples

Timing is everything

Research: Afternoon snack time is the largest snacking daypart.


o   People eat dinner later, so the gap between meals has extended.

o   One in five consumers skip lunch, substituting with afternoon snacks.

Result: Morning snacking is driven by health-oriented or better-for-you needs, while evening is about treat/reward, relaxation and sharing. Afternoon snacking, however, remains a battleground daypart where neither health nor indulgence dominates needs choices. Anything goes. 

(Source: Ipsos FIVE)

Improving the nutritional profile of snacks by reducing levels of salt, sugar, and fat—addition by subtraction, if you will—has its limits. About 10 years ago, The Campbell Soup Company announced a commitment to dramatic reductions in sodium by reformulating more than half of its condensed soup SKUs. A year later, after a sharp fall in sales, the company’s new CEO-elect dialed back the reductions by 50%.

There’s little doubt that healthier snacking is here to stay. Last year, global market intelligence agency Mintel surveyed 2,000 Canadians regarding their snack eating habits, motivations, and attitudes. When asked what “types of snacks are you interested in?”, the top-ranking responses were gourmet flavours, plant-based, and ethically-sourced snacks. Mintel found that “younger (aged 18+) women are most interested in plant-based options.”

Snacking is increasingly replacing or supplementing the traditional meal occasions of breakfast and lunch. So, it makes sense that consumers are looking for snacking options that offer them nutrition with substance, rather than empty calories.

Stealing share

Pirates, like Navy sailors, used to eat their meals off of wooden platters. The pirate code dictated that the size of your portion could reflect your contribution to the cause. Ironically, as a pirate, you didn’t get a ration, but received a fair-and-square meal.

When it comes to meal habits, it’s very likely that snacking will continue to steal share. As a parent, I made it a point to emphasize the importance of structure in meals. Despite this, my three millennial kids, more often than not, choose to eat-what-they-want-when-they-want-it.

The historical daypart demarcations dividing out daily, structured, square meals have blurred. And while the post-COVID landscape remains to be seen, the compass seems to be pointing to a golden age of snacking, available to be plundered by convenience operators.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Convenience Store News Canada

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