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The Snack Attack: Sloooooow Food vs. Fst Food

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Define “snack.” For better or worse, I’ve always said it’s food eaten with one hand and no utensil. That differs from Webster’s dictionary, which defines snack as “food eaten between regular meals.”

For better or worse, I’ve always said it’s food eaten with one hand and no utensil. That differs from Webster’s dictionary, which defines snack as “food eaten between regular meals.”

Webster’s definition is based on technicalities. Mine is based on consumer intent.

Webster’s definition—contrasting snack to meal—assumes that a “meal” is still a cultural idea, expression or entity. It’s 2002, and that’s a bold assumption.

My definition deals with the snacker’s spirit, which might be characterized as, “Let me do ‘A’ while I munch ‘B’ because I don’t have time to divide these tasks.”

My characterization is slightly unfair, for there are snacks and then there are snacks. That is, there are snacks in Webster’s definition of the word, and there are snacks according to my definition.

But Webster’s definition is quickly losing punch because meals are losing theirs. Snacks are less and less often filling gaps between meals or “tiding us over.” Snacks are replacing our meals.

My typical “breakfast”—a granola bar—is really a snack. I may choose to eat it in the kitchen if time allows, but I can also drive with one hand and “eat breakfast” with the other.

“Attitudes towards breakfast have changed, as many time-constrained consumers look for either a new taste treat or a quick-fix morning meal,” wrote William A. Roberts Jr., associate editor of Prepared Foods, in the February 2002 issue. “Some Americans are foregoing breakfast altogether, while fast-food drive-through provides others the breakfast of choice.”

In fact, the same issue noted that the difference “between snacks and meals continues to narrow.”

About two years ago, “scrambled egg combinations that are moist but sufficiently coagulated to defy gravity and stay in place when consumers are eating them on the run” hit the market, according to the “Egg Specifics” newsletter.

Even scrambled eggs no longer needed a plate; a stick was just fine. And a new meal-turned-snack was born.

The NPD Group, a marketing firm that delivers an annual report titled “Eating Patterns in America,” has also developed SnackTrack, a convenience and snack foods study, presumably on account of the growth of these industries. In fact, the “handheld foods” industry was expected to be a $2 billion business by this year, according to a Kalorama Information report.

But snacks needn’t replace meals. The international Slow Food movement is trying to curb the growth of “fast food,” both as a genre of food and an attitude toward it.

“For us, slow food means learning how to manage our time, savoring food with pleasure and awareness,” according to slowfood.com. “It is not so much the quantity of time we spend at the table that counts as the quality of the food we eat and the relationship we establish with it.”

And that brings up another point about snacks: they really have little or nothing to do with tables.

Meals do.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.