Fragmented food habits: New Dal study explores how Canadians eat

- May 19, 2017

Mmmm... breakfast. (CongerDesign image, used under Creative Commons license.)
Mmmm... breakfast. (CongerDesign image, used under Creative Commons license.)

A new Dalhousie study shows that women are three times more likely to skip breakfast than men, and it seems other demographic groups are also skipping breakfast.

Single people are twice as likely to skip breakfast as those who are married or divorced, and British Columbians skip breakfast at three times the rate of other Canadians. People earning less than $40,000 annually are also three times more likely to skip breakfast.

The preliminary study, entitled Disintegration of food habits: A look at the socioeconomics of food, the blurring lines between traditional meals and out-of-household food consumption, was led by Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy in Faculty of Management and lead author of the well-known Canada’s Food Price Report.

Simon Somogyi, associate professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie, and Sara Kirk, professor in health promotion in the School of Health and Human Performance and scientific director of the Healthy Populations Institute, co-authored the study.

More info: Read the preliminary results [PDF]

Generational and geographic differences

A total of 1,019 Canadians took part in the survey, conducted in both English and French over three weeks in April 2017.

The study points to significant generational and geographical differences. Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are twice as likely to prepare breakfast at home than Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995). Breakfast on-the-go is twice as popular with Millennials than Boomers. Consumers in Ontario are more likely to eat breakfast on-the-go or at a restaurant than any other Canadians.

“Eating breakfast is not dying out in Canada, but it seems to be managed differently by different groups of consumers,” says Dr. Charlebois, who is also dean of the Faculty of Management. “The younger generations tackle breakfast differently than older generations.” While almost 67 per cent of Canadians eat breakfast alone, 86 per cent of Millennials do so. Interestingly, consumers in Quebec are the least likely to eat breakfast alone, while British Columbians are the most likely.

As for habits around eating lunch, the survey data show similar patterns emerging. Again, women are more likely to skip lunch than men, and single people are more likely to skip lunch than either married or divorced people. Consumers aged 21 or under with only a high school education are more likely to skip lunch as well.

Eating lunch at one’s desk also seems to be widespread. Almost 50 per cent of consumers in the Atlantic region eat lunch at their desk, a figure higher than any other region in Canada.

Most Canadians also eat lunch alone. The percentages of consumers in Ontario, the Prairies, and the Atlantic region who eat lunch alone are higher than the Canadian average while, in Quebec, only 36 per cent  eat lunch alone.

Researchers discovered that many consumers are inclined to eat out more often, and will continue to do so. Among single people, 42 per cent anticipate eating lunch on-the-go or at a restaurant more often in the next year, and 46 per cent of those with only a high school education expect to do the same.

Dinner time!

As for dinner, not surprisingly, consumers without children are three times as likely to eat dinner at a restaurant than those with children. Single people and those with only a high school education are more likely than any other group to eat dinner out.

“Consumers who earn less and are less educated are likely to eat out more often, which could make this demographic group more prone to unhealthy food choices,” said Dr. Somogyi.

The survey also looked at patterns around cooking, snacking and skipping meals. While 57 per cent of consumers who are part of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976) don’t cook during the week, but will cook on weekends, only 46 per cent of Millennials follow this pattern. Only 38 per cent of Boomers are weekend cooks.

About 51 per cent of consumers who are part of Generation Z (born 1996 and after) feel they don’t have time to cook, in line with 52 per cent of British Columbians who feel the same. This figure is almost four times higher than the number of consumers in Quebec who don’t cook.

Survey results show a strong correlation between skipping meals and snacking. Again, women (46 per cent), single people (36 per cent) and those with only a high school education (51 per cent) are more likely to snack than other groups. These are the same groups who skip meals most often.

“Managing meals differently is not just for Millennials these days," said Dr. Charlebois. "All Canadian consumers are constantly pressured to revisit their strategy when managing meals. The three-meal day seems to be a transient practise in Canada right now

"Based on our survey results, painting a generational picture in Canada related to cooking is fairly easy. Boomers cook and have time to cook. Gen Xers don’t seem to have the knowledge to cook, and feel guilty about this. And as for Generations Y and Z, they want both to cook and to eat out.”

The trouble with skipping

For researchers, though, what is most troubling is the habit of skipping meals.

We need to understand why so many female, single and less educated consumers are skipping meals more often than other demographic groups. Research shows that skipping meals can lead to higher food insecurity levels, which is not desirable,” said Dr. Charlebois.

“We are the only species in the world that cooks. A nation that knows how to cook is more likely to be food secure. Teaching the younger generations how to cook could lead to better health outcomes in the future.”


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