Britons are already the Europeans most likely to skip meals on a regular basis - a trend which has made them the snacking champions of Europe - but a new report suggests that irregular mealtimes are likely to become even more widespread in the future, with snacking the big winner.
The report, Mealtime Behaviours and Occasions 2004, from market analysts Datamonitor predicts that over the next five years, a whopping 2.7 billion at home meals will be skipped by British consumers, replaced instead by on-the-go snacking or 'desktop dining' at work.
"With the rise of 'flexi-eating', food consumption is increasingly fitting around people's needs and lifestyles, rather than people fitting their lives around structured mealtimes," commented Daniel Bone, consumer analyst at Datamonitor and author of the report.
Continuing the trend of the last five years, breakfast will be the meal most likely to be skipped. UK consumers are already more likely than their European counterparts to miss breakfast: in 2003, British skipped on average 113 breakfasts a year per person, and Datamonitor forecasts this will increase to almost 120 in 2008. In comparison, the French skipped 77 and Germans 72, while the southern Europeans in Italy (41) and Spain (31) appear to be clinging more tightly to traditional eating patterns.
"Convenience and time pressures are more apparent in the morning. Even when consumers are having breakfast at home they are taking less time to prepare it," said Bone - suggesting that the snacking habit is taking over even at home, with quick-to-prepare breakfast products such as cereal bars the most likely to succeed in the future.
Eating out has always been popular, of course, but more British consumers than ever before are regularly taking their meals away from home, including breakfast, not traditionally an out-of-home meal.
In 2003, out-of-home consumption accounted for 31.6 per cent of all eating occasions, according to Datamonitor, and this figure is set to rise to over 35 per cent by 2008, meaning an additional 3 billion breakfast, lunch and evening meals eaten out-of-home.
In contrast, the number of in-home breakfasts, lunches, and dinner occasions will decline by 2.7 billion occasions over the same time period.
"The growing number of out-of-home occasions does not mean British dislike eating at home. It is a lifestyle driven trend with time-poor consumers increasingly embracing innovative meal and snack solutions that facilitate on-the-go consumption," Bone said
As with breakfast, other meals eaten at home are increasingly being reduced to the minimum of effort. "Convenience-based needs are driving growth in the number of 'pit-stop dining' occasions where consumers seek near instant gratification from easy to prepare meal solutions," Boone said.
Not surprisingly, the foodservice sector is also set to benefit from increased out-of-home food consumption. Datamonitor forecasts that the value of UK foodservice consumption will increase by 17.5 per cent, from £30.5 billion in 2003 to £36 billion in 2008.
But perhaps the biggest change in British eating habits will be in snacking. Already well ahead of most of the rest of Europe in this regard, Datamonitor predicts that by 2008, snacking will account for 44 per cent of all eating occasions, with Britons spending a whopping £10.3 billion on bakery items, bagged snacks, dairy snacks, fruit and vegetables, and confectionery alone (excluding snacks eaten as part of a meal).
This represents an increase of over 20 per cent on 2003 levels, with Datamonitor forecasting that the total number of snack occasions consumed outside of a main meal in the UK will increase from 41 billion in 2003 to almost 43 billion in 2008. In other words, a typical consumer will snack on 27.4 more occasions in 2008 than 2003.
Part of this major increase is also due to the changing nature of the snack market, with manufacturers quick to respond to consumer demand for health and functionality as well as convenience.
"As consumers skip meals more often, they turn to snacks to help compensate for lost nutrients and energy. They increasingly view snacks as a positive part of their daily nutrition and are demanding healthier, and more filling options," said Bone.
As for where these snacks are likely to be eaten, the workplace seems to be the most popular - a 'desktop dining' culture which remains an anathema to most of the rest of western Europe but which has more to do with increasingly flexible working hours than any strong work ethic, according to Datamonitor.
"As working hours become more flexible, the 'lunch hour' no longer seems to exist in many workplaces, with consumers instead eating two and three times a day while at work. The French, Spanish and Italians are much more likely to choose restaurants and cafés, making a full-blown social occasion out of lunch, while the Germans, Swedes and Dutch prefer canteens as a functional and practical solution to the problem of eating at work," said Bone.
But one area where the UK is notably different from the rest of Europe is in the number of workplace breakfasts, giving rise to the term 'deskfasts'. In 2003, British workers spent over £1 billion on breakfast at work - this compares to only £200 million in France.