America eats alone

Aug 07, 2014

When Americans sit down to have something to eat or drink, there’s a better than 50-50 chance they are doing it alone, according to new research from The NPD Group.

Breakfast is the mealtime when Americans are most likely to be alone, with 60 percent of all eating occasions occurring with one person. The reason for the high percentage is the time pressures Americans face in the morning. As a result, breakfast consumption often takes place in a car, on mass transit or behind a desk.

Lunch is a slightly less lonely eating occasion, with 55 percent taking the meal by themselves. Here too, time constraints are a factor as people attempt to wolf something down in between errands or before having to return to work.

Dinner, or supper for those who prefer, is the least lonely meal, with only 32 percent of meals being eaten by a single person. According to NPD, American families make time to dine together at least five times a week.

"The number of solo eating and beverage occasions have wide-ranging implications for food and beverage marketers in terms of new products, packaging, and positioning," said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst, in a statement. "As lifestyles shift it’s key for marketers to profile and segment occasions when their product is consumed in various ways, including solo versus social occasions, in order to connect most effectively with consumers."

Among the many demographic changes reshaping America is the rise of single-person households. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the percentage of one-person households increased from 10 percent in 1970 to 27 percent by 2012, the highest level in the nation’s history.

Are retailers and CPG brands behind the curve when it comes to addressing single-person meal occasions? How do you see the rise of single-person households affecting the retail and CPG industries in the years ahead?

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13 Comments on "America eats alone"

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Warren Thayer

They’ve done a decent job providing the market with what it’ll purchase. Anecdotally, I see single-serve products fail more frequently than club packs. (Any data mavens out there with data on this?) In other words, single-serve is a trend but you should be careful not to go overboard. One objection to single-serve is excess or non-recyclable packaging. Again, I think the industry has done a decent job for the most part, although disastrous packaging still happens too often.

Zel Bianco

I think that most CPG companies have recognized this trend, and although many are not quite in front of it, they are being addressed to some extent, especially in the breakfast and lunch meal occasions. Single-serve items will continue to grow across many categories as well as packaging that will include multiple single-serve portions for the more value conscious.

I must say however, that this is a sad commentary about our culture. So now we will have people eating by themselves staring at their phones. If there is one thing we can do as a nation to keep things in check, it is to try to eat with our families as many times as possible. If not breakfast and lunch, which is not realistic, at least every dinner possible whether at home or out. I truly believe that always doing this with our children was one of the most important things to raising well-adjusted kids.

Now who ate my single-serve Snickers bar that I was saving for dessert?

Joan Treistman

There are many single-serve options in the supermarket, especially among frozen entrees. At the same time there may be an opportunity to afford single person meal occasions the healthier/fresher choices that are mostly directed for two or more (e.g., Trader Joe’s). I suspect some marketer will test the fresh/healthy single serve waters, and then there will or won’t be a rush to market by the usual suspects. I’ll set the table for one in anticipation.

Ryan Mathews

Single person households have been on the rise for two decades and nobody has responded effectively yet so, yes, retailers and manufacturers are WAY behind the curve.

Solo eaters are great for grab-and-go retailers who cracked the code on the lone gourmand years ago—can you say big muffins?

The rise of solo eaters (old and young, by the way) will continue and—if the past is indeed prologue—will go largely unanswered like so many other significant demographic changes.

It seems it’s always 1964 in CPG land.

Ian Percy

What exactly is a “single serving?” In order to minimize the calorie count, so many packagers define a “serving” based on the consumption of a small canary. I know a lot of restaurant sinfully over-size meal portions but the CPG folks will never be accused of that.

Related to that, Warren’s point about the waste in packaging cannot be overstated. A serious re-thinking in the packaging world is desperately needed.

There’s also an undercurrent of sympathy in this article, i.e., how sad that so many people eat alone. Maybe “party of one” really is the ultimate oxymoron. Another way to look at it is that eating alone periodically, away from the noise of our frenetic culture, is the only thing that keeps us sane.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Arizona is one market that is ahead of the curve because of all the winter visitors. Many stores already have smaller package sizes of staples and single-serving portions of many products. That approach needs to be widespread. The biggest problem may be for the warehouse stores like Sam’s Club or Costco. Huge quantities of non-perishable items like paper products may continue to sell well, but large portions of perishable products are not attractive.

Ralph Jacobson

I think CPG and retail brands have actually been doing a good job of responding to and even enabling this trend for years. Convenience and prepared food in single-serving packaging has been around for decades. “Grab-n-Go” is nothing new and that whole mantra caters to the lonely consumer. There are other trains of thought, however I don’t really see this as being a big gap in the marketplace. It is and will be an opportunity for continued growth for the brands that choose to fulfill it.

Raymond D. Jones
Raymond D. Jones
3 years 2 months ago

The rise of single-meal occasions provides the opportunity for new meal solutions. However, these often have higher packaging costs and more premium pricing which shoppers may reject.

In addition, many retailers have failed to address these segments since they require expanded product assortments and increased inventory.

It appears that this trend is not going away. It is important that manufacturers and retailers collaborate to resolve these issues and serve this segment in a mutually acceptable fashion.

Lee Kent

Just because a person dines alone does not mean that they need single-person packages! Take a look at who they are. Young single people just getting started, moms on the go trying to manage a household, seniors living alone. What do they have in common? Tight budgets!

What these folks need more than single-person packaging is products they can buy at a good price and store for single consumption.

My goodness, my husband and I are just 2 but we still buy much of our groceries from Costco. We buy large quantities, break it into smaller packages and freeze. Or we cook and freeze, whichever works best for the product.

If CPG companies and grocers would help their customers understand how to make the best use of their products, that, for my 2 cents, would go a long way.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 2 months ago

As a single person household, the choice you are often left with is paying a higher price for smaller packages or paying a lower per unit price for a larger package with a portion you’ll have to throw out from spoilage.

It would be a big help if staples could come packaged in small enough volume that a single person may consume it before it goes bad. Not so good for the CPG industry, but an alternative is buying items in bulk in whatever amount you want without wasting packaging. Many grocers now offer that option.

Simple solutions that are a good compromise are maintaining same volume boxes with crackers or cookies inside sealed in shorter stacks like some companies are already doing.

Bill Hanifin

The research is obviously flawed as no one is alone these days. Every single person noted as “alone” in the study is sitting with their smartphone. Who needs another person when fully occupied with your digital device?

Seriously, I don’t think that food providers, grocers especially are fully addressing the single household need. CPG is already a high price point and can’t be considered a serious alternative for serving daily food needs. Grocery does offer some smaller portion packs, but there needs to be an evolution towards a better balance between portion, price and assortment/choice.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
3 years 2 months ago

Well, I voted with the majority—that retailers and CPG brands have been ineffective at addressing single-person meal occasions.

I am virtual, that is to say, I work out of my home. I am a “single-person meal occasion,” spent mostly in front of the TV—news most of the time, but also National Geographic, sports, and some drama series. Not so much with my smartphone at mealtime, I have enough of that the rest of the time. My concern isn’t with portioning as much as it is with price and waste. But, hey, I’m a very good cook and enjoy my own cooking, not ready-made cardboard with preservatives. But that’s another story….

John Karolefski

While there have been single-serve items available in grocery stores for years,
more work will have to be done if the trend of single-person meals continues. Perhaps this report from such a respected source will be a wake-up call for the industry.


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