Snacks aren’t just for snacking anymore. Now, a handful of chips with the right staging—say, alongside carrots and hummus—can count as a meal.
Families with picky young palates, busy millennials and people living alone all are making a habit of this irresistible eating option: the snack dinner.
Companies are happy to help. Since 2016, a quarter of new food launches in the U.S. have been marketed as snacks, including traditional dinner fare billed as mac and cheese squares or cheesesteak bites, according to Beth Bloom, an associate director at Mintel, a market-research firm. “We are seeing products that push the limit on what’s considered a snack,” she adds. In 2017, a quarter of consumers said that several snacks can make a meal, according to Mintel.
For his once-a-week snack dinner, 32-year-old Benjamin Rapoport likes spreads such as patés or duck rillettes. He pairs them with cheese, tiny pickles called cornichons and a handful of pecans that he roasts in butter earlier in the week for a more savory taste. Mr. Rapoport arranges his solo repast on a slate board, to give it more of a “meal-ey” feel even though it takes only a few minutes to prepare. The snack dinner allows him to maintain a carb-free diet, which was harder when ordering takeout. “I cook a good amount, so this is my non-cooking option,” says the New York-based software developer.
The popularity stems in part from the changing definition of a meal. Diners in their 20s and 30s are consuming more snack foods during meals, and for some, a combination of snacks equals dinner, says Darren Seifer of NPD Group, another market-research consultancy. Fresh fruit and corn or potato chips are the most popular snacks to have as part of dinner, appearing about 22 percent of the time, according to the firm’s 2017 data.
‘It’s not a snack dinner if it has evolved into lots of different appetizers.’—Stephanie Loomis Pappas, snackdinner.com
A “snack dinner” can range from chips and salsa in front of the TV to a full-blown, restaurant-style array of tastes and textures. The lineups—often veggies, dips, chips or smoked meats—seldom require much effort or cooking beyond a moment in the microwave.
A plate of carefully arranged snacks allows younger consumers to elevate the dinner experience, says Jeanine Bassett, vice president of global consumer insights at General Mills. “These folks aspire to cook, but there’s a gap between their aspirations and the practical nature of what they are trying to do,” she says. The company’s Totino’s frozen pizza rolls, which take about a minute to warm up in the microwave, are one of the most popular snacks for dinner, she says.
For Stephanie Loomis Pappas, a parenting blogger in Cleveland who launched snackdinner.com in 2015, minimal preparation is key. “The point is not to cook something,” she says, beyond perhaps reheating or melting cheese. And don’t call it tapas: “It’s not a snack dinner if it has evolved into lots of different appetizers,” she says.
When setting out snack dinners on a cutting board, Ms. Loomis Pappas includes options so her 4-year-old can choose what he would like to have. The variety allows diners to stumble upon unexpected pairings. “You wouldn’t put spread on something ahead of time,” she says. “It takes the whimsy out of picking your own snacks.”
Clare Langan, a personal chef in New York City, makes sure each plate in a snack dinner has crunchy, creamy, salty, sweet and fresh offerings. Ms. Langan turns to fresh fruit and veggies, dips, crackers and cheese with a long shelf life, such as Parmesan or feta. The solo dinners she assembles are reminiscent of a restaurant meat-and-cheese appetizer. “It’s taking the idea of an epic cheese board and making it work for a Tuesday,” she says.
Snack dinners aren’t without pitfalls, such as the risk of overeating. Willpower to eat healthily wanes later in the day, which has some people plowing into snacks at dinner time. “In the morning we see a lot of purposeful snacking,” says Bob Nolan, senior vice president for insights and analytics at Conagra Brands in Chicago. “As we get tired as individuals, snacks become more indulgent.”
To keep snack dinners healthy, Louisville, Ky.-based nutritionist Anna Hartman suggests composing plates with at least three different food groups, including high-fiber grains, which can be filling. For protein, she recommends meats and cheeses, in thin slices to control portions. Also, instead of standing at the kitchen counter, she suggests sitting down and eating slowly.
The trend has yielded a number of surprises. Tara Murphy, chief executive of Vermont Smoke & Cure, had assumed that her customers—primarily fitness-focused men—were snacking on Vermont Smoke & Cure’s meat sticks after working out. But after conducting market research in 2016, she learned that other customers were chopping the meat sticks into pieces and adding them to dinner.
Women were buying the meat sticks and serving them “to the whole family,” Ms. Murphy says. The company recently began a social media campaign with ideas for including meat sticks in snack dinners.
This month Wilde Brands founder Jason Wright, with an eye on the snack-dinner crowd, is launching chips made of chicken and tapioca flour. His year-old firm started out making smoked-meat bars for eating on the go. Those didn’t catch on with consumers and now Mr. Wright is betting on Chicken Chips, which can be added to a plate for a shot of protein. “We looked at where trends are going,” he says.
The most popular foods for snack dinners:
- 1. Chips including potato, tortilla or corn
- 2. Fruit, such as apples and bananas or fruit salad
- 3. Yogurts, sweetened or plain, eaten alone or as a dip
- 4. Pizza rolls, which can be prepared in small batches
- 5. Salsa or ranch-style dips, eaten with vegetables or chips
- Source: NPD Group’s National Eating Trends reports for 2016 and 2017, WSJ reporting
Write to Alina Dizik at firstname.lastname@example.org